skip to main content

Buying Time—Not Things—Will Make You Happy, Study Finds

Written by
Matt Pelkey, CFEI
During his time as the director of education for OppU, Matt Pelkey, CFEI, successfully implemented personal finance courses, scholarship opportunities, and financial literacy resources for students and adults of all ages.
Read time: 3 min
Updated on July 27, 2023
mother and daughter wearing matching white shirts smiling with their hands under their chins
Don’t think you can buy happiness? Try hiring a cleaning service.

Buying Time Promotes Happiness

Can money buy happiness? Maybe so.

A new survey found that adults who made time-saving purchases reported greater “life satisfaction” than those who didn’t. The survey was conducted by researchers at the University of British Columbia (UBC) and Harvard Business School. It was published in the scientific journal of the National Academy of Sciences.

OppU Answers has previously explored the question of whether money can buy happiness. One study we found determined that people who base self-esteem on personal wealth are more likely to be anxious, stressed out, and make toxic judgments about others. Another study found that happiness grows with income, but only up to a point—about $75,000 a year.

The study by UBC suggests that while money itself won’t necessarily make you happier, if you spend it right, it just might.

Why Buying Time Makes You Happy

According to the study’s researchers, many people in relatively high-income countries have more money than time. This contributes to feelings of “time stress,” which are linked to unhappiness, anxiety and insomnia. The researchers also note that time stress is a critical factor in rising obesity rates. (Lack of time is a common reason that people cite for not exercising and eating unhealthy food.)

The solution, however, seems to be clear: if you have more money than time, use the former to buy the latter. So, hire the kid next door to mow your lawn and while he’s doing it, go to the park. Sign up for a cleaning service and take a walk while somebody else makes your bed.

Essentially, buying time allows people to avoid the things they have have to do—but don’t want to do—and at the same, it time frees them up to do the things they enjoy, thus making them happy.

Benefits of Buying Time Aren’t Just for the Wealthy

In looking at their findings, the researchers examined the degree to which income levels might have influenced individual responses. After all, it would stand to reason that wealthy people who have more money to spend on time-saving purchases are, well, rich, and might be happier because of it. (They don’t, for instance, have to worry about things like how bad it is to miss a credit card payment.)

To control for this, the researchers sampled different income levels and the results held in all cases, leading researchers to conclude the following:

“Across seven studies with over 6,000 respondents, spending money to buy time was linked to greater life satisfaction, and the typical, detrimental effect of time stress on life satisfaction was attenuated among individuals who used money to buy time. We suggest that this broad correlational link stems in part from the cumulative day-to-day benefits that are caused by the reductions in time stress that such purchases provide.”

Shockingly, the researchers found that buying time was a relatively rare phenomenon, even among the very wealthy. In a sample of 850 millionaires, almost half didn’t spend money to delegate tasks and buy themselves time. (So maybe this is a lesson to add to financial literacy courses?)

What Will Make You Happier: Time or Things?

Another question the researchers explored was whether buying time made people happier than buying things. To test this, they enlisted study participants and gave them $40 to spend on two consecutive weekends. The first weekend, the participants were instructed to spend the money on something that would save them time. On the second weekend, they were instructed to spend it on a material purchase. The results the researchers found were consistent with their previous findings: when the participants spent the money to save time, they were happier at the end of the day and had lower levels of time stress.

California Residents, view the California Disclosures and Privacy Policy for info on what we collect about you.