Collating widely available time/​money trades

In the xkcd comic Work­ing, a man is seen filling up his gas tank. “Why are you go­ing here”, says the ob­server, “Gas is ten cents a gal­lon cheaper at the sta­tion five min­utes that way”. He re­sponds “Be­cause a penny saved is a penny earned”. Ran­dal’s prag­mat­i­cally spir­ited cap­tion says “If you spend nine min­utes of your time to save a dol­lar, you’re work­ing for less than the min­i­mum wage.”

Our op­por­tu­ni­ties to con­vert time into money and vice versa, though not un­limited, are nu­mer­ous.

We work (sell our free time) when we…

  • Seek over­time shifts

  • Sub­scribe to a mailing list for lo­cal dis­counts e.g. GroupOn

  • Bar­gain with one more car dealer or travel agent, in search of a bet­ter deal

We buy free time when we…

  • Em­ploy clean­ers, chefs, babysit­ters, sec­re­taries and oth­ers.

  • Buy pro­duc­tivity software

  • Buy a med­i­ca­tion that im­proves our sleep

How can we eval­u­ate these trades? It seems like we ought to only pur­chase free time when it comes cheaper than a cer­tain figure, $x/​hr, and ought to only work if we can sell our free time for more than $x/​hr. In­deed, com­par­ing trades to this time/​money ex­change rate is the only un­ex­ploitable way to be­have.

Most of the time, when we share our es­ti­mates of the value of these trades, our com­ments are too vague to be helpful. If my father, a doc­tor tells me, a stu­dent, that “sub­scribing to dis­count mailing lists is a waste of time”, what does he mean? He might mean that these mailing lists are poor value for me, he might mean the much stronger state­ment that they are poor value for ev­ery­one, or the much weaker state­ment, that they are poor value just for him (his time is ob­vi­ously worth the most). I have to try to get him to dis­en­tan­gle his es­ti­ma­tion from his juge­ment. I have to ask him “What low value would a per­son have to place on their time for dis­count mailing lists to be worth­while?”

The eas­iest way for all in­di­vi­d­u­als with differ­ent time/​money ex­change rates to share their es­ti­mates will be to quan­tify them. e.g. be­ing on a dis­count mailing lists only saves $x per hour spent. Out of my father and I, this might rep­re­sent value to none, one or both of us.

When we share these quan­ti­ta­tive es­ti­mates, it would be silly to dis­cuss deals that are only available pri­vately like job offers, that are so de­pen­dent on our par­tic­u­lar skills and qual­ifi­ca­tion. In­stead,we will gain the most by list­ing time-money trades that are likely to ap­ply across do­mains, such as re­pairing a car on the one hand or catch­ing a cab on the other.

By do­ing so, we stand to learn that many of the trades we have been car­ry­ing out have rep­re­sented poor value, and we should learn of new trades that we had not pre­vi­ously con­sid­ered. Of course, there are as­so­ci­ated costs, like the time spent gath­er­ing this in­for­ma­tion, and the risk of be­com­ing un­duly pre­ocup­pied with these de­ci­sions, but it still seems worth do­ing.

A last point of or­der is that it will be best to in­di­cate how far we can ex­pect each es­ti­mate to gen­er­al­ise. For ex­am­ple, the cost of some­thing like mela­tonin will differ be­tween states or be­tween coun­tries, and that is worth men­tion­ing.

So in this thread, please share your es­ti­mates in $/​hr for po­ten­tial ways to work or buy free time.