Thursday, April 15, 2010

Time is money?

Time is the ultimate luxury item. Don't squander it.

Many folks complain they don't have enough time in the day to get things done. The complain that they want to do more in life, but can't seem to find the time. Businessmen say "time is money" and micro-manage their lives to make the best use of it.

Are all of these people actually squandering time? I think so. And recently I had a revelation.

Yesterday, I played 9 holes of golf and took a three-mile walk on the beach. No, it wasn't the weekend. And no, it wasn't a "vacation" either. I live in two places that are both vacation destinations, and it is easy for me to forget that what I do on a daily basis is what other consider a once-a-year opportunity or luxury.

How is it that I structured my life to make use of my time this way? Was I lucky? Or was it by plan? I would like to think the latter.

When I was younger, I was a very lazy person. To me, doing nothing was the best thing to do. I enjoyed school classes, but studying, doing projects and reports and all that drudgery, was an anathema to me. The best time of year for me was when school was out, and I could enjoy a lot of unstructured time. So perhaps this underlying desire was what motivated me to live the way I do.

During my working years, rather than follow the well-worn path others were taking, I struck out on my own. I lived on less and worked hard, invested my money and did well. At the right time, I was able to sell it all and move out of the big city and live the way I wanted to.

My friends all followed the well-worn path, buying larger homes, leasing fancier cars, and working harder and harder to get that coveted corner office and promotion. And of course, those goals never turned out to be as lucrative as they thought they would be - nor as profitable. It was a carefully set trap, it turns out.

You see, you only have a finite amount of time on this planet. You can make an unlimited amount of money, if you want, but it takes up a lot of your time, and thus subtracts from your time account. And yet many people chase the money, as if it were a scarce commodity, and time was infinite. It is, on the contrary, the other way around.

Consider your typical suburban couple. The complain they have no time in the day to get everything done. So they don't balance their checkbook regularly. They eat out in restaurants to "save time" (it takes longer to drive to a restaurant, order the food, and eat it, than it does to make a simple meal at home). Or they send out for pizza to "save time".

Of course, since they are not watching their finances and spending money on convenience items (to save time, of course!) they have to keep working harder and harder to make more money - so that they can afford all these "time-savers"! It becomes a circular logic, and a rat race. Or perhaps more like a rat on one of those wheels, running in place and never getting anywhere.

Meanwhile, time slips away, imperceptibly, year after year, until one day they wake up and wonder where their lives went. And it happens to most of the middle-class population in this country, year after year.

And where does the time really go? Television takes a lion's share - an average of 4.6 hours a day. Doesn't sound like much, does it? But subtract your sleeping, eating, commuting, and working hours from 24, and you'll see that television is taking nearly every other waking hour away from you.

Just as saving only "small" amounts of money can result in huge increases in your disposable income, saving "small" amounts of free time increases your available free time considerably. If you give up television entirely, you'll find you double or triple the amount of free time you have.

And once you stop paying for "time-saving" conveniences and do things yourself, you won't have to work so hard (which takes time) to pay for those time-savers. It has a snowball effect.

So what can you do to take your life back? To get back the TIME you have been squandering? It is not easy, and it takes courage, wisdom, and foresight. Not many can do it. Most humans, I am afraid, are doomed to lives of "quiet desperation", living as cogs in a machine, until they wear out and are replaced.

But a few of us - the lucky ones - can escape. While it isn't easy, it is totally worthwhile. But it requires that you re-think your whole life and your value systems.

1. Give up Television: Chuck it. Sell the damn thing. Cut the cable. TeeVee is a time waster and also designed to get you all riled up over nothing. The time saved is important, but moreover, the social cues it provides are horrible. Once you dump TeeVee, you'll stop acting like a lemming.

2. Get Control of Your Finances: Knowing where the money goes and why is key. You need to balance your bank and credit card accounts almost daily. You need to know, to the penny, what your net worth is. You need to know, to the penny, what your debt load is, and what your plan is to pay it off (amazingly, most people have no idea of their debt load, and have only vague plans on how to pay it off). Once you know where the money is going, you may be startled to see what you are spending on.

3. Re-Evaluate your Priorities: You may find that much of the money you spend every month is squandered on convenience items and also status items. And again, small amounts of disposable income are important. While it may seem that spending $10 a day on Starbucks coffee is cheap, in reality, even for someone making $100,000 a year, it is a big chunk of the disposable income. Many suburbanites are working like dogs so they can afford fancy cars and fancy houses. They pay a lot for a house in a suburban area, because it is near work. But if you had to live anywhere, would you be paying $750,000 to live where you are now? Ask yourself why you jumped on this treadmill.

4. Formulate a Realistic Escape Plan: If you are not happy with the modern middle-class suburban lifestyle, formulate an escape plan. It isn't easy, but I've seen it done, by many friends of mine. But you have to be realistic. You can't just up and quit your job and assume you'll find work elsewhere. And if you plan on going back to a simpler existence, you have to scale back your spending habits in advance. There are jobs in other parts of the country that pay less. Or you could start and run your own business. Or perhaps you can reorganize your existing finances so you can retire at age 50 - or even 40, if you are young enough and plan well in advance.

It is possible to live a different kind of lifestyle than what your neighbors and friends are all doing. It is possible to take back time in your life and make better use of it. But it takes a lot of courage to buck the norms of society, and not many are equipped to do this. Let's face it, most of us go through life trying to ape the behaviors of others, hoping that no one will notice that we are faking it and we don't really know what we are doing. And the joke is, that's what all of us are doing. Everybody else thinks you've got it together, while you look to them as a role model. Life is quite a farce, it seems.

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