The time value of money: The cost of convenience

Woman drinking coffee from a to go cup
OCCU  -  02.06.2017

“Not all uses of time are equal, and this simple truth can make a big difference in life.”

Behavioral psychologist James Clear

We all make tradeoffs. We trade our time for money, and we trade our money for time. Living well is about making the right tradeoffs. This series will explore the value of time vs. money—and the choices we make about how we spend it.

Push a button, and paper towels arrive at your doorstep. Swipe your phone a few times, and you’ve got a hot meal on the table.

We live in a world powered by convenience. Our lives have become so busy that seven in 10 Americans feel they don’t have enough time to do everything they need to. As a result, half of us believe lack of time is a bigger problem than lack of money. We’re desperate to create some leisure time for ourselves—and some are willing to pay a pretty penny for it.

“Our love of convenience is so ingrained, its inherent goodness so self-evident that we can't imagine any other way,” says author Eric Weiner. Why would anyone choose the hard way when there is an easier alternative?

But what we often fail to recognize, he adds, is just how much convenience costs us.

Convenience can be a sneaky thing. It catches us when we’re running late, when we’re tired from a long day at work or when the kids need attention. That’s when the small, easily digestible costs seem worth it in the moment.

But as conveniences become ingrained in our daily habits, the costs start adding up quickly. For example:

Drive-thru coffee vs. brewing your own

Who hasn’t hit the snooze button a few too many times? When you’re running late in the morning, it seems much faster to swing by a drive-thru than to brew your own coffee. It’s only a couple of bucks—until you start doing it every day.

When you factor in all the costs, drinking homemade coffee can save you a dollar or more per 16-ounce cup. In 10 years, that would add up to $4,000. Investing your savings would net you an extra $1,000 during the first decade, plus another $200 a year in passive income for the rest of your life.

And that’s if you drink a high-end cup every day. Choose a value brand and you could save $2.50 or so per day. That’s not a bad hourly rate for the five minutes or so it takes to wash the pot and prepare a new filter for morning.

Lunch out vs. brown-bagging

It takes a lot of advance planning to prepare healthy lunches for work. We’re often too tired to do it in the evening and too rushed to do it in the morning. So when lunch rolls around, we head to the restaurant or grab something pre-made at the store.

This is another area where we often overpay for convenience. Buying lunch out costs an average of $8.80, whereas brown-bagging can run you as little as $2.45 per day, depending on your food choices.

So let’s say you save about $6 by taking your own lunch. That comes to $30 a week, $120 a month and almost $1,500 a year. You can maximize your savings per time spent by bringing leftovers or quick-to-prepare foods like sandwiches. 

Delivery vs. doing the legwork

It’s been a long day, and everyone’s tired and hungry. If you’re like most American families, by 4 p.m. you still don’t know what you’re having for dinner. In a pinch, there’s always delivery.

You can get just about anything brought to your door, from groceries to fast food to fresh, organic meals. The delivery charge is nominal—usually just a few bucks—so why not save yourself the trip?

But delivery fees can be deceptive, and there are often hidden costs. Many delivery services charge higher fees for smaller orders, for example. Even with a flat fee, you get the best value if you’re placing a large order, such as buying a month’s worth of groceries as opposed to a single meal.

Once you factor in a tip, the cost of delivery typically adds a premium of at least 30 percent on top of each transaction, according to The New York Times. Some delivery services even inflate prices on delivery orders, adding another 20 percent or more to the cost.

Pre-sliced veggies vs. slicing your own

Even when we cook at home, many of us look for shortcuts to help speed up meal preparation. Most U.S. consumers expect to spend a total of 30 minutes on dinner—and that includes cooking and eating as well as cleaning up.

Buying pre-cut produce is one way to shave time off your meals. It’s also one of the most costly conveniences, with a high price for the amount of time you save.

Folks at The Simple Dollar did the math and found that for every hour you spend chopping up your own lettuce, you can save up to $58. An hour of cutting celery sticks nets you $52 in savings. And an hour of slicing apples (using an apple slicer) saves a whopping $80.

These are just a few examples of how conveniences take a toll on our finances. That doesn’t mean we should give them all up, however. By understanding the true cost of convenience, we can make smarter choices about how we spend our time—and our money.