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Buying Time Is Better Than Buying Things

Consider this your excuse to order delivery tonight.

Caroline Beaton

Golibo/MagMos/Getty Images

Most of us think takeout is a total waste of money. But, in light of new research, takeout and other time-savers could be one of the best ways to spend your money, at least for an ROI of happiness.

In a study published Monday by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), researchers found that people reported higher daily wellbeing and life satisfaction after making time-saving—rather than material—purchases.

Time-saving purchases were defined broadly as "any way in which respondents could spend money that would provide more free time." Such purchases include outsourcing to-dos with virtual assistants and apps like TaskRabbit, as well as buying yourself out of cooking, shopping, childcare, or household maintenance.

Surveying more than 6000 people across four countries, researchers found that people who spent money to buy free time were happier. But, critically, the survey couldn't prove causation. For instance, people who buy time could simply be wealthier, and therefore happier.


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So researchers supplemented the survey findings with an experimental study to flesh out the relationship between wellbeing and time-saving purchases. They recruited 60 participants at a science museum in Vancouver, British Columbia. Then they gave some participants $40 to spend on a material purchase, and others $40 to spend on a time-saving purchase. Participants reported how they felt afterward. The next weekend, the conditions reversed; the subjects who purchased material goods got another $40 to spend on a time-saving purchase instead, and vice versa. Ultimately, participants were significantly happier and less stressed on the day they saved time with their money compared to the day they bought a thing.

This small, local experiment is not all that persuasive by itself. But backed by 6000 survey participants reporting the same thing, it means something. It provides what Elizabeth Dunn, a coauthor of the study and a leading researcher on money and happiness at the University of British Columbia, calls converging evidence. "The experiment to me is the most important piece [of this study] because it shows there's a causal factor of time-saving purchases on happiness," Dunn says.

Dunn and colleagues also found that time-saving purchases appear to benefit everyone equally. Though wealthier people tend to experience more time-stress, the beneficial effects of buying time aren't limited to the wealthy. The effects of Dunn's study remained strong across all socioeconomic groups, suggesting that everyone can benefit from buying time instead of the latest thing. Across the board, Dunn et al. write, "the time famine of modern life can be reduced by using money to buy time."

There's one tentative caveat to their findings. In general, buying time produced more happiness. But those who bought the most time saw their wellbeing reverse. Why? Buying too much time could actually sabotage wellbeing by compromising an individual's sense of control, Dunn speculated. For most of us, buying time "helps us regain a feeling of control over everything that is going on in our lives," Dunn explains. But for people with too much time, buying more could make them feel less happy and less in control. "Having nothing to do with your day is probably not a good thing," Dunn says.

We know from decades of research that people feel happier when they buy positive experiences rather than things. This new research adds that "it's also good to buy your way out of negative experiences, even very mundane things like cleaning the toilet or mowing the lawn."

"This doesn't seem like rocket science," Dunn says. "It kind of makes sense."

But if it's so easy to increase wellbeing by spending money to save time rather than to accumulate goods, why don't more people do it? This is one of the questions Dunn and others plan to address in future research. It's possible that some people feel guilty when they pay someone else to do something they're capable of doing themselves, Dunn offers. Her lab plans to study specific gender and class differences that make some people more likely to spend money on time-saving purchases than others. For now, consider it one more excuse to grab Chinese after work.

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