How I (try to) Align My Time and Money With My Highest Priorities
I’m ruthless about how I use my time and money. They’re both limited resources and how I deploy them dictates the type of life I lead. That doesn’t mean I never waste money and time. In fact, it was two recent failures–a $78.59 shopping spree at the co-op grocery store and a dirty upstairs bathroom–that prompted today’s reflection.
My Priorities = How I Use My Time and Money
When I analyze how I spend my money (easy to do thanks to tracking my spending with Personal Capital) and how I spend my time (harder to do, but possible through a time audit), my priorities are laid bare.
For example, saying that exercise is a priority for me right now is demonstrably false since I put no money and very little time into it. Conversely, saying that my relationship with my husband is a priority is borne out by the money we spend on date nights and the time we take to eat dinner together every night.
I want to say that exercise is a priority for me, because it’s an aspirational priority, but it’s obvious I’ll need to throw some resources behind it to make it reality. It’s easy to rattle off a list of stuff we *think* we do or that we’d *like* to be doing, but much harder to come clean with how we actually use our time and money.
Your Priorities Are Different Than My Priorities (and that’s ok)
What I care about isn’t better or worse than what you care about. What I do is not best and I’m not saying that you should do what I do. I’m using myself as an example because I’m the only example I have. Everyone’s priorities are different and today is not an analysis of the moral rectitude of one’s priorities. Instead, it’s an analysis of whether or not we’re using our time and money in pursuit of our highest priorities.
Things I Don’t Do
In order to be ruthless with my time and money, there’s a lot of stuff I don’t do and don’t buy. I probably save the most time and money by consciously NOT doing stuff and NOT buying stuff. It’s similar to my argument that you can’t buy your way to environmentalism. There comes a point–in efficiency, in frugality, in minimalism–where you just have to stop doing things in order to achieve your ends.
Here’s a list of stuff I don’t do:
1) Houseplants. I do not do them. A friend recently pointed out it’s unusual I don’t have houseplants. I hadn’t really thought about it, but her comment got me thinking about my priorities. I don’t give a rat’s tail about house plants and, in my opinion, they suck up time, money, and space. And so? I don’t have them. We have ample plant-related material outside our home and I feel no need to invite the flora indoors.
2) Rugs. Same vein as house plants. It takes me forever to vacuum on top and underneath rugs (not to mention the hassles of cleaning crayon/marker/milk out of them). Plus, my kids (and let’s be honest, myself) trip over rugs. Also, they cost money. Often a lot of money. We have hardwood floors, I like hardwood floors, so I don’t do rugs. The result? It’s cheaper to be rug-less and faster for me to clean our floors.
3) Daily hair and makeup. I’m all about MVP (minimum viable presentability). I shower every day, I put on clean clothes… that’s it. I don’t bother with makeup or hair-fixing because, on a daily basis, I don’t care enough to put resources behind those activities.
4) Take our kids to restaurants. Not into it. My kids are not old enough to appreciate fine dining experiences and, the few times we’ve taken them out, it has not been fun. Plus it’s expensive. Also messy. When they’re older, we’ll take them out. Until then, it’s not a priority for our family.
5) Cook dinner every night. Not happening. Homemade, healthy food is a priority for us, but variety is not. Mr. Frugalwoods (our cook) decided he’d rather spend time playing with the kids in the evenings instead of cooking a different meal every night. So, he cooks a huge batch of dinner once a week, we eat it all week, and we freeze the leftovers. In this example, since we’re not willing to compromise on homemade and healthy, we compromise on variety, which gives us back our time. More about this strategy here: The Dirty Secret Behind How We Cook At Home.
6) Pack kid lunches every morning. Mornings are always chaos so I prep Kidwoods’ lunches and snacks in bulk ahead of time. Kidwoods goes to preschool four days a week and I prepare two days worth of lunches at a time (once on Sunday evening and once on Tuesday evening). I use these amazing containers*, which are super slim, store flat in the fridge, and don’t take up much space. By packing two lunches & snacks at a time, I streamline the process and spend less time overall because I only have to get the bread out once, I only have to slice the carrots once, etc.
