The Value of Time: A Telling Tale of Spending vs. Living

How do you set the value of time? Would you not spend $2M in exchange for 60K hours to do as you please? A telling tale of Chris & Irsch.

Reading Time: 7 minutes

There’s plenty of naysayers to the FIRE movement and the ideology behind it. The constructive part of the pushback seems to be that people should focus on building healthy work routines, find a passionate type of career to enjoy, and seek fulfillment within labor. This would permit us all, the theory goes, to work into our twighlight years without depriving us the value of time in our working years.

The saying goes that if you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life.

It sounds good on its surface. However, the argument I’d make against this is one of time.

What if what you want to do with your time just doesn’t involve labor?

Work becomes merely a slice of your time, lost, in exchange for freedom without labor in another part of your time.

More chiefly, what are the activities, the practices, and the people you want to fill your life with?

I say it’s not a need to escape from something—work. Rather, it’s escaping to something. It’s to spend more time in the life you’ve built and want.

If you’ll indulge me, I have a story to share. It’s the story of someone on a journey to reach financial independence—Chris, and the bizarro version of Chris—Irsch. In bizarro world, Irsch is following a more traditional path to retirement.

But, first, if you can wait just a bit for that story—let’s talk about how we normally define the value of time.

How Do We Traditionally Set the Value of Time?

The work I’ve done in my own consulting business doesn’t have much to do with the day of the week. Clients exist across a variety of time zones. I’ve not had a set meeting schedule of any sort for several years.

Of course, it wasn’t always like this. I used to have a daily standup meeting, I used to work on someone else’s schedule. When I was in the zone, I’d work long hours and not think much of it. I’d miss lunch and realize it was late in the afternoon without even being hungry.

I liked my work, it challenged me mentally.

Traditionally, we set the value of time based on the rate we’d charge to do such work. When I worked for someone else, they’d bill our clients $300-400 an hour from my labor. They’d pay me a fraction of that, but still enough money to amass a small fortune at a young age.

If you’d asked me all those years ago what an hour of my time was worth, I’d try to figure something close to what I was paid for my labor. After all, if you wanted to steal an hour from me—that’s what you ought to pay for it if I could otherwise do my work, right?

Why would I work for any less?

That was the value of my time. Undoubtedly, that’s how many others set their value of time reading this.

If this post takes you ten minutes to read, does that mean I owe you a sixth of your hourly wages? I do greatly appreciate you taking the time to read what I write, and while I might argue the whole point is to deliver you more value than your hourly labor rate, is that really the proper way to evaluate how you spend your time?

Do you mentally calculate spending a few hours with a loved one as a cost? There’s got to be a healthier, more sane way to think of this.

How Much is My Time Worth?

In the world of financial independence, a lot of our focus is on spending and saving rather than income. We talk about savings rates, we document our monthly spending.

Why then, would we think of the value of time in the context of income?

Shouldn’t we also approach valuing our time from the same perspective of spending, expenses, and savings rate as we do elsewhere?

Let’s get back to our story of Chris and Irsch—bizarro Chris—again.

Chris the saver, Irsch the spender

Irsch makes the same amount of money as Chris, $77,287 per year, but isn’t on a path to FI. Rather, like a typical financial advisor might suggest, he saves 15% of his income. And really, that’s pretty impressive considering the longterm average US personal savings rate is below 10%! He aims to retire at 65 like the rest of his peers (and will need to save that 15% to do it per this calc). He indulges in a life that requires the ritual sacrifice of 85% of his income. In 2020 dollars, he spends $65,694/year.

Chris follows a path to FI, saving 60% of his income. He lives a more modest life than Irsch, avoiding lifestyle inflation wherever possible and learning the lessons of frugality. In 2020 dollars, he spends $30,915/year.

While Irsch lives in a big house just off the golf course close to the maximum loan amount the mortgage broker would approve, Chris lives in a small urban townhome.

Irsch drives a new 3-series BMW. He thought highly of his thriftiness when he bought it, after all, he was approved for financing on the 5-series and could afford it if he cut his savings rate a little. Chris barely drives the old trophy project car he keeps. It’s not his most frugal choice, but the only real cost to him is insurance and opportunity cost on the value of the old Fairlady. He walks or bike nearly everywhere he goes anyway.

