We have emotional needs that go unmet, casualties of a world that de-prioritizes our mental state in favor of our material welfare.
This is a full-blown cultural phenomenon, rooted in bias. We pursue financial stability and economic wealth (the outward expressions of success) as a proxy for our ability to provide, to take care of our loved ones, to contribute to society.
We trade our time for ever more money, believing that a larger pile will make us secure, that our ability to procure goods and services is a yardstick for our worth, that earning money is our sworn duty. In this constant drive, this bias toward the material, we overestimate our financial needs.
We believe that what we have will never be enough, leading us to work harder, to work more often, to sacrifice more and more time at the altar of income. In the process, we leave our emotional needs unmet, our “lack of time” leading us to eliminate the “unnecessary” – our need for friendship, for love, for connectedness.
This problem is real, but it can be solved. We can live well and be loved, meet our economic needs and make room for friendship, reclaim our time and still provide for our families. I’ll teach you what I’ve learned about the problem (and its solutions), in the hope that you find an applicable lesson and that you’ll be able to improve your life by reprioritizing your emotional needs.
Note: This is not a call to abandon material comfort. Rather, it’s a call to critically examine your personal trade-off between time and money, and a guide to correcting the imbalance (should you find one exists).
The Time/Money Tradeoff
We are conditioned to believe that the solution to providing for our loved ones is to work harder and make more money. Ironically, this belief leads us to behaviors that require ever more money, perpetuating the ongoing imbalance.
We spend our dollars on gasoline to commute to our jobs. The early morning travel leaves us with no time to cook, so we eat out, paying far more for food than we would at the grocery store. Without time to bring the kids to school (or pick them up), we pay for childcare.
We work long hours and arrive home late in the evenings, with little time for our spouses and partners at the end of the day. To nurture our now-dormant relationships, we take two-week vacations once a year, spending thousands in the effort to reconnect, trading dollars for time not spent.
In this busy state, consumed by work and family, we have no time for friendships, and so we neglect them as non-essential. Eventually they end, their space on our schedules replaced by the pursuit of (now needed) dollars.
Professional success results from our dedication to work, leaving us flush with cash and increased incomes. We qualify for bigger mortgages and “better” cars (with larger monthly payments), and so the cycle continues: we need more cash, and we continue trading our time for money, carrying on until there is no elective time left.
We continue working, waiting for retirement, knowing that then (if we just work hard enough), we’ll have all the time in the world, our material wealth finally sufficient to allow us to connect with those we love.
It’s an insidious problem with an obvious solution: we need to need less money. If we can accomplish this, the time/money trade-off becomes the money/time trade-off. The cycle gets flipped on its head.
As our material needs diminish, our ability to meet our emotional needs increases. When we need less cash, we don’t need to dedicate every available hour to work. We’re free to spend our time on other things that matter to our well-being: friendships, love, and connection.
The Money Fix
Needing less money is hard. We grow accustomed to our lifestyles, to consumption, to buying the latest and greatest. This throws off our frame of reference for need.
We believe that anything less than we have will result in pain, when in fact we have no idea what it is to want for comfort, no idea what true privation feels like. In this misperception, we overestimate the negative impact of accepting less.
This doesn’t need to be the case. For many of us, we could make choices that result in less need for income without impacting our happiness or comfort. I’ve made some that reduced my need for income by about 40% per month (while returning my time in the process).
Here are the steps:
Begin by tracking your spending. The act of measurement will let you see when (and where) you are spending dollars on the unimportant, allowing you to curb waste. I use Mint, a free online service that connects to all of my bank accounts, credit cards, and investments to give me a real-time view of my financial situation. The key feature: the ability to set monthly budgets for various expenses, monitor them throughout the month, and get email alerts when I exceed my stated budget.
Once you’re set up on Mint (or a similar budgeting service), look for spending that might be out of whack. When I examined my own situation, I was spending $6000 a month, and I was spending a lot of that money on three things in particular: car payments, eating out, and groceries. You’ll want to look at these items as well—between the three, I was spending about $2300 per month, making them ripe for downsizing.
Once you find overspending, look for ways to scale back.
While a car is not optional for me, having two nearly-new vehicles wasn’t necessary. I traded both in for a used hatchback, eliminating car payments altogether and reducing my monthly insurance payment by 50%.
This is an obvious move when you have two cars, but you can save even if you own just one: ask yourself if you need the make and model in your driveway, or if you could trade it in for an older, less expensive model. My wrangling saved me $1300 a month.
My wife and I then examined our spending on groceries, and made the immediate choice to reduce our budget. $700 a month became $400, an experiment to see if we could make a big cut and still eat well.
It turns out this was pretty easy; we stopped shopping at the “luxury” grocery store, purchased cuts of meat that were less-than-perfect, and bought produce from the nearly-bad shelves. We eliminated prepared foods, and now do all of our cooking and food prep at home. This is a two-for-one, saving money while building our relationship, as we now spend time together every evening in the kitchen.
