Time and Money Spent Reveal Your Values – After You Normalize

I often hear axioms along the lines of “If you look at a man’s checkbook register, you can tell what his priorities are.”  Ugh, that sounded a bit dated…  “If you log into a person’s Mint account, you can tell what her priorities are.”  The point is that you will naturally put money toward the things you value most and skimp on the ones you don’t.  Your money tells the truth about what you care about in a way that your mouth may not.  (Along the same lines: ‘Actions speak louder than words’ and ‘Put your money where your mouth is.’)


If you say you support a cause, for instance, how much money did you donate to that cause last year?  If you say you are into whole foods nutrition (like I do), what percentage of your grocery budget goes toward local/grass-fed food (not much beyond our CSA subscriptionclearly I don’t value it as highly as I say I do).


time and money signpostTime Matters, Too


I think there is an argument to be made that where you put your money alone does not tell you where your priorities are – you have to factor in time as well.  We aren’t spending much money on this blog (actually, we’re in the black!), yet I sink many hours per week into writing, responding to comments, and commenting on other blogs.  So my priority of cultivating a community on EPF shows up in how I spend my time instead of how I spend my money.


To Draw Conclusions, You Have to Normalize


None of this is anything you haven’t heard before, of course.  I hope that we can agree that it’s self-evident that when you examine how you spend your money and how you fill your time, what you truly value will be revealed.  The added point of this post is that you need to compare those ‘time budgets’ and ‘money budgets’ against those of a typical/average/median person.


Humans need to sleep.  I’ll wager that most people spend more time sleeping than doing any other single activity.  Does that mean that most people’s #1 value is sleep?  That would be a pretty rare person, actually.  It’s more illuminating to compare how much sleep you get to the median amount of sleep a person gets.  If you’re above the median, you likely value sleeping more than the typical person.  If you value it less, that implies that there are other things you place outsized value on (more than sleeping) – perhaps it’s working, exercising, caring for children, or watching TV – even if you spend less time total on those things than you do on sleeping.


Similarly, housing is likely the top expense for most people, but we all need housing, so you can only draw conclusions about how much you value it in comparison with what other people spend.  For example, Jordann and Erika got so motivated to pay off their debt that they made major sacrifices in their housing to speed their repayment.  If you looked at where their money went, way more went to debt repayment and way less to housing than is typical.


Once you normalize how you spend your money and time against relevant medians or other metrics, your priorities become clear in a way that they cannot with a straight ranking of absolute time and money spent.  When I compared my budget against what the living wage calculator said a person in my area needs to spend in various areas, it became apparent that we undervalue our transportation (true – we own two 10+ year-old cars that we bought used and are paid off).  I also spent quite a bit less than what was ‘necessary’ on housing when I was single and now we spend more than necessary – indicating that we did not highly value privacy when we were single (we both had roommates) and we do highly value space now that we’re married (we are living in a 2BR instead of a 1 BR).  The living wage calculator is just one example of what you can compare against – here’s a post that links to many compilations of how American spend time and money.


Be Cautious about What You Compare to


Though normalizing your money and time spent will take you a step closer to seeing what you value relatively more or less than the typical person, you have to be careful what you normalize with.


With money, you have to find metrics for your local area.  A normalization to national spending on housing will almost certainly reveal that a person living in NYC or SF ‘overvalues’ housing when really that is an indication of the high housing prices in their local market.


Similarly, when comparing your time it would be preferable to compare against a group of people in a similar life situation (working vs. student vs. homemaker, non-parent vs. parent).  For example, one of the time studies in the link above shows that men spend on average 3.74 hours per day working and women spend 2.67 hours.  That’s because the surveyed people are composed of working, unemployed, retired, and homemaking people and students.  It’s not a great conclusion to say that because you have a job and work 40 hours per week that you value your work highly, because you’re not comparing against the right group.


What do you think better reveals your values, how you spend your money or how you spend your time?  What do you value more than the typical person, either in terms of money or time, and what do you value less?


photo from Free Digital Photos


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19 Responses to "Time and Money Spent Reveal Your Values – After You Normalize"

  1. Matt Becker says:

    I think you’re spot on for including time in the evaluation here as well. I think that people’s spending doesn’t always reflect their values as much as it reflects that fact that they’d rather spend their time in ways that doesn’t require them to think about whether their spending reflects their values. Wow, that sentence felt convoluted as I was writing it! Hope it makes sense. In any case, it’s an ongoing process to make sure that both our money and our time is spent in ways that matter to us. It’s a continual challenge, but one that’s well worth taking on.
    Matt Becker recently posted..A Step-by-Step Guide Through the Process of Actually Buying Life Insurance

    1. Emily says:

      I think I’m following you! But isn’t that the point of the axiom – that your spending, considered or not, reflects your true values? You may wish that you could spend your money some other way but if you’re not doing it you must not really value that. I agree that it’s an ongoing challenge to make your reality meet your aspirations in time and money but worthwhile!

