Yes, Money Can Buy Happiness, But Not How You Think

by Jessica Sommerfield · 6 comments

We’ve all heard the saying “money can’t buy happiness.” While most of us would agree that contentment isn’t tied to how much money or stuff we have, a recent study from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences identified an exception to this principle: when money buys us time.

After surveying 6,000 participants in the U.S., Canada, Denmark, and The Netherlands, the researchers found that people who spent money on time-saving services like housecleaning or transportation, versus other things, reported greater overall happiness.

An explanation for this starts with the stress created by modern life. To those of us with demanding careers or lifestyles, obligations like household chores and errands we don’t enjoy build stress and tension — especially when doing them ourselves leaves us with little time left over. That’s why every little bit of time we can spend relaxing or doing tasks we enjoy alleviates some of that stress and ultimately leaves us happier.

So, to summarize, money can buy time; and, when we have more time, we’re happier.

Not Just for the Rich

It might seem like this would only benefit people with enough disposable income to hire a personal maid, butler, or gardener, but the study found that it applies regardless of a person’s income. Whether a small or large amount, in a big or small way, spending money on time-saving items or services leads to happier living.

What Buying Time to Gain Happiness Might Look Like

Most of us can’t afford to hire an entire staff of personal assistants, so what would this look like for the average person? It just depends on your lifestyle and priorities. Is there one task you always dread more than any other? Are you procrastinating about a home renovation your spouse wants to DIY because you see it as a giant time-eater? Paying someone else to do it might be worth your happiness.

For example, maybe you feel like it’s impossible to eat healthier because you’re too tired or busy to plan meals, shop for groceries, cook, and clean up. For your health and happiness, it could be worth it to pay for a subscription that provides healthy, budget-friendly meals based on your dietary preferences and family size; use curbside grocery delivery; or sign up for a meal delivery service.

These types of services are readily available to us today, and, thanks to market competition, they’re more affordable than ever. With an odd-job app-based service, you might be able to feasibly achieve those detested odd jobs on your list without sacrificing your weekends, evenings, or your savings account.

Before saying you can’t afford to add any time-saving services to your household budget, think about what discretionary spending you already use on services. Would you be willing to sacrifice one or more in favor of having more time on your hands?

A Word of Caution: Be Careful What You Service Out

If you have the budget and the ability to juggle your priorities around, it might be feasible to never cook a meal, wash a dish, or mow your lawn ever again. Before you go too crazy, think about the other values of what you’re cutting out to gain time. Sure, it’s not always fun to cook, but it’s a good life skill to have and be capable of teaching your kids. Maybe working on a home renovation project with your family will be challenging and time-consuming, but, then again, maybe it will provide an opportunity for quality time with the people you love.

While it’s true that money itself can’t create or buy happiness, spending money wisely on services that free up more time for the things you love about life can lead to less stress and greater overall satisfaction.

Do you use any time-saving services? Do you feel like they “buy” you more happiness?

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  • Anders says:

    Thank you for this article, Jessica!

    This is actually something that we’ve been talking about quite a bit in our family. You see we’re renovating our house and I personally like to do as much as I can. Partly because I enjoy learning the things and partly to save money. But, as you write about, doing things yourself will add stress.

    I work full time, we have a 2-year-old and there’s just so many hours in a day. So the question for us is if it’s better to work at our day job and hire someone to do the things we need. While we have someone fixing our house and working we almost bring in as much an hour as it cost.

    Sometimes, as you illustrate, money isn’t everything and peace of mind is much more valuable.

    • David @ says:

      I can’t imagine the work you will have with a 2 year old toddler and trying to tackle a home remodel yourself plus a full time job, but more power to you if you can pull this off. See the positives. You are either saving money or saving stress so you can’t go wrong here.

  • Brad says:

    We’re actually in a different camp. We’ve tried a number of time-saving services, from house cleaning to meal prep. While we’ve enjoyed each, we find that more “happiness” comes from travel and experiences. So we cut out things we can do on our own and shifted that money into our travel/vacation budget.

    • David @ says:

      As they say, there is more than one road to Dublin. Traveling is another great source of happiness for many people, and I’m happy to learn that you are consciously choosing to spend money on what makes you and your wife tick.

      Ruthlessly cutting expenses in places you don’t care as much about to spend more money in areas you do care about is the true key to happiness. Cheers for already doing that!

  • Adriana says:

    Hmm… I can’t say that I’ve ever used time saving services. I do agree, however, that time is important. You can replace items, but you’ll never turn back time!

    • David @ says:

      I can personally vouch for time saving services making life more pleasant. You don’t even need to pay for them to know the difference. Just imagine that your dish washer broke and you have to wash your dishes by hand every day. Would that make your life more miserable or would you not care? Would you pay to replace the unit?

      I certainly would because it would save me time and make my life better.

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