My final bugaboo: eating out. I was being indiscriminate about how often I paid someone else to make our meals. In a regular month, I was spending over $300 in restaurants and another $200 or so at the pub. This is entirely elective, so it was easy to cut. While we still go out, we stick to a $150 monthly budget, trading in sushi for Thai food and expensive wine for its less pricey cousins.
All in, these three changes brought my monthly spend down by over $2000, (which quickly became even more savings as I began to watch my spending elsewhere. Clothing stores, iTunes, and the movie theater all lost their budget).
While I reduced my spending from $6000 to about $3500 a month, my quality of life remains undiminished. I’m still getting around in a comfortable car, I’m eating meat and vegetables at every meal, and my wife and I still enjoy the occasional meal out. My closet is less cluttered, and my music library remains awesome.
Still, the point is not the reduced spending—it’s the reduced need for income. I can now take a 40% pay cut and still make ends meet, which allows me to work less and give more time to friends and family. The cycle has reversed; rather than working to support consumption, I’m working to support a life that meets my emotional needs.
You can do the same thing. Track your spending, eliminate the unnecessary, and use the savings to reduce your debts. As you make progress, you’ll need less money, and eventually you’ll only pay for the basics: food, shelter, and transportation. This will leave you with the option to work less and connect more, the fix we’ll tackle next.
The Time Fix
Once you have more time to connect, you’ll need to make an effort to make it happen.
After ten years as an entrepreneur, traveling the globe, working every weekend (and every weekday), I’d let my friendships lapse. I rarely called anyone except business partners, employees, and clients. I visited family once every three or four months, staying for only an hour or two. My connections were fleeting and outcome-focused. I talked with those who could help me advance my business, and left everyone else at the wayside.
This pattern led to deep loneliness. I felt as if all my relationships were transactional, based on quid pro quo rather than actual care or friendship. Recognizing the problem (and knowing that my actions had created it), I set out to fix it.
The first step: extending invitations. I was waiting for others to see my value, to cherish our friendship, to invite me to parties, to hang out, to events. Not surprisingly, the invitations weren’t forthcoming. As far as anyone knew, I was probably on a plane somewhere, teaching or stuck in an airport. Every time they’d tried to engage early on, I’d said no—I was busy working, doing something else, traveling, and so they stopped asking.
I realized it was on me now—if I wanted to connect, I was going to be the one to extend invitations. My wife and I began inviting people over to our place for dinner, one night a week, a small party for friends in our apartment. They began coming, and the experiences were wonderful: fun, relaxed, and rejuvenating. Friendships grew where they’d previously lay fallow, and I began to feel connected again, the loneliness disappearing.
Encouraged, I reached out to people I hadn’t seen in a long time, friends from years and decades past. We made plans and spent time together, and it felt like nothing had changed—my friends were still my friends.
This powerful pattern of outreach continued, and with it, time felt longer, less precious. I realized I didn’t need days and weeks to have friendships. Just a few hours a few times a week was enough to meet my need, to create fellowship. The simple act of calling and asking was enough to kindle connectedness, sufficient to push back the loneliness. It required small courage, just enough initiative to pick up the phone or send a text, and it worked.
I fortified the practice with my calendar. Previously, it contained only business engagements: meetings, calls, travel plans. Now, beside my conference calls and plane reservations, I blocked out time for my wife and I to go to baseball games, time to meet with friends, trips to see my family.
On the screen, these appointments looked as official as the meetings with bankers and lawyers and partners, and they took on instant importance. No longer could I schedule a meeting or a call during a time when I would be with friends; that time was unavailable for business, dedicated to other pursuits. I’d reclaimed time, outreach and the calendar combining to make connectedness as important as money.
You can do the same thing. Make the call or send the text, and don’t be discouraged if you get a “no” to any particular set of plans. Just keep calling. Eventually, your friends will join you, and you’ll begin your own journey away from the time/money trade-off.
Making it Happen
Realize that there is a destructive pattern at work in our world of consumption and ambition. We trade our time for money, the ongoing acquisition of material wealth only accelerating the problem: we need ever more money to service ever more consumption.
In this pattern, our relationships pay the toll. We give friends and loved ones less of our time and energy as we become increasingly embroiled in work.
You can end the cycle. It’s a four-step process:
- Recognize the problem in your life. Are you trading too much of your time for money?
- Begin reducing your need for income: pay off debt and stop unnecessary spending. Realize you don’t need as much as you think.
- When you’re able, reclaim the time you no longer need to spend working, and dedicate it to connection.
- Call your friends: those you know well and those you want to know well. Dedicate time to your family. Extend invitations, and treat those time slots with the same reverence you’d give to business obligations.
Following this ideal has brought a lot of joy back into my life, and I still want for nothing. Fed, clothed, and loved, it’s easier than ever to keep going, the imbalance corrected.