Trading time for money

Last week, I was complaining to my Spanish tutor (who, by the way, thinks I always complain). “Ideally, I’d be writing less,” I told her. “I want to have more time to learn Spanish and to focus on other passions. But I just got an offer to write a couple more articles per week. And I would get paid for the work!”

My tutor shook her head. “Por la plata baila el mono,” she told me: The monkey dances for money. She didn’t have to explain what she meant. It was obvious. Money makes us do things we wouldn’t do otherwise; it turns us into puppets.

Although my tutor had a point, it’s not as simple as that. Yes, we sometimes do things we don’t want to do in order to earn money. But sometimes doing these things allows us to get money so that we can pursue our passions later.

“I write a monthly column for a magazine,” I said (in Spanish, of course). “The amount I earn from that column each month is exactly the same as what I pay you each month. Every month, I tell myself that I’m writing the column so that I can learn Spanish. That keeps me motivated to do it.”

Personal Currencies

This conversation reminded me of personal currencies, which I first mentioned four years ago. At the time, I wrote:

Money is an abstract concept. It really represents time and labor, and those are hard to visualize. By finding something concrete to use as a measure of value instead, it’s easier to visualize how much something is really worth to you.

For example, my wife sometimes measures things in lattés. If she sees something in a store, she’ll stop and consider: “That vase is three lattés” or “Those shoes are ten lattés” or “That book is two lattés”. By looking at things in this way, she’s able to figure out how much they’re actually worth.

Our friend Marla measures things in Saturns. She loves her car (a Saturn, naturally), and so whenever somebody mentions something expensive, she’s able to compute its value to her. A fancy plasma TV might be one-fifth of a Saturn, for example. A house might be ten or twenty Saturns.

Last night at dinner, I mentioned this notion to our friends Mike and Rhonda. “Oh, we used to do that all the time,” Rhonda said. “When we were first married, we lived near a sushi place. We loved their rainbow rolls, but they were kind of expensive. Whenever we got paid, we’d convert the dollars to rainbow rolls.”

Obviously these sort of personal currencies aren’t sophisticated financial tools. They are, however, quick and easy ways for each of us to measure the relative value of the things we buy.

This notion of personal currencies — and my mental equation in which writing a magazine column pays for Spanish lessons — is another way to look at life energy, which many of you will know from the classic Your Money or Your Life.

Trading Time for Money

In Your Money or Your Life, the central point that Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin try to convey to readers is this: Money is something we choose to trade our time for. (Except that the authors don’t call it “time”, they call it “life energy”.) They write:

Our life energy is our allotment of time here on earth, the hours of precious life available to us. When we go to our jobs we are trading our life energy for money. This truth, while simple, is profound.


Our life energy is more real in our actual experience than money. You could even say money equals our life energy. So, while money has no intrinsic value, our life energy does — at least to us. It’s tangible, and it’s finite. Life energy is all we have. It is precious because it is limited and irretrievable and because our choices about how we use it express the meaning and purpose of our time here on earth.


Ultimately you are the one who determines what money is worth to you. It is your life energy. You “pay” for money with your time. You choose how to spend it.

In a very real way, time is money. For most of us to be happy, we have to find a balance between trading our time for money. And, at times, trading money for time. We need both. Over the past few months, I’ve found that balance. I’ve achieved it. I’ve been reluctant to mess with it, yet now I’m tempted.

Or am I?

Finding Enough

Over the past week, as I’ve debated whether I should take on the additional workload to earn more money, I actually turned to my own book for advice. In Your Money: The Missing Manual, I briefly explore the concept of Enough (something that’s also covered in Your Money or Your Life). In my book, I write:

Knowing that you have Enough can be better than having billions of dollars. If you’re obscenely rich but aren’t happy, what good is your money? […] If you don’t know why you’re earning and spending money, then you can’t say when you have Enough. So take time to really think about what Enough means to you. […] If you don’t have an end in sight, you’re at greater risk of getting stuck in the rat race.

Or, to use the words of my Spanish tutor, you’re at greater risk of being a monkey that dances for money.

And so I have to ask myself why? Why do I want to take on this extra work? It’s not for the money, so what is it? Do I really think I’m going to improve my life by writing two extra columns per week? Where will I even find the time to do that? And what is it that I really want to be doing?

I don’t know the answers to all of these questions just yet, but I do know the answers to some. And, in fact, those answers may hint at the direction my life could take in the future. For now, one thing is sure: This monkey has decided he won’t be dancing for money — at least not this time.

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