Reading this title, it’s understandable that you might think I’m going to talk about money and exchange rates.
Well, tough. I’m not. I’m talking about time, money and utility.
And how travel helps you get the most out of them all.
Exchange rates are boring and I don’t know enough about international finance yet to talk about it, let alone make suggestions and how to buy and sell.
Wait what is utility?
Basically, it’s enjoyment.
According to my Econ 101 class (which I failed, so bear with me), “utility” describes the level of satisfaction that a particular combination of commodities can deliver. Economists use this idea to plot “utility and indifference curves” that show how much of one thing is worth how much of another for specific parties.
A simple way to think of it is time = money.
How much is your time worth, to you? How much money buys how much time? How much time will you give up for a certain amount of money?
According to the OECD, traditional 9 to 5 workplaces in 2015 saw your average worker putting in about 1,770 hours a year. About 236 working days each year.
If your wage is 50,000, that’s an hourly rate of approximately $28.25. Not including holidays, sick leave, superannuation, insurance, and any other benefits.
Sure, we’re missing out the benefits – sick leave, insurance, allowances, bonuses, superannuation and long service leave. But there’s still more to this trade than meets the eye.
Money VS Time
When you are working in your 9 to 5, how much time do you have to yourself each day?
By “time to yourself” I mean moments when you are not actively or passively involved in an activity that relates to interests outside your own.
When I was working in Sydney, it was frustratingly little.
Let’s break it down:
- First of all, people need a decent 8-ish hours of sleep to have healthy brains and whatnot. So that’s 24 – 8 = 16 hours a day.
- Now, the 9 to 5 is actually more like 8 to 6, with the increasing workloads, meaningless meetings, and stringent deadlines. That’s a 10-hour workday. 16 – 10 = 6.
- Then you have the daily commute. Even a 20-minute trip can suffer bad traffic or congested public transport. Conservatively, it becomes an even hour each way, door to door. That’s two hours a day. 6 – 2 = 4.
- Then you have the daily tasks everyone needs to undertake in order to pass for a successful working human being. Cook food, eat food, clean dishes. Wash, dry and fold your work-related laundry. That could easily be two hours a day, but let’s call it one. 4 – 1 = 3.
- And the last thing to check off the list is to clear your head. Maybe you watch TV, read a book or have a glass of wine on the couch. Scroll endlessly through your preferred social media. Or hit the gym. Whatever it takes to get rid of the fugue in your head. Give an hour for that too. 3 – 1 = 2.
Out of 24 hours, two hours are, truly, yours.
THAT’S IT. JUST TWO HOURS A DAY.
But what about weekends?
Grocery shopping. Maintenance. Gardening. BBQs. Social events that you’re kind of obliged to attend but don’t really want to because you’d rather be doing something else.
Be honest – if you had more time, then maybe you wouldn’t feel dragged down by the idea of spending an afternoon swapping small talk about health insurance with your colleague’s uncle.
And this hyper-specific example brings up my next point neatly.
You resent spending time.
Because you don’t have much time.
You swapped it for money. And if you calculate backward, you’ll see that you might be swapping it for very little.
How do you get the most from your time?
What can we leverage to pack these two hours full of reward for all our hard work?
To get that feel-good, productive, totally-deserve-this vibe, we spend.
Sometimes it’s small – a cappuccino here, a pastry there, maybe drinks with friends after work. Or buying a new funny t-shirt that we saw online? It makes us feel good.
Once in a while, we splash out on something bigger – a vacation, an indulgent date night, a designer timepiece. Something low key but still fancy. Again, the decision to spend triggers an immediate feel-good response.
We try to enhance the quality of the time we have by spending money. The phrase “work hard, play hard” is the extreme end of this practice. Many of us don’t actively live by that mantra. But we still follow the logic behind it.
And then we wonder where our money goes. We look at our income and look at our spending and look at our savings and they all add up, so we think we’re okay. Not getting ahead, but still getting by. Comfortably.
And this isn’t even talking about credit cards. They’re a whole other beast.
But when we go travelling?
I find myself spending relatively little.
When I was working full time in an office/agency, I resented doing any activity that took up much more than an hour.
A day at the beach? Watching the sun set? What a waste of time!
When I quit my job, I had more free time. But I still resented these activities. And I couldn’t explain why.
But in hindsight, it’s easy to see that this attitude was a hangover from being time-poor my entire adult life.
Since high school, there was a total period of two months when I wasn’t working or studying. For over a decade (yes, old) I had gone from one thing to the next, not thinking about how I was spending my time.
I had never known anything else.
To suddenly have the time was weird and scary.
Sitting still felt wrong.
I was afraid of being bored and frightened that I wouldn’t have the money to keep myself entertained.
And then after a while, it just stopped.
One day I was able to spend the whole day doing nothing. I don’t even remember what. Reading, maybe? Eating? I watched the sun set. It became a habit. And it felt good.
At about the same time, my spending habits changed.
It wasn’t a sudden outburst of frugality.
I wasn’t struggling for cash.
That’s a different story. And I hadn’t sat down with a bunch of hippies and talked about what really matters in life – another story again.
Instead, I had stopped thinking of time and money as interlinked.
They stopped being related. It’s not that you can’t “spend” time. Rather that you are always spending time. You can’t save it and you can’t stop spending it. So why not enjoy it?
So I stopped spending money to extract utility from time. Instead, I started spending time to get the same amount of utility – and save the money.
That cappuccino I bought two or three times a day back in Sydney? Now it’s once, maybe twice a week. And I enjoy it more because I can take my time on the cafe patio and savour every sip.
With more time, the utility comes from experiencing, not the decision to spend.
And I can see this pattern echo across most of my spending decisions when I’m away.
I still feel the knee-jerk reaction. The “I-deserve-this-and-want-to-feel-good” trigger is still real. I still want the fancier apartment. The shinier motorbike. The more luxurious cruise.
But it’s a shift in value. These things are wonderful, but only as wonderful as the time you have to spend with them. Otherwise, they’re a flash-in-the-pan expense that gives me nothing .
It’s not wrong. It is just expensive.
With slow travel, I am spending time enjoying experiences. These experiences are available to everyone, every day. But because the 9 to 5 takes up so much time, people resent spending this precious time on them. And instead, they get their joy from the purchase decision.
Footnote – how much are you actually earning per hour?
This isn’t really relevant to the conversation, but I did the calculations anyway.
Earlier we said your average 9 to 5 gave you $28.25 an hour. But if we swap out “time worked” for “time spent doing things we don’t really want to do because that’s just the lifestyle we lead” the figure changes.
Within a 24 hour period, you’re (ideally) sleeping for 8 hours, and we calculated that 2 hours are yours.
24 – (8 + 2) = 14 hours a day that are work related, or affected by work.
14 x 236 working days a year = 3304 work-affected hours a year.
$50,000 wage / 3304 working days = $15.13 per work-affected hour Before tax.
Congratulations! In Australia, you’re working under the minimum wage!