Time vs. money: the saver's dillema

Some cost-saving activities just aren't worth the time investment, Hamm writes. The ideal situation is to find the frugal practices you enjoy completing. 

Andy Nelson/The Christian Science Monitor/File
Cans are delivered to the Kamikatsu, Japan Zero Waste center for recycling in this October 2008 file photo. Returning aluminum cans for a refund may not be worth the time and effort you put into it, Hamm writes.

When I was in middle school, I spent a lot of my free time collecting aluminum cans. I would store them up and then eventually sell them to earn some pocket money.

We lived in Illinois at the time, which didn’t have a refund system, so one’s method of earning a return on the cans was to sell them as scrap aluminum by the pound. The local buyer paid a nickel more per pound if you crushed them, too, so I would go out in the garage with a manual can crusher and listen to a baseball game on the radio while crushing hundreds of cans.

I would earn $0.40 to $0.60 per pound of aluminum that I had to sell. I usually had an arrangement with my father that I would reimburse him $5 for transporting a pickup truck load of cans (which was another motivation to crush the cans before selling them, so I could get more cans into a truckload). So, about twice a year, I’d take those cans to the scrap aluminum buyer who would pay me about $200 or so for the cans I delivered.

Not bad for a twelve year old, but not particularly good, either. I would estimate my hourly rate for collecting and crushing the cans to be far below minimum wage.

Today, we still save aluminum cans, but we now live in Iowa, where there’s a nickel refund system in effect.

For those unfamiliar with how a nickel refund system works, you essentially pay an extra nickel each time you buy a beverage in a can or bottle. Then, when the beverage has been consumed, you can return the empty can or bottle to get your nickel back.

Most of the time, we collect our cans in a basket and give them to charities. There are several charities in our town that collect empty bottles and cans for their causes.

Recently, however, our oldest son came to the realization that you could actually earn five cents for every can you returned. If you return twenty, that’s a whole dollar. He was intrigued.

I told him that if he wanted to start managing the cans, he could return them himself for the money. I told him that he would have to bag them all up and, from here on out, he’d be responsible for moving empty cans from the sink into the bin or his bags.

He was really excited at first. He dove into the project, doing all kinds of things with the cans and bottles. We had some guests, so he collected several soda bottles from them.

One afternoon when he got home from school, he wanted me to help him figure out how much his collection of cans and bottles was worth. We sat down and counted them all out. There were 88 cans and bottles.

He was imagining untold wealth. When I told him that the entire collection was worth $4.40, he became a lot more solemn.

He’s still involved with the project, but he’s a lot less enthusiastic than he once was. 

The lesson that my son learned is one that I still struggle with, though. There are many tasks that simply aren’t worth the time investment purely in terms of the savings that I earn from doing those things.

Sure, there are some things that are well worth it, like caulking a window where there’s air leaking through it (I’ll save a lot of money for just a few minutes of work) or airing up the tires on my car before a long road trip (I’ll save $5 or so for about three minutes of work).

On the other hand, other things aren’t really worth it for the time investment. Cleaning out freezer Ziploc bags for reuse, for instance, earns me far less than minimum wage for the time spent doing it. Hand-washing dishes? Not worth it.

(There’s a third group, filled with things that I enjoy doing that also save me money. Going to the library for reading and entertainment materials? Check. Mixing up homemade cleaners in my kitchen? Check. Prepping meals in advance so they can be frozen? Check.)

Frugality is a wonderful thing. Taking on tasks at home that save you money can really make the difference when it comes to rapidly paying off debts or simply making ends meet.

Just make sure that the time you’re putting into the project really pays off. Figure out how much you’re actually saving for each hour of work you put into the project. If you’re not earning much from something that takes a long time, make sure that you’re getting additional enjoyment out of it. If not, there’s probably something more effective you can be doing with your time.

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