Pay Yourself in Time, Not Money

I’m 33, and last year I earned $30,000.

Perhaps that should give me pause. Compared to other male college graduates who make $65,000 around my age—or my peers in tech who make much more—I’m seriously lagging.

I’m not that concerned. In fact, I feel utterly rich, because last year I took home another income: 8 months of my life.

To explain: I’m a self-employed travel tour leader. I work intensively for brief periods of time (e.g. leading a 6-week trip across New Zealand), earn a chunk of money, and then stop working. I’m also a writer who brings in roughly $600/month from two self-published books that largely sell themselves on Amazon. Occasionally I do paid speaking gigs and private education coaching.

In 2015 I earned my $30,000 doing the equivalent of 4 months full-time labor. The majority of that time was spent trip-leading; the rest accrued from the 1-2 hours of laptop work that I do most days of the week (business e-mails, trip planning, writing, coaching).

Another way to see it: I earn $90,000 per year, but I take two-thirds of my compensation in the form of unadulterated free time.

I choose to pay myself in time, not money, because it’s a better currency for obtaining what really matters to me.

Here’s how I spent my free time last year:

  • Exercising and enjoying the outdoors (walking, hiking, swimming, trail running, backpacking)
  • Working on creative projects (writing, podcasting)
  • Reading books and articles
  • Visiting friends and family
  • Pursuing romantic relationships (finding a long-term partner is important to me)
  • Maintaining and growing my online audience (writing newsletters, responding to e-mails, posting useful links on Facebook)
  • Doing meaningful but lowly-paid or unpaid work (working at summer camp, speaking gigs, volunteering)
  • Reflecting on life (watching clouds, staring out café windows, writing articles like this)

Each of these activities is important to me, and none can be purchased with money. Or more accurately: money is not the primary requirement for making these things happen—time is—which is why I make time my primary form of take-home pay.

Admittedly, I’m sailing pretty high on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Before I can work on creative projects and watch the clouds pass, I need to make sure that I’m fed, clothed, housed, and have access to healthcare—and all these things require actual cash-money.

A low-cash lifestyle isn’t a picnic. Last week a ballpoint pen snuck into my laundry, exploded in the wash, and ruined half of the new clothes I’d recently obtained in my once-a-year shopping trip. (I don’t have a budget for a second shopping trip, so I’m pulling t-shirts out of storage.) A few years ago I totaled my car and needed to dip hard into savings to get a new vehicle. I like having my own place, so when I pay rent, it’s between $750-$1100 a month: a seriously big slice of my income pie. If I participated in the social life that many of my peers enjoy (everyday drinks, meals, and entertainment), I’d quickly go broke.

Yes, money is important. I’m not about to join a monastery or donate my savings to charity. No self-supporting individual can take all of their income in the form of time.

But in the pursuit of what humans want most—respect, love, community, security, creative achievement, health, and a peaceful state of mind—I believe we too quickly place money on top of the totem pole.

After providing for our basic material needs (and those of our dependents), what’s the point of continuing to earn money? Why don’t we measure success by days earned instead of dollars earned? When we’ve made enough money, why don’t we stop working—for the rest of our week, year, or life?

Paying oneself in time is difficult for a few clear economic reasons:

  • Figuring out how to earn a lot of money in a short time period (without breaking the law) is really, really challenging.
  • Even if you do land a job with a high hourly rate (like becoming a lawyer), it probably requires your full-time, year-round commitment. Most jobs offer little freedom to pay yourself in time rather than money.

It’s also difficult for personal and social reasons:

  • Jobs provide us with meaning. Without a job, it can be hard to know what to do with oneself. Many of us fear an existential crisis if we take too much time away from official “work.”
  • Long-term personal budgeting is hard. If you earn a big chunk of money and need to make it last for 6+ months, it’s much easier to spend it than diligently save it.
  • “Security” is a black hole: you can always justify spending more money (and therefore having to earn more money) on buying a more reliable car, getting a better healthcare plan, building a more robust safety net, setting aside more for your kids… to the point that insulating yourself from risk becomes the purpose of life itself.

I’ve struggled with these realities for a while, and the solutions that I’ve found are straightforward but deeply challenging in their own rights:

Figure out what you really want to do with the time of your life. What kind of work makes you feel challenged, purposeful, and appreciated—even if you don’t get paid for it? What would you focus on if you were awarded a MacArthur Genius Grant: $125,000 a year for 5 years to work on your most important creative pursuits? If money were no object, what hobbies would you turn into full-time pursuits? Or more simply, what parts of your life have been wilting due to lack of time (family relationships? creative expression? nutrition and exercise?) that you’d begin watering again? These are the things to do when you don’t have a full-time job.

Find (or create) a line of work with high pay-potential that doesn’t require year-round commitment. I took the entrepreneurial route to do this, by starting a trip-leading company that operates seasonally. I didn’t make much money the first few years, but combined with a low-income lifestyle (see below), I was still able to pay myself in time from the very beginning. Starting your own business offers the most freedom in this regard, but if that’s not your cup of tea, consider “Alaskan Fisherman”-style work (short, intensive jobs that pay well and minimize your expenses) or “Digital Nomad”-style work (tech-oriented, freelance gigs that you can do from anywhere in the world with wi-fi).

Radically downsize your expenses. The less money you need, the easier it becomes to pay yourself in time. There are limitless ways to do this. My personal strategies include: Don’t hang around with spendthrifts who subtly coerce you into buying things you don’t want or need. Learn to enjoy cheap hobbies that emphasize personal connection over mere consumption. Spend lots of time outdoors, focusing on activities that only require your own two feet (not an army of expensive toys). Put off mortgages,12-month leases, and having kids for as long as possible.

Give yourself permission to enjoy the time of your life. You’ll never pay yourself in time if you fundamentally believe that your time belongs to someone else: your employer, your family, or your future self. The pursuit of total security—whether job security, retirement security, or physical security—is ultimately fruitless and antithetical to the experience of living. Mitigate the biggest risks (yes, buy health insurance!), recognize that it could all end tomorrow, and then go proudly enjoy the time of your one, brief, fleeting life on earth.


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