I think you get the point. We could go on and on about the frugal choices that Chris has made where Irsch has not. Those details aren’t the point.

A lifetime of spending and short retirement or the opposite?

Ultimately, Irsch does well enough for himself to retire at 65 as he’d hoped. With his 15% savings rate and a lucky break here and there, he sets up a retirement plan that’ll let him retain his current purchasing power into his golden years before his very timely death at 81 years old.

The retirement plan lets him spend the same amount of money at 65 when he’s 66 with an inflation adjustment. The same happens at 67 and so on. He’s done well for himself and lives his last 16 years enjoying the fruits of his labor.

On the other hand, Chris only worked from age 22 to 36. He pulled the early retirement ripcord at a young age and continued to maintain the same average spending he had throughout his savings years.

With some luck and perseverance, Chris managed to stick to a more conservative withdrawal rate than the typical 4%. From age 36 to his similarly timely death at age 81, he keeps it to 3.4% to adjust for the risk of an extra-long retirement. That means he kept spending the same $30,915 each year adjusted for inflation, until his death.

Chris spends his 45 years of “retirement” doing just about anything he wants, at least within the realm of possibility and his retirement budget. Objectively, his later years aren’t as cushy as Irsch’s.

With this story of the early retiree and the traditional retiree told, what do the numbers actually look like? Remember, we wanted to calculate total spending for each of these two characters as well as their time spent working for money.

Comparative time value table

In the time value table below, we take Chris’ and Irsch’s scenario to a value of time spreadsheet for quantitative analysis. What we want to analyze is the total spending that the two characters made over their lifetime versus the number of hours they had to spend on other pursuits.

Here’s the scenario assumptions made with this analysis:

  • Retirement age:
    • 36, Chris
    • 65, Irsch
  • Savings rate:
    • 60%, Chris
    • 15%, Irsch
  • Withdrawal rate:
    • 3.4%, Chris
    • 4.0%, Irsch
  • Both earn the same $77,287 salary
  • Each dies at 81 years old
  • Both sleep 8 hrs/day
  • Work equates to 8 hrs/day
  • Workdays are 260/year

Retirement age is based upon the necessary working time for each person’s savings rate and desired withdrawal rate. Both work from this retirement date calculator. Chris uses a more conservative withdrawal rate than Irsch in order to account for his very long retirement length. FIRE principles around the Trinity Study work with a 4% rate up to about 30 years. Chris has 45 years from retirement until death and isn’t counting on Social Security.

Their $77K salary is based on our own average income when we reached FI from six-figure debt to $1.2M in nine years.

For the purposes of calculating how many hours per day each person can bank towards non-work pursuits, we assume they sleep for 8 hours each day. We also assume that a work day is 8 hours per day and they work 260 days per year. There’s likely some vacation time and holidays in there, too, though that’s largely accounted for by the fact that the BLS suggests men aged 25-54 have an average work week of 42.6 hours.

Lastly, as we calculate their value of time; death. CDC data shows that the average American will die at 81 years old if they were 33 in 2017.

Value of Time Spreadsheet Calculator

You can create a copy of this Google Sheet and edit the variables yourself!

What this time value table and calculator show is the amount of time you give yourself for other pursuits in life, besides work, by reaching financial independence. It also reveals how much spending a person would need to give up in order to attain those extra hours of non-work in life.

The cost of time

In the case of Chris and Irsch, the early retiree has 321,280 hours over his working life until death to pursue a life outside of work. Irsch has 260,960 or 60,320 hours less than Chris.

In order to achieve this, Chris chose to spend just $1.85M over the course of his working career and life. Irsch had the pleasure of spending more than double that: $3.94M. Both spending totals are in 2020 dollars though they both die in 2065.

The outcome is that Chris sacrificed spending $34.59 for each of the 60,320 hours he didn’t work. He’s willing to remove this spending from his life in order to generate those 60,320 free hours for other pursuits.

Would you be willing to remove over $2M of spending from your life to have 60,320 hours to do what you want, rather than work?

Since Chris in our story is based on my own data, I think you know my answer. But what’s yours?