*although this an affiliate link to Amazon, we got ours at Walmart for about half the price.
7) Iron. I don’t iron anything. I’m not sure we even own an iron. Are our clothes sometimes wrinkly? You betcha. Do I care? Not in the slightest. This is one of those things I eliminated from our lives because for me, the return (no wrinkles) was not worth the investment of my time.
It All Adds Up
I want to point out that none of these things is seismic on its own. Rather, it’s the accumulation of things I don’t do that makes the difference in my schedule.
This list isn’t exhaustive, but it’s illustrative of how I weigh the return on my investment of time. It’s very much the death by one thousand paper cuts analogy and the “but it’s only $5” financial argument.
Adding $5 or $20 to your monthly budget isn’t going to make a difference, but adding six $20 items each month might. It’s unlikely that one single thing will make the difference–it’s the holistic picture of where your money and your time go.
Additionally, a lot of the things on this list save me both time and money. For me, that’s the golden ticket. The overarching goal here isn’t exactly frugality, but rather, simplicity. I’m looking to pare down the tasks I do in a week in order to give myself more time, and consequently more money, to pursue what matters most to me.
Things I Do
Here’s what I do order to facilitate my streamlined schedule:
1) Adhere to a household division of labor.
Mr. Frugalwoods and I are each responsible for different chores, which saves us time and frustration. We don’t have arguments over who will cook or who is responsible for putting the baby to bed or when the laundry will get done–all of those tasks are enshrined in our division of labor.
We don’t feel the need to police each other or check-in on the timeline of a project–we just do our respective list of duties according to our…
2) Weekly schedule of chores.
To the extent possible, we operate on a weekly schedule such that chores get done on the same day every week. This reduces friction, creates opportunities for streamlining, and ensures that stuff gets done. For example, Mr. FW (our grocery shopper), goes to the grocery store on the same day at the same time exactly once every week. This makes it super easy to know when to make our list and meal plan.
Our schedule also removes my tendency to obsess about undone chores. If there’s a pile of laundry and I don’t know when I’ll get to it, I spend an inordinate amount of mental energy worrying about it (How much laundry is in there? Will it mold? WHY do my kids go through so much clothing???).
Since I do laundry on the same day every week, I find I have no problem ignoring the laundry hampers. It’s not jumbling my daily thoughts because I have a designated appointment time during which I’ll attend to it–there’s no reason for me to give it any energy before that pre-determined time.
I know this about myself because I don’t have a schedule for cleaning the upstairs bathrooms. Consequently, I find myself thinking about those bathrooms in the middle of the night. Dirty sinks are a ridiculous thing to think about in the middle of the night, but I can’t help it! I need to put these bathrooms on a schedule so I can get them out of my brain. The downstairs bathroom is on a weekly cleaning schedule and I never think about it… clearly I need to take my own advice here. I’d say I spend more time stressing about stuff that’s not scheduled than I spend actually doing the task. Once it’s scheduled? My brain is free to move onto other pursuits.
3) Plan ahead.
The undercurrent here is planning ahead. Sometimes we’re good at this, other times we’re not. Mr. FW and I are most effective when we can run on autopilot and do our laundry and grocery shopping and cleaning at the same time every week. Our downfalls are unexpected events that throw our routine off course. It’s hard for us to accommodate changes in the schedule and that’s when we miss or forget stuff. We have a shared Google calendar and we’re trying to be better about sitting down together at the beginning of each week to review any anomalies in the schedule.
4) Be specific.
We find that ultra-specificity is helpful in our division of labor and schedule. I don’t vaguely wonder when Mr. FW will take over Kidwoods’ bedtime routine; I know exactly when he’ll take over: he gets her out of the bathtub and handles everything from there on out.
