Real quick: If you were offered an extra $5,000 (or even $10,000) a year or a few free hours a week to do whatever you want, which would you choose? If you went with the former (and this wasn’t hypothetical), you might wind up regretting it. The reason being, research has consistently shown that time plays a more significant role in happiness than money — particularly for parents.
“My father always told me: ‘There’s always something else you can do if you just have more money,’” says Kevin Mimms, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Frisco, Texas. “He said this in a way that meant that if you had enough money to do that fun thing, you would become aware of something else you could do if you just had enough money for that. By contrast, time doesn’t spend the same way. There will never be more or less than 168 hours in a week.”
Put another way: Time is less fluid than money, so ultimately, it’s more valuable — especially when you feel “time-starved” due to work, kids’ activities and/or two-hour bedtime routines. (And what parent doesn’t?)
Want to feel a little happier as a parent? Focus on time. Read on to see why time is more valuable than money.
It’s time, not money, that increases happiness
In 2019, research published in the Harvard Business Review found that people who prioritize what study author Ashley Whillans calls “time affluence” — time to do the things they love — are happier and experience “more fulfilling social relationships, more satisfying careers and more joy.” Conversely, in 2020, research found that prioritizing money over time can actually undermine happiness.
Unfortunately for busy, burnt out parents, time is exactly what we’re lacking. A 2016 Pew Research survey found that 60% of working parents said they “always” feel rushed, and more than half feel they don’t have enough leisure time.
Why parents feel so time-starved
The term “time poverty” may be having a moment online and on social media, but the notion isn’t completely new. In 2006, researchers Andrew Harvey and Arun Mukhopadhyay published a paper titled “When Twenty-Four Hours is not Enough: Time Poverty of Working Parents.” Their research found that some groups, such as “single and dual parent Canadian families,” had more of a “time deficit” than others.
Since then, more research has emerged, and the time gap has seemingly gotten smaller. One 2018 study found that parents with kids younger than 15 have “14 hours less free time” per week than folks who live alone. Another found that modern parents spend twice the amount of time with their children than parents 50 years ago.
Additionally, as Mimms notes, over time, “children’s activities or their own work commitments often become more demanding.” (Think of the promotion you got or the fact that your daughter’s soccer team made it to the finals.) “These activities or work commitments can drive commitments for both parents, almost every weekend, for most of the year.”
It’s also worth noting, not surprisingly, that time poverty disproportionately affects women, low-income parents and single parents (particularly mothers).
How to get time back
Parenting and working will always present some form of stress, but there are steps parents can take to increase the amount of time they have each week (or at least how they feel about it). Here, experts and parents offer insight.
1. Consider your attitude on leisure
According to Mimms, it’s important for parents to realize the number of options — both physical and emotional — that are available when it comes to deciding how their time is spent.
“Sometimes bills are oppressive, and we may think raising our income is the only way to alter the imbalance,” he says. “With this mentality, using time to do anything other than make money can lead to feelings of guilt or anger.”
“So when we use the time to take a break or spend time away from the kids, it costs money and does not bring in more income — but it does take care of us,” he continues. “When we care for ourselves, we can think better, work better and parent better. Think about it like that.”
2. Reframe child care costs
Nobody enjoys paying for child care, but for most, particularly parents who work, it’s essential. Instead of fretting every time you Venmo the babysitter or hand the check over to day care, think about it this way: It’s a double investment in both your career and your child’s well-being.
“A great way to reframe the idea of child care being costly is by looking at it as an investment in your child’s development,” says Kristen Souza, a licensed mental health counselor in Palm Beach, Florida. “Ages 0 to 3 are pivotal for a child’s brain development and day care is a great way to support your child’s growth. This isn’t to say that day care is the only way; however, it’s a great way to reframe the idea that the cost of child care is stressful.”
And even if you don’t work, or aren’t working at the time, you can still get a babysitter as an investment in yourself. Taking an hour or so to do something you enjoy will leave you refreshed and better equipped to parent.
3. Savor the moment
Souza also notes that “forgetting to be mindful during ordinary times” can contribute to a feeling of time starvation and make you feel rushed. And this isn’t just a theory — research has shown that when you’re present in the moments, time, overall, feels slower and less frazzled.
As a 2011 interview with neuroscientist David Eagleman in the New Yorker put it: “The more detailed the memory, the longer the moment seems to last. This explains why … childhood summers seem to go on forever while old age slips by while we’re dozing.”
And being mindful stretches out the moments — for the better — when you’re with your children, too. “As a parent, you allow for more time in your lives with your children if you savor it,” says Laurie Hollman, a psychoanalyst and author of “Unlocking Parental Intelligence.” “To savor it means you face the reality of it not being limitless.”
4. Purchase time-saving products
This is a tricky one, as it’s a bit of a Catch 22 — in order to get the benefit of a time-saving product, you need money. However, a 2022 study found that “individuals who spent money on time-saving purchases [such as ordering out] reported higher levels of happiness … compared to those who did not.”
The study also noted that “time-saving purchases appear beneficial even for individuals who struggle to make ends meet,” adding that participants “living paycheck to paycheck reported higher levels of happiness when they made time-saving purchases.”
Mary Bonavita, a mom of two in Winfield, Illinois, notes that time-saving purchases in the form of ordering her kids’ lunches (as opposed to making them) are often a lifesaver for her. “Some nights we get home from practices at 7 p.m. and we still haven’t eaten dinner,” she says. “I love the idea of my kids bringing a home-cooked lunch to school everyday, but I just don’t have the time for that — so they buy and I don’t feel guilty.”
5. Hire a house cleaner
It’s an expense, yes, but most parents — including former skeptics — agree that hiring a house cleaner is a game changer that affords them time in the form of leisure, spending it with the kids or more time at work (which, in the moment, doesn’t give free time, but on the backend does when you come home to a clean bathroom).
“I never thought I’d spend the money on a house cleaner,” says mom of three Cathy McAfee of Cherry Hill, New Jersey. “But I did it four years ago and haven’t looked back. She comes once a month, and it’s so worth it.”
6. Start with your priorities
Whether you want to call them your core values or your priorities, start there and everything will then fall into place, according to Hollman. “Choices of how to spend your time as a parent depends on your priorities,” she says. “If these priorities can be clarified as children grow and need parents in different ways, then money for safety, security, good health and nourishment, can fit within those values. If somehow money takes priority without careful thought, it can infringe on the unpredictability of time allotted to each human life that cannot be insured.”
In other words: Be intentional with your family’s big picture planning every step of the way.
7. Divide the work
It shouldn’t come as a surprise to hear that more women than men are time-starved, which makes it all the more important to divide the work, especially if you’re a woman partnered with a man. Whether it comes to splitting the work of finding child care or figuring out ways to divide the mental load, taking things off your plate allows for more time. And that will benefit the whole family.