Another angle on time vs. money

By Mir
January 11, 2012

Over the next few weeks I hope to 1) get back into the groove of working normally (before the holidays = working crazy and post-holidays has = not working enough) and 2) get to the backlog of advice requests y’all have sent my way.

Let’s start with the following from lovely reader Caty:

Could you possibly, sometime after the holidays maybe, share with us how you weigh the time you save shopping online versus (maybe/sort of) saving a few bucks in store? For example, according to the Target flier this week, there’s a particular toy I want to give my 3 year-old that is $10 cheaper than the Amazon price. It’s sold out on and while our Target had the toy last week, there’s no guarantee it will be there when I get a chance to stop by/after I call to see they have it and the last one sells before I get there. To me, it’s totally worth spending the 10 extra bucks on Amazon considering a) Free Prime (thank you very much!) b) the time I would spend actually going to the store and c) I am physically and mentally incapable of spending less than $100 in the bricks and mortar Target store. Spending $10 extra is not exactly frugal money-wise. But it’s frugal time-wise. Which is better when you’re already crazy and have neither much time nor money? WWMD?

I think you’re especially pretty today.

I’m happy to share my thoughts on this, though I think Caty is so very pretty she actually already answered her own question. Let’s get to it.

[Sidebar: I think I would like to adopt “WWMD” as part of the Want Not theme if/when I do another redesign. Because it’s just irreverent enough to scare away the people who will later say things to me like, “That joke about cats being dog toys was NOT FUNNY!” Well of course it wasn’t, but… WWMD? Mir would make that joke anyway. Sorry.]

In the vein of WWMD (see, I love it already), you already know that 90% of the time I’m going to shop online. I personally find it infinitely more convenient, and most of the time I find it less expensive, too.

Let’s start with the obvious: Caty already pointed out that most of us can’t walk into Target and only walk out with whatever we went there to buy in the first place. I swear I walk into Target and a primitive section of my brain begins whispering, “Endcaps. Endcaps! Clearance! Go!!” It doesn’t matter why I went. I need to case every clearance endcap and sure, yes, I find some amazing bargains, but I also buy stuff I maybe wasn’t planning to buy.

Additionally: Gas is expensive. Gas is crazy expensive. Shop online, save gas. (Of course, that becomes somewhat moot if you’re paying shipping, but there are so many ways to shop online without a shipping charge, let’s assume it evens out.)

Those are the things you already know. The part a lot of people either forget or overlook is that your time is worth money. I, personally, work full time as a freelancer. This means that I only get paid when I produce work. (Some of you with salaried jobs can goof off at work a little—or take a long lunch and run to Target—and still get paid, but that’s not the case for those of us working for ourselves, sadly.) Or maybe you’re a stay-at-home parent and figure your time isn’t worth anything because you don’t work at an actual job; that’s not true, either, because you’d still rather have more time to spend with your kids and/or finish the laundry, right? Right. Anyway. For me, shopping at a store always takes longer, which means that it is by definition more expensive, because that’s time I can’t spend working or watching terrible TLC shows with my family.

The question then becomes: Is it ever cheaper to shop in-person than online? And the answer, of course, is yes. Sometimes it is.

It’s cheaper to shop in-person if you’re the sort of person who will be more careful with spending when you have to hand over actual cash rather than using a credit card.

It’s cheaper to shop in-person if you’re impatient with online shopping and will just grab “what you need” without comparison shopping. (Although, if that’s you, what are you doing here?)

And of course it’s cheaper to shop in-person if you have access to the kinds of shopping you simply cannot do online. For example—you can’t go thrifting at Amazon!

For me, it comes down to balancing cost and time investment. It takes me a really long time to go shopping at Goodwill—several hours, at least—and while I come home and crow about all the money I saved, it’s also the single longest investment, time-wise, I tend to make when shopping. If you have the time (I only go on a weekend when I’m not busy, and I usually take a kid or two with me for company), you can certainly save big. I enjoy it, too, which is crucial; it’s probably not worth it if you hate it. And it’s definitely not worth it if you’re short on time.