Time is More Valuable Than Money

I’ve known a certain lady since we were little kids. And while things have changed a lot since middle school, my desire to spend time with her has only grown. I’ve found hobbies, missions, and goals that I’ve created for myself to pursue—rather than having them thrust upon me by someone else.

The point of reaching financial independence, of switching to part-time work, and creating time in life for other pursuits haven’t been to escape something.

It’s to be able to swim in the thick presence of that feeling of contentedness so difficult to find in life elsewhere. And I’ll gladly not spend $34.59 per hour basking in that contentedness to do so.


What do you think about this approach to the value of time? Would you be willing to reduce your free hours by 60K in exchange for an additional $2M of spending over your life?

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By Chris

Chris began his financial independence pursuit in 2007 as he learned basic personal finance from Get Rich Slowly as an aspiring web designer and novice investor. After several missteps, he learned the secrets of financial independence and began his pursuit of freedom.

He reached financial independence in 2018 with $1.2M and two businesses. He began the process of transitioning to early retirement in 2020.

Learn more: Meet Chris.

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steveark
2 months ago

I chose a path more like Irsch, and I’m very glad I did. I lived every one of my work years to the fullest. I loved my job and the many exciting things I did and accomplished. Things Chris probably couldn’t have been able to do since he wasn’t backed by a billion dollar enterprise that wanted him to succeed. The friends I made, the young people I mentored, even a life I saved. Those were priceless experiences. A wife free to choose to stay home and major on raising our kids, and me still having plenty of time with them and her. And finally an early retirement with good health and millions invested. If work is seen as “less than” then Chris obviously is the smart guy, but if it is seen as an absolutely necessary part of a full life for some personality types, then Irsch isn’t that dumb either. I think it depends on whether you just have a job, or if you need a job with purpose. I needed that in my life, so it worked for me. In retirement I don’t need it so much anymore so I only work a little. Great post, I think it’s accurate guidance for many people, but maybe not everyone. Very thought provoking.

Dakota
2 months ago

Love the breakdown of time spent vs. actual earnings. $35 per (unnecessary) work hour past FIRE to live exactly the life I want? Hell yes to that.

That said, good on ya, Steve! It’s cool that there are many paths to satisfaction and happiness, right?

For me, jumping into the FIRE lifestyle at 31 has opened up so many new opportunities, adventures, passions, and time (for me and for community involvement/volunteering) over the past seven years. It’s hard to imagine doing anything else, even though I traded millions of dollars in earnings to have those adventures. Would I do it again? Absolutely.

Thanks for the thoughtful post!

Tara Red
2 months ago

One thing that strikes me is how the two approaches are treated as distinct without any opportunity for overlap. For example, I chose a profession I loved from which I had no intention to retire. After 15 years, I chose to accelerate my path to financial independence so early retirement could be an option sooner rather than later. Folks assume a retirement date is always in our control rather than an employer’s or even the overall economy’s. My advice would be to leave room to pursue both. After all, there’s a huge middle ground between retiring before 40 and 65+ to never!

Frogdancer Jones
24 days ago
Reply to  Chris

Hmmmm. Not sure I’d agree.

I was 50. Single mother of 4. Teacher. I’d just paid off my home and had $10 in the bankafter doing so. 6 years later I was FI (financially independent) and a year after that (aka 2020 ) I’ll be retiring on Dec 18.

It’s possible. For me, it was taking that paid-off home and utilising domestc geoarbitrage, plus frugality, that enabled me to retire early(ish).

Never say it can’t be done.

Sport of Money
1 month ago

I’ve been a pretty good saver my entire life but it is definitely hard to be Chris and just walk away from a corporate job.

I am probably 2 to 3 years away from FI, but I currently have no plans to leave my corporate job even after achieving FI.

The “safety” of a receiving a paycheck is quite a challenge to give up.

Joe
Joe
1 month ago

That’s an interesting way to look at it.
I think it really depends on your personality too. I’m not a huge fan of corporation. I’d rather doing things by myself than in an organization. That predispose me to early retirement. Some people likes being a part of something bigger. Working is a better fit for those people. Everyone has to find their own path.
Good luck!