Yes, Money Can Buy Happiness — If What You're Buying Is Time

In an age of time scarcity, a new study finds that when we spend money on housekeepers, grocery delivery and other time-saving services, we have greater life satisfaction. sebra/Shutterstock

I remember the first time I hired someone to clean my house. I was about to pop with my second baby and could barely bend over, never mind scrub floors and toilets. I had never hired a house cleaner before, and the thought of doing so made me feel guilty.

I'm not rich. Wasn't such a service a luxury reserved for wealthy people with huge houses? Wouldn't people perceive me as snooty?

Turns out I had it all wrong. I posted about my search on Facebook and was surprised to hear that many of my acquaintances use housekeepers. Through word of mouth, I found a fellow local mom who cleaned houses while her kids were in school, and her rates were reasonable. As one of my relatives put it, hiring someone nearby to perform this service put money back into the local economy and freed me up to do more mom-related things.

In other words, I was spending money on a time-saving service. Fast forward two years, and the now once-a-month house-cleaning I pay for is one of the best gifts I have ever given myself.

Spending money, earning satisfaction

Spending money this way makes me happy, but it's not just me, according to a new study published in the journal PNAS that finds money actually can buy happiness, as long as what you're buying is time saved. Think housekeepers, landscapers, taxis and grocery delivery services. As the authors wrote:

Individuals who spend money on time-saving services report greater life satisfaction. A field experiment provides causal evidence that working adults report greater happiness after spending money on a time-saving purchase than on a material purchase. Together, these results suggest that using money to buy time can protect people from the detrimental effects of time pressure on life satisfaction.

Their findings held true across a range of factors. A "diverse sample" of 6,000 people from across the income spectrum in four countries benefited from buying time, the study authors report. But the researchers say many people don't think to spend money in this way. Only 28 percent of the people surveyed spent money to save time, and those who did spent about $148 per month.

Researchers gave participants $40 on two consecutive weekends. On one weekend, participants were randomly assigned to spend it on something that would save them time. On the other weekend, they were assigned to spend it on a material item. They found participants reported greater well-being after making the time-saving purchase.

Stress and time scarcity

Busy woman waving for a taxi
When we're short on time, we're more stressed, so when we spend money to save time (like flagging a taxi rather than taking the subway), we feel happier, according to a new study. oneinchpunch/Shutterstock

“People are notoriously bad at making decisions that will make them happier,” Ashley Whillans, a social psychologist and the study’s lead author, told The Washington Post. “We always think we’re going to have more time tomorrow than we do right now,” she said, so we often don't want to trade money, which is concrete and measurable, for time, which is more intangible.

Time scarcity is a relatively recent issue that has grown as incomes have risen around the world. With it comes another issue: stress.

"Research shows that people in rich nations are more stressed than people in poor ones, which at first does not seem to make sense. But part of the stress is this time pressure — too much to do and one cannot get everything done," happiness researcher Edward Diener at the University of Illinois told the New York Times. "So buying time through purchases makes a lot of sense."