  2. I think how money is spent is a bit of a misleading indicator. This is largely because so much spending is not intentional: so many of us have no idea how much we spend on certain things over a month or year. I agree this may still show us where our Id is driving our spending, but I don’t know if it’ll match up with values, per se.

    Time may not be any better of an indicator, but I tried charting my time for a guest post over at Cash Rebel’s blog, and was amazed at what it revealed. I was spending so much time working, watching television and reading blogs: those things dwarfed just about all other categories, combined. Are those my values? Maybe…tough to say.
    Done by Forty recently posted..How We Used Mental Accounting to Pay Off Our Mortgage

    1. Emily says:

      Intentional or not I think it reveals what we value. If you want to change what you value, put your money there Matthew 6:21.

      My time studies showed me that I was spending a surprising amount of time on food preparation and eating. I am such a slow cook! Yet the nutrition stuff is important to me. And yes, a lot of time with blog-related activities. And hanging out with Kyle (a high value for me).

  3. I’m really not into comparing myself or our family to anyone else. We have positive cash flow that goes into saving and investing every month (>40% of our gross income). We spend a lot of time together as a family. Our son is in the school band as well as a jazz band. We go to all his events. We also visit other family and friends regularly. That’s what works for us. We are happy.
    Bryce @ Save and Conquer recently posted..Videos That Make the Case for Passive Index Investing

    1. Emily says:

      Sounds like you’re pretty clear on your priorities – great job!

  4. You’re right, those numbers are more meaningful when you compare them to the average. Housing, transportation and food are almost always going to be the biggest expenses for anyone. We spend little on our expenses and throw everything into our real estate investments so we can retire as soon as possible.
    Deia @ Nomad Wallet recently posted..Work and Travel Through a Teaching Assistant Program in France

    1. Emily says:

      It’s obvious in your budget, then, that what you value is ER because of your high investment rate. Great job in putting that priority before your other spending!

  5. If you look at my check register, you’ll be bored out of your mind. I mostly spend money on housing, utilities, savings, food, and daycare. I suppose that’s a good thing but it isn’t very exciting.
    Holly@ClubThrifty recently posted..Frugal Ways to Escape Winter

    1. Emily says:

      Yep, our monthly budget is very similar except for the daycare. All the exciting stuff is offloaded to the targeted savings accounts.

  6. Great one Emily. You can tell from my time that I value my blog and what it has become. You can also see that I value my passion of car repair, because I pay more than normal on that.
    Grayson @ Debt Roundup recently posted..A Sobering Moment Of Reflection

    1. Emily says:

      Do you think that you’re really spending more on car repairs than others do on car payments?? Especially on the longer time horizon.

  7. This is a really cool way to put your values into perspective. I’d say I put a strong value on my time. Mostly because I weigh activities against things I could be doing to generate more money. To babysit or go out with friends? To go to happy hour or go home and write? To avoid being a hermit I try to find a happy medium but it usually just results in getting less sleep than I should. I certainly value travel over furniture because I do a lot of the former and own very little of the latter.
    Broke Millennial recently posted..Happy First Birthday, Broke Millennial

    1. Emily says:

      It sounds like your closely equating your time with money, which makes sense with the types of side hustles you mentioned. I thought sleep was a high value of mine but I apparently get less sleep than the average American! I’m sure we spend less than average on furniture, and probably our travel spending is large as a percentage of our income but not necessarily absolutely.

  8. Why there is a time for sleep? It’s just a waste of money!. That’s the opinion of many people who were very fascinated in dedicating there life to get rich. Well, normalizing your time and money, like what you said Emily, is important too! Thanks much for this wonderful topic.

    1. Emily says:

      Sleep humbles all of us, and some people don’t want to be humbled. 🙂

  9. […] @ Evolving Personal Finance writes Time and Money Spent Reveal Your Values – After You Normalize – How you spend your money and time reveals your values, but only relative to how others in […]

  10. […] @ Evolving Personal Finance writes Time and Money Spent Reveal Your Values – After You Normalize – How you spend your money and time reveals your values, but only relative to how others in […]

  11. […] discuss if all our answers were always the same. I actually love getting to know other people’s values via how they choose to use their money (and time). I believe understanding each other’s values deepens our relationships. And I love encouraging, […]

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