One of the most important things I want to talk about on this blog is the trade-off between working time and free time. We all need money: as my salt-of-the-earth grandfather used to say, the only time you’ll ever not need to think about money is if you already have lots of it. The fact is, even though it’s just a means to an end – albeit a very powerful one – earning money often dominates our lives. Either we have a low-paid job and have to work as many hours as we can to get by, or we’re lucky enough to earn more but we make up for the slog by spoiling ourselves with little luxuries and conveniences. Both these situations can be improved by cutting down on spending, but the second one traps us in a vicious circle we usually don’t even notice: we have to keep earning plenty so we can afford the luxuries and conveniences; but we wouldn’t need those in the first place if we weren’t working so many hours.
I’ve blogged before about how quite recently people thought we’d soon be working just a few hours a day and have oodles of free time. That was about as accurate as the prediction about nuclear-powered vacuum cleaners. When did you last hear someone complain they were short of time? When did you last think that yourself? Yesterday? This morning? Two minutes ago? We so often say, “I wish I had more time to spend with my kids/with my other half/on my hobbies/doing what I’ve always wanted to.” Or, of course, “When I retire, I’ll finally have time to…”
So how about doing just that: jacking it all in and retiring early? That’s long been the stuff of mortgage slaves’ and lottery players’ dreams. There are some powerful arguments against it, though: people who are made redundant or retire often miss the routine and sense of purpose of their jobs; and how do you teach your children to work hard if you don’t do so yourself – paid or unpaid? Besides, plenty of people wouldn’t want to stop working: they enjoy their work, or they have jobs in which it takes time to build up expertise and status and they don’t want to give that up. But here’s the thing: even those people – at least in my experience – would actually jump at the chance to work fewer hours if they could. For most of us that’s more realistic than aspiring to stop work altogether. I think that’s the one to aim for.
Why not shave off expenses by only spending money on things you’re sure are worth it for you? What would you do next – work less? Save more? Both? I’m not suggesting living a harsh, spartan life. Really, I’m not. I spend money on tango lessons and Open University course fees, for example. On the other hand, I choose not to spend money on a smartphone or takeaways. Most people would have the smartphone and the course fees the other way round, which is fine, too. Here’s an example of daft spending, though: when I moved house last year I chose a family-sized house with a garden, because it was nice and I could afford it. I never stopped to think about whether it was a good idea to spend money on the rooms, garden and indeed garage I’d barely use. If I’d engaged my brain properly, I could have lived somewhere much cheaper and either worked less or saved more.
Material things – a big house, designer clothes – don’t in themselves lead to happiness. The Ancient Greeks had that one licked 2000-plus years ago. What’s the point of having nice things but being constantly stressed, out of shape and tired, and not having time to enjoy the nice things anyway? Why not try to cut out the expenses that don’t actually improve your life, so that you can work less and enjoy life more?