OPINION | SAVE YOURSELF: In financial choices, time is the most precious commodity

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My father-in-law came to visit over the weekend from Bogota, Colombia. He saw his son and grandchildren for the first time in 18 months. On a stroll Sunday, 4-year-old Lucia grabbed his hand to walk together. I was behind them and just thought, “Could time stand still right now?”

“Time is money,” they say. By that we usually mean that our time can be monetized, and the recognition of that should make us more cautious that time spent on x, y or z could be literally costing us.

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But do we have this phrase backward? Shouldn’t we more importantly be saying that “money is time?” Or more expansively saying, “Making this money is at the cost (or waste) of how much time?”

I am married to someone who is fierce about protecting his time and time with us, his family. He talks about it a lot and is the first person to challenge my notion that my job was to ultimately make as much money as possible — you know, for the family. Sure, it seems silly to write those words. I never would have said them out loud, but it was an undertone in my 24/7 hustle starting a business. It took years to overcome the conditioning our society puts on making money as the epitome of our time, sweat and effort.

My husband and I are in alignment now and in the middle of making a decision on whether he should move forward with a new business. There are a lot of complicating factors, such as construction materials costs, lease negotiations and the timing of when to free up capital for investment. From there, we have to hope we are estimating profitability correctly. Most people stop there. If the return on capital makes sense, then the project gets a green light.

But we go one step further. Once we know the profitability, we do a time analysis. What is this going to cost my husband and our family in time, which is truly our most precious commodity? Will the profitability of the business be worth the cost of his time? Will the profitability of the business be substantial enough to buy back his time in other areas? For example, will it justify hiring out our lawn care? Will it allow him to buy back some of his time in his other business as well? Or will it just add hours to his workweek for more money? To buy more things?

When we learned to value time as a resource more precious than money, a lot changed in our lives. But think about it. What would you pay to sit down as a family and have a meal together — or really any other special family time? The pressures and demands of jobs can certainly make missing family time obvious in a “time is money” vacuum but a little less obvious when put in the context of “money is time.”

Through the “money is time” lens, we can more expansively see saving and investing. I saw a video on Instagram with a woman proving that real estate is more profitable than investing in the stock market. And indeed, during favorable conditions, the end return from the leverage on real estate can often work out that way. (Side note, it did not work that way in our rental experiences.)

But let’s assume that the return is double. How much time did I spend investing in my retirement? Uh, last month it was zero time. My retirement contribution is automated, and my contributions were swept up, invested in the stock market, and I made money while I slept. Real estate involves evaluating properties, the process of then buying the property, then rehabbing it, then finding the right renter, then making the repairs. Sure, you can hire a management team, but that reduces your profitability.

If time is money, then maybe it makes sense. Work full time and go into real estate. You can literally work all day and then work some more at night. And make more money.

Or you can look at how much time investing really costs you. You can start figuring out just how expensive your time is.

I recently was interviewed on the Gold Crown Podcast, a financial podcast specifically for dentists. Andy Reichert is a 30-year-old who loves being a dentist but wants the ability to stop being a dentist by the time he is in his 40s. Part of the plan also involves buying back time in the present. Hannah recently replaced her W-2 income job (that she considered low-paying for the time investment) with real estate investing.

Andy, Hannah and their baby live in a modest, two-bedroom, one-bath home, and they are retrofitting the basement to create an Airbnb with the goal of making their home almost a net-zero cost.

That may sound crazy to many reading this, but ask him what he thinks is crazy. The average dentist works until age 69 — and not necessarily because they want to. Dentists are willing to give up so much of their fundamental time for money to buy the lifestyle they have artificially signed up for.

Andy and Hannah value family time. In the podcast, Andy was deliberating between purchasing two practices. One would be a little less profitable and require less of his time. The other had more profit potential but would require him to invest a lot more time. Because he understands the concept that “money is time,” he was able to go that step further like my husband and ask the question, “Is the cost of my time really worth the extra money I would make?” Perhaps so. Not because he would freely turn over more time, but because the investment would inevitably have to lead to more time. In his case, maybe it would be the time purchased in the not-distant future to be work-optional in his 40s rather than 50s.

We see the money and time trade-off in the workplace, as well. Physicians have the option to moonlight for more money. Side hustles or “sidepreneurs” are all the rage. I love it. If successful, people can grow these side hustles into full-time jobs.

The trap I see many fall into in my consultations is that more money in side hustles ends up inevitably buying more things. It’s a consumption trap that can land people in worse situations than where they started. If a side hustle just balloons a lifestyle, then it unfortunately traps people harder in their day jobs. It results in less time than they started with.

The answer? Save that side hustle money. All of it. Then save some more. Those savings mean your lifestyle just got leaner. You can then do what? Buy back time. You can buy the ability to turn that side hustle into a full-time job, perhaps with more meaning, perhaps with more flexibility, perhaps with more time.

Many people look at the FIRE (Financial Independence Retire Early) movement as just a way to elevate people who are miserly or hate to spend money. Shoot — we all know people like that, right? But peel the layers of this movement, and you might see something more interesting than that. You might see a growing group of people who are looking at a precious resource that’s more important than money, and they are realizing that no purchase, no toy, no home is more precious than time. Then they are aggressively pursuing such time by investing in it, at least in retirement but often more in the present, as well.

I interviewed a recent retiree the other day and wanted to know exactly what it was like. His answer resonated with me. It’s like getting paid to spend his time exactly the way he wants to spend it. So saving for retirement gets a little more tangible when you reframe it — you are saving to buy your future time.

Your time now and in the future is worth the investment. Go buy it.

Sarah Catherine Gutierrez is founder, partner and CEO of Aptus Financial in Little Rock. She is also author of the book “But First, Save 10: The One Simple Money Move That Will Change Your Life,” published by Et Alia Press. Contact her at sc@aptusfinancial.com.

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