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Making time-saving purchases increases happiness in consumers

Buying ourselves out of unpleasant or time-wasting experiences may be worth it

Photo (c) Ivelin Radkov - Fotolia
We’ve all heard the saying that money can’t buy you happiness, but a new study from the University of British Columbia and Harvard Business School suggests that might not actually be the case.

After surveying over 6,000 people from the U.S., Canada, Denmark, and the Netherlands, the researchers found that consumers were happier when they used their money to buy themselves extra personal time. While some people may balk at the idea of hiring a person to do their laundry, mow their grass, or take care of other chores and errands, lead author Ashley Whilans says that the reduced stress leads to greater happiness.

“People who hire a housecleaner or pay the kid next door to mow the lawn might feel like they’re being lazy,” she said. “But our results suggest that buying time has similar benefits for happiness as having more money.”

Greater life satisfaction

To further their findings, the researchers performed a field test that randomly asked some participants to spend $40 on a time saving purchase and $40 on a material purchase on consecutive weekends. Responses indicated that participants felt happier after spending money on the time saving purchase rather than the material purchase.

When asked to elaborate, respondents indicated that making purchases that saved time tended to increase life satisfaction, regardless of how much income they had to work with. The finding surprised researchers, who initially thought that only those with more disposable income would benefit from time saving purchases.

“The benefits of buying time aren’t just for wealthy people,” said senior author Elizabeth Dunn. “We thought the effects might only hold up for people with quite a bit of disposable income, but to our surprise, we found the same effects across the income spectrum.”

Buying out of unpleasant experiences

While the study indicates that spending money to save time is beneficial, the researchers point out that consumers rarely make these kinds of purchases on their own. An additional survey of 98 working adults found that only 2% would use an unexpected $40 windfall on a purchase that saved them time.

“Although buying time can serve as a buffer against the time pressures of daily life, few people are doing it even when they can afford it,” said Dunn. “Lots of research has shown that people benefit from buying their way into pleasant experiences, but our research suggests people should also consider buying their way out of unpleasant experiences.”

The full study has been published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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