This might be overly specific or annoying for some families and I’m not suggesting it’s a panacea. For us, since we’re both efficiency and routine-oriented nerds, this level of detail makes us a dream team. Know what works for you and build a system around it.
5) Schedule in leisure time.
We relax every day. I’m not productive at all times. The key, for me, was to schedule our leisure time. Every night at 7:30pm, my husband and I eat dinner and watch a TV show together (at this point, the kids are both in bed, the house is clean, and everything is prepped for the next day). This is sacred time and we don’t deviate from this schedule except when one of us has an evening board meeting or we’re hanging out with friends.
It’s not an optional part of our day–it’s a necessary chance to decompress and be together. I consider our 7:30pm dinner and TV time just as important as every other scheduled aspect of our days. For me, knowing that our routines allow for this daily leisure encourages me to follow our schedule all the more. Because if we don’t get the kids to pick up their toys before bed and if we don’t clean the kitchen and if we don’t finish our work in time, we don’t get to start TV and dinner on time at 7:30pm. Also, there is wine involved. That’s all the motivation I need to keep everyone clipping along on track.
I derive a lot of comfort in looking forward to this quiet, cozy time every evening. When both kids are screaming and the house is a disaster and I have a headache, I can take a few deep breaths and promise myself the end-of-day reward of TV, dinner, wine, and snuggles on the couch. Not gonna lie–some days I wake up counting down the hours to 7:30pm.
6) Look for ways to make boring, necessary tasks more enjoyable.
While I can eliminate a lot of unimportant stuff from my daily life, there’s still a bunch of boring stuff I have to do in order to be a responsible adult. Over this past year, I’ve been trying to tweak my approach to these rote tasks to make them–if not enjoyable–tenable. Since Mr. FW and I both work from home, we’re fortunate not to have daily commutes. But, since we live rurally, a trip to somewhere such as the doctor’s office entails a 45 minute drive each way. Thankfully, we don’t have to do that every day, but we do have to do it sometimes.
I used to LOATHE the prospect of time spent in the car. I’d dread those long trips and try to avoid them. But I noticed Mr. FW didn’t mind the drives he needed to take and I asked him what was up. His response? He views time spent driving as a peaceful, quiet chance to meditate, be in solitude, and also… listen to amazing podcasts!
In light of this, we bought this bluetooth thing-y to allow us to sync our phones with the car speaker in order to listen to podcasts in the car (affiliate link).
I’ve been binging Hidden Brain on NPR (also Mob Queens, The Dream, Throughline on NPR, Motherhood Sessions… ) and now I look forward to driving because I can’t wait to hear the next episode. Mr. FW also pointed out that driving in the countryside is relaxing because: there’s no traffic, the scenery is gorgeous, and there’s no stoplights or stop signs–you just sail down the rural highway. I’m shocked that I was able to transform how I feel about driving just by changing my mindset and enshrining a new hobby–podcast listening! In other news, PLEASE give me your podcast recommendations!!
How Does This Save Money?
All of these approaches save money because they mean we’re rarely scrambling for last minute solutions. Hint: last minute solutions are almost always the most expensive. Since we know when dinner will be cooked (and shopped for and meal planned for), we’re not scrambling to order take-out. Since we know when the kid lunches & snacks will be prepped, we’re not buying expensive convenience foods to toss into her lunchbox on the way out the door. Since we have daily leisure time, we’re not splurging on massive nights out to try and make up for a constant dearth of downtime and togetherness.
Let’s be clear: sometimes we most definitely scramble and have not planned ahead, but these expensive scrambles are the exception, not the rule.
A great example: my failure the other week to bake something ahead of time for my book club potluck. Since I happened to be in town with Littlewoods at a doctor’s appointment that morning, I figured I’d pop into the local co-op to buy a few things to take to book club. Well.