On the other hand, I have to go grocery shopping every darn week, and to my mind it’s a necessary evil, and part of how I get in and out of Publix in 30-40 minutes every week for not too much money is that I tend to buy a lot of shelf-stable items in bulk from Amazon. I know how/when to look for those deals, it takes me very little time, and I save a bundle. Then I’m free to hit the store, get the weekly basics, stock up on whatever’s on sale, and know that my family will be eating well that week.

In the first example, more time invested saves more money (even sort of factoring in the whole “time is money” thing), in the second example, combining online and in-store shopping saves time and money.

The last dimension to this issue is whether it ever makes sense to spend more money to save time (as in the case of Caty suggesting that spending $10 extra for something to avoid the store is essentially a savings, anyway). The answer there is a cautious yes. If you know you can’t get out of Target for under $100, and you have to spend the gas and time to get there and they may not even have the toy, and it’s something you have to have, then yes, spending a little extra online may be prudent. That said, it’s easy to fall into the “this is so easy and I don’t have to leave the house” trap of spending more on everything, and at a certain point that obviously becomes counterproductive. Even if you have free Prime at Amazon, you understand that most of those free shipping items are marked up to cover the shipping cost, right?

Bottom line, you still have to be a conscientious consumer and figure out what works for you. If you have more money than time, by all means spend more to save yourself time. If you have more time than money, pursue those savings that take a bigger time investment. And if you’re like most of us—short on both money and time—find the balance as best you can.


  1. WWMD — love it!!

  2. Also I’m lucky enough to live in a tax free Amazon state. So that $40 toy minus $10 PLUS $4 tax plus 3 kids in tow= not worth it.

  3. You make some great points. Energy can also be a consideration. With my health problems, I often don’t have the energy to check out the brick and mortar store and still be able to make dinner for my family. Chronic illness can be a real pain and I know many chronically ill people who kill themselves to save that $10 only to be on their backs for the next 2 days. Not worth it! It absolutely is about balance. Great post.

    WWMD will be my new mantra when shopping. I love it. I still think that cat as a dog toy is funny. But I’m sick that way.

  4. WWMD. LOVE IT. Love the advice, love the thought behind it. Gosh, you’re pretty, Mir.

  5. I agree that, if it’s something you really enjoy, it’s more worthwhile to invest the time. I go to the Farmer’s Market every Saturday to buy produce, ostensibly to get the freshest produce, but mainly because I just love walking around an open-air market (pretending I’m living in medieval Europe…what? I’m the only one who does that?) while listening to the musicians play, people watching, sampling the wares. It’s like a little food festival every week, and I love it. Also, since all the produce is really fresh and lovely, we eat more fruits and veggies. Win-win.

  6. I need to do WMD and buy more of the shelf stable things in bulk from Amazon rather than at the bricks and mortar stores. I don’t know why I’ve resisted. Well maybe it’s that I could buy toilet paper and things like that, but if I buy snacks in bulk for the kids, I’d just end up eating them myself.

    I’m very much in agreement on time is money – I’m paid by the hour, too. If I spend an hour to save $10, that is not a worthwhile use of my time – I’d be better off working.

  7. Totally love WWMD!

  8. Depends on where you live, too.

    Here in a rural area, prices are almost always lower than Amazon’s on grocery items, even when they’re on sale. I belong to a Facebook group that puts out lists of the best sales on grocery items in my area every week. I don’t have time to scour ads, but I can sure grab their list and plan my meals off of what’s on sale this week! (Stores that price match competing stores’ ads save me from running from store to store for the deals.)

  9. Hey, MIr,

    If you have a chance, would you post a list (bullet may be faster) of the items you buy in bulk from Amazon? Thanks to your keen eyes, I’ve picked up 2 cases of Annie’s crackers (and my son has eaten approximately half of two boxes) and the Cascade gel packs. I wonder what else I’m missing out on.



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