Time and Money: Separated at Birth?

An intriguing theme keeps popping up in finance discussions: the relationship between time and money. The best-known line of thinking is the one that Ben Franklin popularized, that time is money. This is the Protestant ethic in three words. Then there is the transactional view that says that time can be traded for money. Let’s call it the Catholic ethic. There is a third view, which I’ll call the Zen ethic. The first two lead to misery. The third, I speculate, does not.


The first two views differ in how they treat leisure. Ben Franklin was an opportunity-cost focused buzz-kill. Ben’s ghost seems to admonish you: yes, you are having fun, but remember, you COULD be earning $10 an hour cranking widgets. So you’d better be improving your mental health enough that your earnings increase by at least $10 in the future. Adding modern math does not change things much. The cost-of-leisure equation just acquires the trappings of net-present-value analysis. You want to sleep eight hours today? Make sure the marginal discounted future cash flow due to increased productivity is greater than $64.

The Catholic ethic (or what William Whyte called “social ethic”) naturally leads to viewing leisure as time-profit rather than money-cost. No-strings-attached discretionary time. You trade as little of your time as you can to meet your basic needs, and the rest is surplus. If you want more stuff to enhance your leisure, a pool toy for your swimming say, you have to trade more time. This has the effect of creating a firewall between two preference economies. On the supply side, you prefer the work that offers the biggest cash returns per minute. On the demand side, you end up deciding whether, for instance, an hour splashing in the pool without a pool toy is better than a half-hour in the pool with one, and whether either is better than an hour watching TV. You could be running at a loss. If your job requires more caloric output than you are able to replace with food you can afford with your earnings, you will slowly starve to death. Many of the world’s poorest people are forced into this loss-making economic equation. And of course, to finish up the logic, you can buy your time leisure with money debt. That of course, is the moral of the ant and grasshopper fable: spend leisure you haven’t earned, and fake remorse and hope the ants bail you out.The analogy to priestly absolution for sins at confession is nearly exact.  Of course, there is the gray area of cash-profitable “my work is my hobby” time which you can double-book in both ledgers, but that does not conceptually add anything to the philosophy. If you have a lot of that going on, good for you.

The Catholic ethic does not oppressively mess with your experience of leisure the way the Protestant ethic does. The agenda in Protestant-ethic time management is to maximize lifetime wealth accumulation (few modern Protestant-ethic-ers actually get or operate by the underlying theology of predestination). The agenda in the Catholic-ethic money management is to maximize immediate time profit. Capitalists operate by the former and end up time-poor/cash-rich. Worker bees operate by the latter and end up cash-poor/time-rich. Both get into debt: capitalists for leverage, worker-bees to front-load leisure in youth.  Both ultimately lead to misery.

Here is the third angle that I think is interesting, and has the potential to combine the wealth-creating tendencies of the Protestant ethic and the hedonistic pleasures of the Catholic ethic, without leading to misery. The third view says that  time and money are near-perfect Yin-Yang opposites. Hence the name ‘Zen ethic.’ The underlying thing is not either/or/neither/both. It is one of those paradox thingies. Some evidence:

Money is the most liquid thing imaginable, more liquid than water even. Time is the most illiquid thing imaginable.You cannot save it, move it, transfer it or trade it for anything else (you can sell the output of your time, not your experience of it).  About the only thing you can do is modify your psychological experience of it: drugs and adrenaline can make time pass more slowly, age and long memories can make it pass faster. In certain cultures, you can sort of pool it and experience it in a collective way, but still, it is illiquid. No matter how fast, slow or collective you make the experience, you still cannot experience one time instead of another or something other than time in place of time. Yet, somehow, time can dance with money.

Time is the most deeply foundational thing imaginable. Even if you are blind and deaf, and suspended in a sensory-deprivation chamber so your sense of space and proprioception is messed up, you will still experience time. I think. Money, by contrast, is the most completely artificial thing ever invented. It is arbitrariness manifest, and it will become instantly meaningless if you are put on a desert island. Yet, somehow, time can dance with money.

I have no idea what to do with these thoughts. I didn’t say I had answers, just an interesting third angle.  Maybe a theory of work can be built on top of it.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. “In certain cultures, you can sort of pool it and experience it in a collective way, but still, it is illiquid.