$78.59 later I realized what had happened: I’d deviated from the routine (once a week grocery shopping), I’d failed to plan ahead (had I baked brownies the day before, I would’ve avoided this), and I went shopping hungry, with a toddler, and without a list (I had to buy snacks for both of us… also a bottle of wine for me because it looked good and some really lovely cheese and then also a loaf of artisanal focaccia bread and garlic-stuffed olives… you guys, it was a total disaster).
Doing a $78.59 shopping spree once in a while isn’t a big deal, but doing it every week or every month would start to have a major impact on my budget and my use of time (we were in there for like an hour because I couldn’t stop reading cheese labels and then realized I could order a sandwich with one of the cheeses on it… ). Moral of the story: don’t beat yourself up for the odd failure-to-plan-spree, but if it’s a weekly (or monthly) occurrence, think about how to enshrine better systems in your routine. Not having a snack prepared for my book club does not constitute an emergency–it constitutes a failure to plan.
What If You Hate Schedules and Routines?
For people who recoil at this level of planning ahead, I like to ask–not sarcastically, but honestly–“how is that working for you?” If your response is that things always seems to work out and that you like spontaneity, then don’t change a thing! But if your response is that you’re frustrated because the kids always go to bed late and you never know what’s for dinner and the house is constantly a mess, then it might be time to think about enshrining a more ironclad schedule and division of household labor.
Further, if you establish a routine and find it doesn’t work for you, change it! This is hard for me because I am wont to wear grooves into a set system of doing things. It’s not easy for me to incorporate new things, but I find that the more willing I am to experiment with my routine–and my system of managing my life–the better off I am. Why keep doing things that don’t work for you?
Experiment to Find What Works for You
In all of the above examples of stuff I don’t do, I’ve experimented with doing them. There was a time when we had house plants. And rugs. We’ve taken our kids to restaurants before. I used to do full hair and make-up (not to mention nails) every morning. I was once a person who ironed clothes. Mr. FW used to cook a new and inventive meal every single night. What we realized is that none of that worked for us or was important enough for us to continue doing.
Tinker around with your routine. Experimenting helps me identify my priorities. There are plenty of other things I’ve tried eliminating, or cutting back on, and found that they’re meaningful to my routine and that I want to continue doing them.
Let’s take my daily shower as an example. In pursuit of saving more time, I eliminated my morning shower a few days per week. The result? Horrid. I really hate not showering. Taking a morning shower is crucial to me, so I do it and I don’t regret the time I spend. But fixing my hair? I realized I didn’t care about that aspect of the routine.
I think it’s easier to apply this heuristic when you’re thinking about doing something new. More difficult, but probably more rewarding, is applying it to the things you already do. As we age, we keep adding habits and tasks. Any one thing probably isn’t a big deal, but if we don’t step back and prune on occasion, we’ll end up continually adding to our plates in ways that might not add value to our lives.
Quiz To Take!
If you want to examine how you spend your time (and money), here’s a list of questions I find useful:
- What can I eliminate entirely?
- In my above examples, I eliminated rugs and houseplants entirely.
- What can I batch for efficiency?
- In our case, cooking dinner once a week creates massive efficiencies.
What can I do selectively?
- I wear make-up selectively. If I’m going to an event I want to get fancy for, I get fancy. But since this takes time, money, and energy, I don’t do it every day.
- Experiment with what I’m willing to give up:
- I am unwilling to sacrifice my daily shower. I tried showering every other day and was unhappy. That’s a clear signal to me that I want to spend the time (and the resource of water) to shower every morning.
- What am I doing because everyone else does it or because I think I’m “supposed” to do it?
- Ironing. You guys, I used to iron our clothes because I thought I was supposed to. But it returned no value to me and so I stopped doing it.
- How can I improve–or create added value in–rote, necessary parts of my schedule?
- I used to hate driving. Now, I look forward to it because I started listening to podcasts. I was able to transform my approach to this necessary task by changing my mindset and adding a fun activity.
Not everything can be a priority for your time or your money. Identify your priorities, spend time and money on them, and let go of everything else.
What are your priorities? How do you bring your money and time into alignment with them?
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