Spending money outsourcing chores you could easily do yourself can feel like a lazy indulgence, but a new study from researchers at University of British Columbia and Harvard Business School suggests that couch potatoes might be on to something — at least compared to other spenders.
Specifically, dropping money on time-saving activities — like having someone clean your house, deliver you food or groceries, mow your lawn or run other errands — seems more likely to increase your happiness than buying material purchases like clothes, booze, games, books or even personal care items. Few people seem to appreciate this advantage, however: When the researchers asked a sample of 98 working adults what they’d do with a $40 windfall, only 2% said they’d use it to save time versus buying a product or service.
That’s unfortunate, since the study results suggest spending money on saving time might be the best choice of all; doing so was most correlated with higher life satisfaction and decreased stress across different incomes.
“This isn’t confirmatory, but we do see that time-saving purchases actually benefit ... the lowest income people the most,” said Harvard Business School professor Ashley Whillans, the study’s lead author, “potentially because they’re most pressed for time and money.”
The authors reached their conclusions after a series of seven studies, which included survey responses from some 6,000 people in the United States, Canada, Denmark, and the Netherlands about their spending, stress levels, and life satisfaction. In one experiment, researchers randomly assigned 60 adults to spend $40 on a time-saving activity one weekend and $40 on a material purchase the next weekend. Subjects reported greater levels of happiness after buying the time-saver — regardless of which order they made their purchases — suggesting that spending money on saving time increased happiness more than buying material things.
The findings in this new paper build on those of previous studies that suggest money used to decrease stress can get you a better happiness “bang for your buck” than money used in other ways. In one widely-reported 2010 study from researchers at Princeton, the authors found having more money increases daily happiness, but only up to a certain annual income: $75,000. Beyond that, more money seemed to have a more negligible effect on day-to-day emotions — possibly because that earnings level is enough to preempt many stresses and struggles that lower income people grapple with.
So how can you use these insights to make smarter purchases in your life? Here are a few ideas.
How to increase the happiness bang for your buck
Before you use this new information as an excuse to stop taking care of yourself entirely: There are a few caveats. The authors also found early evidence that this outsourcing may come with diminishing returns.
“We do see that people who spend basically no money on time-saving services and people who spend a ton of money on time-saving services expose the lowest feelings of well-being,” Whillans said. “We think it’s that if you look at your behavior and think ‘Wow, my life is so out of control I can’t do basic things like laundry,’ then you’re not getting that sense of control.”
In other words, just because you can afford to outsource everything doesn’t mean you should; and some activities that utilize creativity — like cooking — relieve stress and promote happiness in their own right, and shouldn’t always be delegated out.
Unfortunately, Whillans said, more research is needed before we can know the “golden ticket amount” of money to spend on saving time, but she did have a few ideas about buying happiness the right way. For one, her research thus far suggests that buying experiences and buying time are independent pathways to happiness, meaning that they could be used to complement one another.
“The experiment provides some evidence to suggest spending as little as $40 on a time-saving activity on the weekend while you’re out with your family is a good way to increase the happiness you get out of that weekend,” she said.
So, instead of spending your date night budget on dinner and a movie — consider skipping the movie for a free activity and coming home to a perfectly clean home instead. Another idea? If you’re spending money on time-savers, be sure to include these items in your household budget, so you have a more realistic sense of your priorities and their costs. That’s uncommon even among wealthier groups that outsource tasks regularly: In one of their studies, the authors asked more than 800 millionaires if they budgeted money for time-saving tasks, and found that only half of them did.
Now, none of this is to say you should blow your next paycheck on Seamless and Uber rides — just because you don’t like cooking or public transportation. But it does make a stronger case for using discretionary income — think, cash you’re not spending on rent, bills or retirement savings — more purposefully.
Maybe it’s time to cut back on your wardrobe budget and use the savings to outsource your least favorite chore: laundry. Or perhaps you should cut back on your video game spending, so you can hire someone to clean your living room — giving you more time and energy to play games on your couch.
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