    An interesting and provocative point, but I’m not sure if I agree. There’s definitely something here, yes … something about time-space compression under globalisation, liquid modernity, and the psychology of flow.

    Still, it’ll be interesting to see the effect of increasing lifespans on the whole time-money nexus. Assuming they do, y’know, increase.

  2. “and suspended in a sensory-deprivation chamber so your sense of space and proprioception is messed up, you will still experience time.”

    Spitz et. al. say no.

  3. Glenn: Interesting. Do you have the reference? I can only think of sleep as a true “no time” experience.

    Justin: That was actually meant to be a hedge statement rather than provocative. Cultural anthropologists who study time (eg. Robert Levine, “The Geography of Time” and Jay Griffiths, “A Sideways Look at Time”) make the case for time as a shared experience in some sense. I get it culturally (i.e. a party, rave or Amazonian native ritual involving some psychogenic drug), but I can’t personally understand how time could be psychologically experienced collectively in true “we” time. So I hedge. Maybe there IS such a thing as a collective consciousness that I have simply not experienced.

  4. Thanks for clearly spelling out the differences between the Protestant and Catholic work-ethics. I continued to oscillate between the two views of time and money. After reading this the third time through, I finally got it. You’re going somewhere with the third angle, but it’s not coming to me either.

    Perhaps, one could argue that entrepreneurs these days are operating on a Protestant work-ethic (as capitalists) in order to become time-free and leisure-heavy later in life.

  5. It seems like we define leisure as being what we do when we are not turning time into work and work into money and/or food. What if we forget about capital for a while and think of time as an opportunity to invest ourselves into something which is meaningful to us and to others? Then, is there really a division between ant and grasshoper? I leisure all that improductive? and work always so constructive?

    Wouldn’t it be best to think of time as activity and activity as fruit?

  6. Spitz, R., “Hospitalism: Genesis of Psychiatric Conditions in Early Chilhood”, Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 1: 53-74, 1945.

  7. The notion and terminology (ahead of all the dichotomy of work and leisure) of this ethic question seems to be formed by division of labour to me. Now for a while we been having this really fluid medium to store the material results of labour in a near completely abstract way and for a shorter time, since productivity allows for it the diffusion of the aristocratic concept of leisure to everybody. And good sustainable leisure, we know from experience needs time.

    If you’d ask a nomad on the Qangtang leaving her tent to count the family’s yaks at a temperature of -48deg C. if she’d rather not swap her lifestyle with farmers that own a house and heating to go with, she’d say no. If you asked her why, she’d say because a farmer had to work.

    These people do not work. They lead a life. Such a thing is not possible under the conditions of advanced division of labour. Even if your jobs and projects have lots of fun in them, disciplined work they stay.

    What I would like to point at, is, that below the time money pattern lies the much older pattern of work as in work for and leisure as in being for and with yourself. The time thing is relatively new indeed as you pointed out in former posts.

    The distribution of giving, taking, serving, getting served, of wishing and satisfaction is dancing on and on.

    • In terms of jewish and christian background, one could say, separated at the exit of paradise. Regrettably I am not good enough in Buddhist mythology to know the analogon for that tradition.

      • Interesting point about the very idea of “work” needing to be constructed. My cat doesn’t “work” and neither do wild animals, so there is certainly something there and implications for time.

        As for other religions, the protestant/catholic/zen is just quick shorthand. In a more abstract sense, I suppose the distinction between ant vs. grasshopper style time values does exist in all traditions.


  8. Many aspects of the nature and impact of money are entertainingly covered in The Ascent of Money by Niall Ferguson. It’s a richly rewarding read. Another book–though I haven’t read it–that is likely to have a good analysis of the nature of money is Toffler’s Revolutionary Wealth. He also talked about the impact of money in the form of freely exchangeable currency in his earlier book, Powershift.

    I also wonder if the Hindu mythological references can trigger any useful perspectives to ponder upon. Money is associated with the Kubera (lord of wealth) or Lakshmi (goddess of wealth, much higher in the hierarchy than minor deva Kubera). Both have benign and positive images in all stories. OTOH, time is called Kaala, indicating Yamaraja, the god of death, a dreaded entity. But Yama is also called Dharmaraja, upholder of virtue or principle.

