March 13, 2014

A Different Kind of “Spending Habit”

Every now and then I think about how my spending habits have changed over the years. When I was a teenager I earned cash one way or another, to buy record albums, to attend games or dances, and after much saving, to buy a car. During my college years, money was tighter than ever but the restricted budget didn’t bother me much because I was studying nearly all of my non-class hours. Academics had top priority for me. Most of my friends were involved in school too, so we were pretty much in the same boat. Entertainment was “on the cheap” in those days, maybe getting together with friends to cook a meal, shoot hoops, or go for a hike. Certainly the next phase of life created a change in financial outlook; both my wife and I were working at jobs that paid more than we’d made before college, and a mortgage became an inevitable part of our world. With that mortgage, a couple of car payments, and a few pieces of furniture, our spending habits changed.

I’ve come to see that my finances are actually a way of thinking about what I value. Thinking about how I spend money gives me a pretty clear idea of who I am; what’s important to me; what I want to experience, to give to others, and the kinds of community organizations I choose to support. ┬áMy identity is reflected also in other spending habits, and that’s why I’m suggesting that you think about how you spend this “other personal capital”.

TIME: I’ve written before about how you might want to spend it. When I think of the allocation of time, it reminds me of the household budget. We put our money into the things we value most highly–we spend the greatest share on the mortgage, or rent, if we’re typical–and the things that get cut out when money is tight generally comes down to things that mean less. If we are fortunate, it comes down to things we can live just fine without.

Now, if we use that same “budget principle” to think about how we spend time, we might be surprised. Don’t consider just what is important to you, or what you love spending time on, but be honest about where your time goes. If you’re like most of us, work takes up a whole lot of your waking hours. This is like the mortgage in a way. It lays a foundation for the other things that are important to you. In the same way the mortgage eats up a considerable chunk of the money, work probably takes a prominent and essential place in your allocation of hours. To be fair, a lot of us love what we do, and that is terrific! We gain a lot of satisfaction and inspiration or creative enjoyment from the work that pays the bills. Not everyone feels that way, of course, but when work hours are gratifying, we are fortunate indeed.

So, if work is a foundation for your time, what’s next in your “budget” of hours? Do you hold relationships in high value? Is your romantic partner a priority? What about children, other family members, friends? Are you at all passionate about learning or creating something? And importantly, if these people and activities are priorities to you, is this where you are putting your TIME?

It is sometimes tough to look at this “chronological ledger” because, too often, our most essential relationships slip to the bottom of the list of time priorities, as if they were luxury items or inconsequential extras dropping off our wish lists when cash was tight.

Here’s the bottom line on this, in my view: work is vital, it’s important, and it pays the bills so other good things can happen for me and for my family. I love my work, and I think I’m even pretty good at what I do. But the day will come when I retire from this work: who, and what, will be left then? I want to spend my time so that my retirement will be rich, full and satisfying, too. And believe it or not, I want that well-rounded life, even while I continue working.

Drs. John and Julie Gottman have studied marriage for the past several decades, and they’ve published widely on the skills necessary to make lasting, satisfying family relationships. I’ve written a lot about the Gottman approach to marriage, and their metaphor of the “sound marital house”. Inherent in all that the Gottmans have to say is the idea of spending your time on the relationships that matter. Not a two-week vacation together every year (though that sounds wonderful, too) but rather a consistent, moment-to-moment, day-in-and-day-out engagement through time. The Gottmans urge us to think in terms of the moments when all else is tuned out, shut down, set aside–when the focus can be on what is important with your spouse, your child, a friend.

We spend time at work. We spend time “at home,” but is it time spent intentionally? Does it increase the closeness or the intimacy of the relationship that is your priority? Budget time for these relationships. Spend your time in them as intentionally as you spend money. This seems most critical in cultures (like our own) where work, career, and individual personal development have all superseded “other people” in our expenditure of time. The facts contrast with what we know to be true: other┬ápeople are the most important source of well being. This historical shift away from the emphasis on family and social time priorities led to Artie Hochshield’s assessment of our culture in the aptly titled book, The Time Bind: When work becomes home, and home becomes work.

It need not be the case for you, however. As your (time) spending habits change, other changes will follow. If your time with family members is sedentary and passive–like watching TV together–try something more engaging like playing a game. if your time together is always at home, try getting out for a walk, a picnic or a drive in the country. The main idea is to give your time over to engagement in the relationship. Shared activities that are new to you are another terrific way to give fresh emphasis to your priority relationships. If nobody in the family has ever gone bowling, spending an afternoon at the lanes will open up all kinds of conversation and fun, despite the gutterballs and potential stares from others at your unorthodox form.

Here’s another suggestion for an expenditure of time that can pay long-term dividends: allow your partner, child or a friend to teach you something. That’s right. You have a son who plays guitar–let him teach you to play a G chord. Your daughter sews clothes for herself or her doll collection. She may offer you lessons in sewing on a button, in trade for half an hour of your time. I know you don’t want to become a guitarist, or a professional tailor, but you DO want those relationships to flourish. Take a few lessons in the kitchen, or the laundry room, from the family member who has expertise in these areas and you’ll build your relationship. Even better, use the skills they teach you on a regular basis. This is time well spent on relationships you listed as a priority.

As seasons of life change, we experience having more or less money to spend on things, and time, too, has a budgetary cycle of its own. Think about the people and activities you consider a “top priority”. Aligning your time expenditures with the priority level of the people in your life will offer more satisfaction than owning more stuff, or watching more sitcoms or reality TV.

Posted in: General, Social Life @ 2:50 pm