the tradeoff between time and money

From Ricky Yean's Privilege and Inequality in Silicon Valley:

"Then there’s knowing how to manage resources. Being poor makes you suck at using money as a resource. My time was always cheaper growing up, so I’d rather spend time than spend money."

Everything has a tradeoff (in economic terms, everything has an "opportunity cost," but I really don't like that phrase, so I won't use it).

Shockingly, this actually means that everything has a tradeoff

Going to college has a significant tradeoff that is definitely worth considering. Same with graduate school, or marriage, or "career"-ing, or even the language you choose to speak. The people you hang out with. How you spend your Sunday afternoons.

That isn't to say that you should commence ripping your hair out and second-guessing all of your life's decisions. But it's worth noting that, in a world of infinite tradeoffs, you need to be somewhat aware of what you are trading off, as well as which mental models are guiding you to pick a particular batch of tradeoffs over another.

(This was a fun/scary exercise for me because I quickly realized many of my decisions in the past prioritized cocktail-party "You're an impressive young man" over things that I actually found interesting.)

Often, this game of tradeoffs plays out as a battle between time and money: choosing to spend time on something vs. choosing to spend money on it. I know the two aren't mutually exclusive, but for the sake of discussion, we can assume that we're choosing one at the expense of the other.

The Macro Question: Having Time v. Having Money

Time is your most valuable resource. Money buys time. But at what cost? And when is that cost justified?

A working-class single mother of two and a C-suite executive might be just as busy as each other. But the difference is that certain things can be "automated" by the latter through money that might not be automated by the former. Why wait for a train when you can Uber? Why do laundry or clean your apartment or wipe your own ass when you can pay someone to do it for you? The exec effectively buys time to do other things through avoiding subway delays or hour-long dryer cycles. (This is not always a good thing.)

Time availability & the ability to trade in cash for more time is what seems to be what defines wealth. You can be money rich and time poor. You can have a lot of money but still be unwealthy. Perhaps because you're not very good at the cash-for-time business.

In other words, imagine a 2x2 diagram with Having Time and Having Money as axes:

There are several ways you can be poor.

Time poor, money poor.
Time rich, money poor.
Time poor, money rich.
Time rich, money rich.

This is just a very broad-brushed understanding of "poverty"- it exists on two axes. And it is why we might enjoy watching The Wire as much as watching Gossip Girl - both shows describe time-poor environments with starkly different locations on the money axis. It's also an interesting way to understand needs and desires. Your existential needs differ depending on which quadrant you land in. A question for another day might be: do these quadrants have any morality (is it better to be in one quadrant than the other)?

But back to the issue of tradeoffs.

Spending Time vs. Spending Money

Let's weigh the tradeoffs when you decide to spend money on something instead of time. 

Pros: you buy time to focus on other things
Cons: you might be losing a substantial depth of experience

When you have all the time in the world , you invest in certain experiences and habits by spending time on them. This includes figuring things out slowly and painfully over time on your own. 

When you feel you don't have as much time, you skip the discovery trial & error part. To compress the time required to do something, for the sake of urgency and structure (and comfort/certainty), money automates away the stressful, time-consuming parts.

Buying time with money is a great strategy if you know the potential downsides of doing so. But if people trading money for time aren't aware of the tradeoffs between the two, they may easily become blind to the downsides of money vs. time. As humans, we learn best through experience, and passing around pieces of paper can't quite compete with that.

However, if you are constantly re-evaluating what you might be overlooking, then you'll be in a good spot to recognize when it's time to invest time and when it's time to buy time. Tradeoffs are almost always not evenly weighted, so knowing what you're getting yourself into has large implications on the next set of tradeoffs you might face.

Why is this important anyways? Your micro-level, day-to-day decisions on how to spend (time v. money) very quickly accumulate into macro-level, stable holding patterns in what you have (the 2x2 diagram above). 

Much thanks to Dilip Rajan for raising some awesome points of clarification. I've updated the post to include them.