A favourite saying of our age is time is money, which we often interpret as T = M or perhaps the more sophisticated T ⇔ M. Few of us, however, seem to employ it in the context Benjamin Franklin intended:

Remember that TIME is Money. He that can earn Ten Shillings a Day by his Labour, and goes abroad, or sits idle one half of that Day, tho' he spends but Sixpence during his Diversion or Idleness, ought not to reckon That the only Expence; he has really spent or rather thrown away Five Shillings besides.

Franklin's statement is pretty clear — he's telling us not to be lazy. When we abstain from labour, we deny ourselves an opportunity to earn money while we spend our existing assets, or ¬L(T) ⇒ ¬M. I feel it important to underscore the extremely narrow context in which the statement holds. The context is frequent, mind you, but still narrow. It's leaky. I will explain below, but first I wish to examine the other interpretations.

Time is Equal to Money

When we say T = M, we are saying that time is the same thing as money. This is a mistake. Ask anyone with a silver pony tail and a red sports car.

I'm serious, though. The economic climate of the 21st century, despite a hiccup toward the end of its first decade, might as well be a completely different planet from 1748, when the original letter, which is worth a read in its entirety, was written. The likely tragedy is not that we end up destitute, but that we find ourselves with a modest amount of money and not a lot of time.

Time is Equivalent to Money

If we pronounce the statement T ⇔ M, not only do we risk falling prey to the trap I mentioned above, we are also susceptible to something much more sinister. To say this is also to say ¬T ⇔ ¬M, or that all money is dependent on an investment of time, and I contend that is not always true.

While the statement holds for an hourly wage and other linear-growth business models, it still leaves us with the task of investing our surplus. Furthermore, it does not hold for modern salaried knowledge work, where it is all too easy to find ourselves bolstering someone else's profits for free.

My point here is that we can obtain wildly varying payouts for the same investment of time. T can imply M or M′, but the difference between the two does not necessarily imply T. If we make the wrong decision we may not be able to recoup; we certainly can't use our money to buy back time.

Industry and Frugality

The reason for my pedantry is that we tend to repeat statements of this kind without giving them much thought, and likewise use them, deliberately or otherwise, to extinguish thought in others. Moreover, while I don't have the cognitive science chops at this time to back it up, it seems as if we're wired to assume statements like this are symmetrical. That is, it takes extra information to say that T ⇒ M but not necessarily M ⇒ T.

That said, Franklin's advice is sound, if not tautological. For the vast majority of us, productivity is more lucrative than leisure, and it is reasonable only to expect returns with a concomitant investment. I just think that in the 21st century, it is extremely easy to work honestly and diligently and still achieve disappointing results. We need to be smarter than that.

I contend that in many cases, time is in fact better than money. A carefully-considered decision can be worth manifold returns compared to the effort it takes get the requisite information and compute it. Indeed, much of the work we do reduces exactly to making informed decisions about what to do with our resources. It is far removed from the work the young tradesman, to whom Franklin addressed his letter, would undertake.

We tend to forget that we stand at the helm of vast resources, many of which are abstract. The decisions we make can have far-reaching, unpredictable effects. The relationship between input and outcome is far from linear. We are no longer labourers nor engineers, but pilots, steering into uncharted waters with terrifying inertia. We would do well to act the part.

Upon further reflection, the statement can be interpreted another way: that time is a form of abstract money or T ∈ M. Time can be used, at least in the context of labour, as a medium of trade and means of settling debts. However, it lacks some of the properties of money, such as the ability to be transferred and banked. While I doubt that Franklin intended such an oblique interpretation, it may perhaps deserve closer inspection.