    Coming back to more earthly matters, the “time value of money” has adorned the initial chapter of any basic textbook on finance for decades. I thought the phrase “money value of time” is not usually heard but a Google phrase search returns 780,000 pages (against 515,000 for TVM!) and includes a link to this funny cartoon. I reckon this phrase has gained currency (unintended pun) in recent years with the growth in self-employed consultants, many of whom spend their time to make money by telling others how to make money by…

    • The comic is quite hilarious. I hate those returnables rooms too. Have always wondered why the floors are so sticky.

      I read Niall Ferguson’s book recently (first half was really good, 2nd half not so much) and also saw his special on PBS. Another good one is Bernstein’s “Against the Gods.” Might do a joint review soon.

      Mythology and time/money… certainly something there (in the Western tradition too, as with Yama, there is an identification of Father Time with the Grim Reaper, so it seems a natural connection to make.

  9. Re: “yes, you are having fun, but remember, you COULD be earning $10 an hour cranking widgets. So you’d better be improving your mental health enough that your earnings increase by at least $10 in the future.”

    ** No. Not at all. **

    This is a really flawed understanding of basic economics.

    The trade off is “I could have an additional $10” versus “I could participate in this leisure activity.”

    It’s no different from going to a department store with $40 to spend and choosing “I could have this $40 shirt” or “I could have these $40 shoes.”

    You don’t buy $40 of shoes so that you can later buy at least $40 in shirts.

    Neither do you need to participate in leisure time or sleep for the sole purpose of earning more money in the future.

  10. Maybe I’m exuberant in a recent life change, but I think the answer is clear.

    Money is a metaphor — as you said, it’s a fabrication that’s meaningful only in the company of others who share the delusion, but on a desert island it’s just kindling. Money is a metaphor for value and we hope that the transfer of money corresponds or at least correlates to the transfer of value, as it often does.

    So, we have this ubiquitous concept that feels like a law of nature because we’re soaked in it — as infants, educated adults, everywhere we see the effects of money. When our worldview is so thoroughly infected by a concept like money, it becomes almost impossible not to apply it to things to which it isn’t fundamentally applicable.

    Of course it’s possible, in the sense of a “dirty hack,” to apply money to time as if time is an economic asset, but maybe that’s just not true. Take our lives for example. Only a group can make an assessment of the economic value of a given life; for the person, that value is always infinity dollars.

    But wait, you say, people choose other things over life all the time! Their country, their friends, their family, etc. They even choose to end their lives early in order to preserve their wealth for living relatives.

    Yes! Exactly!

    Clearly there are “assets” that can meaningfully compared to a human life (like love and other lives), since people regularly trade their lives for these things. Money, I think, is fundamentally not one of those.

    Thought experiment:
    I’m a rich guy. I’ll give you access to an account that has $1,000,000,000 in it. You may not transfer the money, but you may spend it freely, only on yourself. In exchange for this access, I get to kill you right now. What do you say?

    So, I’m asserting that maybe–like money and lives– the value of time can’t rightly be compared to the value of money, despite how often we do it and how natural it feels, because the scale is too different. Maybe we should work toward a system that identifies things like lives and time, and divorces those things from money entirely.

    As individuals the answer is to separate our time from income by building valuable, cash flow positive assets. That’s the “Zen Ethic”: the only way to live in a world with money that doesn’t lead to misery, is to build streams of passive income.

  11. Regarding the sensory-deprivation chamber: There is some new data in on biological clocks we have built into various regions of our bodies. A crucial one is situated within the brain and “counts” with dopamin, if I remember correctly. Can’t remember the source right now, though.

    Regarding the conceptualization of time, I think your angle could still benefit from including some Lakoff/Johnson (that I know you know): Might be that time is illiquid from a physics angle (which is not strictly true post-Einstein), but we still treat it like it was a thing that is conceptually very close to money. Imho it doesn’t really matter whether we CAN safe up time as long as we can genuinely feel like it and plan and evaluate our actions accordingly. Time is pretty much non-perceptual, so it doesn’t matter all that much what it REALLY is…