04/06/2015 05:32 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Time Is Money

Photo: I. Rimanoczy

We have all heard it -- and said it ourselves, or thought of it at different moments in our life. Time is money. While it sounds like a post-modern capitalistic axiom, the quote actually originates with Benjamin Franklin who articulated this idea in Advice to a Young Tradesman, Written by an Old One, a handbook printed in 1748. "Remember that Money is of a prolific generating Nature. Money can beget Money, and its Offspring can beget more, and so on", Franklin observed, in his early musings about the power and potential of money. He advocated for saving, hard work, paying debts on time. "The Way to Wealth, if you desire it [...] depends chiefly on two Words, INDUSTRY and FRUGALITY; i.e. Waste neither Time nor Money, but make the best Use of both. He that gets all he can honestly, and saves all he gets (necessary Expences excepted) will certainly become RICH."

We certainly distilled the message and, particularly over the past decades, filtered it. We created an economic model where if we worked hard and didn't wasted time, we could become rich, because "work brings money and money begets money, and its offspring can beget more." By doing so, we could ignore the more demanding aspects of the formula, such as saving, paying debts in time, and frugality. We didn't need them, and we could have more exciting lives creating an economic model based on consuming, producing and consuming even more on credit. With money and more money for some.

In what ways is this axiom, "Time is money," helping us organize our life? In corporate settings, it may motivate people to get training in meetings management, to avoid having too many highly-paid employees wasting their time (and the company's money) on meetings that they need not attend, are too long, or are not productive. Or in replacing face-to-face meetings with virtual ones, or emails. Time is money, we shouldn't move around cities, or cross oceans, or even our own building, for something we can do faster in a different way. In our private life, the axiom is tacitly behind our acceptance that we need to work hard to earn the money we need, so that we can pay for what we cannot do -- because we are working. As author David Korten puts it, "In societies in a state of advanced monetization, money and global supply chains mediate human access to most all the essentials of living. The system imposes a mandatory sequence of money before life."

Far from the original advice of "saving time and money," in our days the time/money connection seems more oriented towards spending than saving. Google Chrome designed an app that allows you to know how much working time the purchase of an object over the Internet will cost you. You enter your hourly wage, and the system calculates for you the time/money relationship of that consumption.

Minutes of your work time to pay for this item: 8 Cup Coffee Maker... List Price: $149.99 (3 hrs 45 min). Price $ 116.14 (2 hrs 55 mins). You save: $ 33.85 (51 min). In Stock.

(The calculation doesn't include the time you invested in surfing the Internet to find your object.)

Time may be Money, but I cannot buy myself a day more to add to my life. We may be able to buy other people's time with money, but that is not always the type of time we value the most. I recall my first job, where I calculated how much money I earned by every hour, and that became my main accounting. I definitely was a lousy employee -- since I was more focused on counting the pesos made by 11 a.m. than anything else.

Certainly we may be able to buy some medical treatment that could mean living longer, but in that case we probably should say "money is health..." While money prospers, life withers, observes Korten. "No matter how fat our bank account or advanced our technologies, we depend on Earth's health for food, freshwater, clean air, and a stable climate." And we depend on meaningful relationships and community. The small kingdom of Bhutan long ago realized that the materialization of time is no guarantee of quality of life, or depth of enjoyment. That was the reason they created an alternative to the GDP: The Gross Happiness Index.

Interestingly, somehow the consumerist culture has understood its own limitations. As a popular ad puts it, when something is really valuable, "There are some things that money can't buy. For everything else, there is MasterCard."

I propose we consider a new guideline, following Karma Tshiteem, head of the Bhutan Gross National Happiness Commission: Time is Life.

What would that mean for you?

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