Your Money or Your Time?

To save one, you often have to spend the other. (And you never seem to have enough of either, do you?) Here’s how to make the right call.

Photo by  Christoph Niemann

Every day you’re faced with a time vs. money dilemma. Should you hire a lawn service to mow the grass or do it yourself? Bake brownies for the PTA meeting or pick up some from the bakery? To make the most clearheaded call, you’ll need to overcome the following three factors. Then figure out how much time and money you actually have―and what that time is worth.

Factor No. 1: Peer Pressure From Family and Friends

“We usually surround ourselves with people who spend money on the same things we do,” says Brad Klontz, a financial psychologist in Lihue, Hawaii, and a coauthor of Mind Over Money ($25, “It’s the herd instinct that influences each of us, particularly when it comes to our wallets.” That’s why if you want to start coloring your hair and your friends color theirs at home, you’ll probably do the same. You also may find yourself following what Klontz calls “money scripts,” which are financial beliefs typically passed down by relatives. Case in point: You’re thinking about hiring a cleaning person but hesitate because you recall your mother saying she would never spend money on one. Listening to that voice in your head rather than to your own can lead you to make decisions that aren’t right for you, says Klontz.

Factor No. 2: Your Own Positive Attitude (Yes, Really)

When most people initiate a project, they assume that they’ll have a favorable outcome, regardless of the difficulty involved, says Stephen Hoch, a marketing professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. (Social scientists call this “optimism bias.”) That can lead one to underestimate the time a task will take (not to mention the effort). The result? We waste lots of time and energy trying to do something the right way ourselves, rather than making the most logical decision, which may be to hire an expert for the job, says Dan Ariely, a behavioral-economics professor at Duke University, in Durham, North Carolina, and the author of Predictably Irrational ($19,

Factor No. 3: The Belief That You Have More Time Than You Actually Do

Certainly people can be unrealistic about how much money they have. But when it comes to time, experts say, irrationality is magnified. That’s because, unlike money, time―how much we have, not just now but also in the future―is impossible to measure. And since time is such an ambiguous currency, people are willing to take more risks with it than they are with money, says Hoch. In a recent study, participants in a simulated lottery took fewer risks when they placed bets with their money and more when they gambled with their time. The reason: When participants paid with their time and lost, they simply downgraded how much their time was worth. With money, it’s all too clear what has been lost.

Go DIY? Or Hire a Guy?

So which is the way you should go? Ask yourself these four questions before you make any time vs. money decision.

1. Can I realistically pull off this project? Be honest. Is it safe or prudent for you to tackle the job yourself? Will it be difficult or relatively easy to learn any new required skills?

2. What kind of time commitment is really involved? Gauge how many hours the project will take from start to finish. Before embarking on that kitchen renovation (or any other DIY project) yourself, ask a contractor for his time estimate, then assume that if you do the project, it will take you twice as long.

3. How much will this task cost to complete myself? Now it’s time for a little math. Even with a DIY project, you still have two expenses: your time―the worksheet So What's Your Time Worth, Anyway? will help you calculate your hourly rate―and any materials you need to buy.

4. How much will I enjoy the process? This question is critical. “It may make no logical sense to do something yourself,” says Dan Ariely. “But if you have a good time gardening, painting, or whatever the project is, it may be worthwhile anyway.” In contrast, if you think you’ll be pulling out your hair midway through repairing a pant hem, dialing up that pro is the way to go.