Money is Time

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Money and time are precious commodities, especially when either grows scarce. Paul Staley looks at how the two are inextricably linked.

The expression “time is money" is a familiar and succinct expression of the economic merits of efficiency. But like any equation, it remains true if we reverse the terms: money is time.

Our lives are defined by this equivalence. To a large degree our world is a market where we trade time and money back and forth. Your salary is the price at which you sell your time to an employer. In this region an affordable house often means a much longer commute. In effect, you have to contribute your time to make up for the money you didn’t have for a house that was closer to your job. And the gig economy functions as a matchmaker between people with money but limited free time, and others who have the time but need to make some extra cash.

Money literally buys you time. Life spans are not only longer in richer countries, they can vary substantially between rich and poor zip codes within the same city. Accumulate enough wealth, and you are advised to plan for its use and distribution after your life ends. Accumulate even more, and the planning addresses the weight of legacy, a perspective that extends even further. You may be long dead, but your name will be on the check from your foundation and people will ask directions to the building with your name on it. Money enables people to live on an extended scale of time.

And this applies in reverse as well. In the most extreme case, the urgent demands of a subsistence existence overshadow any consideration of what lies beyond today’s needs. Living paycheck to paycheck focuses one’s attention on the end of the month, not the broad vista of the future. So while our calendars may indicate that we all face the same sequence of days, months and years, in reality the future is available in all different sizes. Its minimum denomination is tomorrow. Beyond that, it is available in larger amounts; but like anything else, that’s going to cost you more. And so as a result, for many people the future remains a luxury good.


With a Perspective, I’m Paul Staley.

Paul Staley lives in San Francisco.