Saturday, October 27, 2012

Time is Money

Have you ever read the fine print at the bottom of receipts? Along with a store phone number or a survey you should fill out online, there’s an enthusiastic note for you, their valued customer, something like “Total Money Saved: $78.23!” This adds up all of the sales on the items that you bought for less than the normal price (which, in my family would be pretty much every item except for those that are so generic that their prices cannot be brought down because it’s not worth the cost of printing a coupon).

At Christmas, the women of my family will go shopping. When we return with bulging bags and obnoxious holiday songs stuck in our heads, Grandpa will look at the receipts and say, with a good-natured sneer, “‘You Saved $35.38,’ it says. Well, show me the money!”

He has a good point. You didn’t save $35.38 on the three sweaters, pair of shoes, silver earrings, and pair of fuzzy socks that were an impulse buy at the register. You spent $84.99, plus tax. Sure, if you would have spent that money anyway, it’s good that you got some of the items at a lower price than usual. Sometimes, though, the promise of saving money leads us to spend more than we need.

I realized recently that it’s the same with time. One of my extracurricular activities ended last week. If you would print out the receipt of my life, it would now read, “Total Time Saved: 3 Hours!”

Except I didn’t save that time, at least not last week. I spent it in tiny increments on things that I wouldn’t have done otherwise. Daydreaming during homework, forcing me to read the same article twice. Taking a nap that was twice as long as what I needed. Wandering around on Facebook, looking for something meaningful in the slush pile of pictures of people I don’t know that well, mindless memes that might occasionally be mildly funny, and the many trials and triumphs of Farmville.

Don’t get me wrong, some of that time was used for meaningful things, like conversations with people I might not have had otherwise. But those few minutes were shaved off of my total time saved, and the rest of it probably wasn’t worth it.

“Time is money,” or so they say. Not only do we talk about saving and spending time, but we “invest” it, “squander” it, and “lose” it (as if it just somehow slipped out of our fingers, clattered onto the street, and rolled down a storm drain). Why the comparison? Both time and money are commodities that represent something greater, both are highly valued, and both are limited.

But unlike money, we can’t measure how much time have. But we all live as though we are rich. We often act as though we won a lottery at birth that will pay time into our account slowly and silently until we’re old enough that we want to run out of time and die. Only God knows who is rich and who is poor, but we spend like a sixteen-year-old with her mom’s credit card, racing toward overdraw on things that sparkle and shine but mean nothing at all.

And then we look at the time that we’ve “saved” and congratulate ourselves. The receipt’s list is long: our devices tell us they are freeing up precious hours, books and articles can be easily scanned for information that fits our attention span, and shortcuts and speeding are worth the five minutes of travel time they’ll get us in the end. “Congratulations! You Saved Forty-Seven Hours!”

Except that’s not how it works, not for most of us. Do we have more free time than the generations before us? Maybe. But how do we use it?

The only thing I can think when I look at the receipt of my own life is, “Show me the time.”

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