How Much Does It Cost In Life Energy?

A few years ago I went through sort of a financial awakening.  I hit bottom one day when my check card was declined for a $5 fast food purchase and I had no cash and no available credit to pay for the meal.  It was the culmination of years of overspending, lack of savings and general apathy towards finances.

That fateful day, and the days that followed, I had a mindset shift in how I thought about money.  I give a lot of the credit to the book, Your Money or Your Life, which I still keep around and read today.  In fact, the book was recently updated with revised statistics and new testimonials.  The key takeaway from the book for me was the concept of life energy, and how much of it we are willing to exchange for material items.

What is Life Energy?

Life energy might literally be defined as the remaining amount of life (days, hours, minutes, seconds) that we have remaining on Earth.  It’s a morbid idea to try to predict the day of our own demise, but sticking to general life expectancies we can assume I have another 40-50 years.  Much of that time will be spent working to earn money, so in essence I am exchanging a large portion of that remaining energy for money.  To carry this idea out further, I then exchange the money (that I exchanged life energy to acquire) to purchase things.

Intellectually, I guess I’ve always known this is the way life works, but it wasn’t until that rock-bottom moment that I recognized the new CD in my car’s player (purchased a day or two before) cost me an hour of life energy.  At the time I was earning around $20.00 an hour.  Back out the costs of my commute, my clothing, meals out, etc, etc. and I was actually earning about $15 an hour at the time – the cost of the CD. So I gave up an hour of my life for something that I probably listened to a few times and then added to the collection of dusty CDs gathering at home.

How Much Is Your Time Worth?

Of course, there are many things for which I will gladly exchange my life energy.  I’ve grown quite spoiled by heating and air conditioning, for one, and obviously there are other basic needs that must be met such as food, shelter, clothing, etc.  But the idea of converting the cost of something to the “life energy cost” has really made me a more frugal shopper.

Consider the cost of a new car.  These days new car prices are averaging around $20,000.  Assuming your real wage was $15 per hour, it would take 1,333 working hours to pay for this vehicle (not including taxes, financing costs, etc.). That’s nearly 166 working days to cover the costs of the new vehicle.

Since most of us only work five days a week, it would take over 33 weeks of solid work to pay for your new vehicle.  That doesn’t sound like much?  Think about all that has happened at your job over the last 33 weeks.  Now imagine that 100% of the money earned for all those meetings, late nights, phone calls, early mornings and moments of sheer mind-numbing boredom experienced over the last eight months was sitting in your driveway.  Seems like a pretty significant exchange now, doesn’t it?

I’m not advocating that you go around converting everything you buy to hours of life energy (well, maybe I am).  However, if you really want a sobering look at your spending patterns take some time to calculate your “real hourly wage;” not what your pay stub says you earn, but the amount you actually earn after the expense of going to work is subtracted.  Now keep that number in the back of your head the next time you go shopping.  A new purse might now cost 2 hours of life energy.  $100 for a night out on the town might have seemed cheap last week, but this week it looks like half a day of work.

Going forward, the things you spend money on now say something about how you value your time.  If you frivilously spend on things that don’t add value to your life, then you probably don’t place much value on your remaining life energy.  If you take time to research major expenditures, seeking value and quality from your purchase, then welcome to the frugal club.


  1. I think life energy might be my new favorite phrase. I can’t believe three and a half decades have passed me by and I’ve never heard it (and thus never been able to use it) before. Thanks.

    Life energy = Awesome.

  2. There are some situations that could be worth your life energy. I always think of an oil change, even though I’m not an auto mechanic, I know of people who change their own oil. By the time everything is setup, it could be well over an hour before it’s complete.

    Unless they seek solitude when they do it, I’m more than happy to spend the $20 to get an oil change.

    Good article!

    Stupidly Yours,


  3. It’s a great way to look at life and the *things* we buy. Even when looking at buying a new train for my son, each one costs me 1.5 – 2 hours of work – for 1 little toy! At the same time, we spend approximately $600 month on groceries and household products, that’s 6 days of work for me. I make sure I buy the best value for my money and enjoy the food we are blessed to have. I try hard not to waste.
    Now that I have more expenses such as mortgage, car & childcare, I’m so much less likely to buy that new CD or DVD. I have well over 100 CDs that I haven’t listened to in year. I’d like to sell them, but will I even be able to now?

  4. When I first read the book Your Money or Your Life, it was this concept that did the most to change my attitude about money. It’s not that I don’t ever make a purchase that might be frivolous, but I make those purchases consciously and far less often. This post is a great reminder of that way of thinking.

  5. This is an invaluable concept when it comes to our stuff owning us..our time, energy, money. If we’re going to have a meaningful life we must look at what we’re paying for and if it lines up with our values. Is the purchase of a new car “worth the price?” in time, energy…or would you be happier with a 3 year old car and the ability to put some of that higher new car payment toward a family vacation or a retirement fund? I too have read this book and it can motivate you to think of your money in a totally different light.
    Great Post!

  6. Breaking it down that way does ignore the intangible benefits to either “buying that thing” or “doing that menial work”. I could pay someone $50 a month to maintain my yard which would be a better use of my time as I take 4-8 hours per month to do it. But the feeling of being out there with the tools and the yard on a nice day is quite relaxing. The exercise, the sun, and the feeling of accomplishment are all intangible benefits that must be factored in. I also wash my own car by hand because that lets me determine of level of wax, if there are any new dings or scratches, etc. The same goes for those who change their own oil — it allows for you to get more familiar with the machine that takes you everywhere you want to go. Though it is easy to break it down to a simple calculation, it does ignore the intangible benefits of that purchase which could help to sway it in one direction or another. That’s one reason I’m driving a nice convertible even though it’ll take me 27.4 weeks of work to pay it off. For me, it is definitely worth it.

    Oh and on the music thing, just buy an iPod (used ones or old models are inexpensive and work just fine) and get an iTunes subscription. At 89 or 99 cents per track, it’s much cheaper than buying a whole cd (most of which turns out to be junk you don’t listen to anyway) and allows you to listen to your music anytime and anywhere. I use iPod all the time — the gym, yard work, washing the car, doing housework, etc. I would suggest buying a nice pair of headphones, like Shure or similar. It makes a HUGE difference in the way you listen to music.

  7. Great article, and I love YMOYL. Thinking about life energy gives you freedom to stop wasting yours, and it also gives you freedom to spend on what you really want like DavidK was saying above. If taking a vacation is important enough to trade your life energy for, then do it! But if it’s not, you can find another way to get similar enjoyment for less money.

  8. It works the other way too. I have a part time job that pays $40 “a shift.” These shifts can range from 4-6 hours. Sometimes, though rarely, more. That works out to $10 an hour at best. There are times when I am there that I think my time would be better served doing other things, and yet, it is at a place I love, the work is fun (and it is expected that I can read a book or whatever during at least half of the shift), I am working with great people and the work is extraordinarily flexible. That means that I am expending a lot of life energy for a small return, but I also get the return of the enjoyment of the work itself.

  9. This notion has worked for me for a number of years. And as I am no longer willing to work over 32 hours a week, I do limit my purchases by remembering, on my limited hours, how much of my life I am giving up for that item!

    My time is way more precious!

  10. What an excellent post. A very smart concept (and reality) that can really help one stop and think before purchasing an item.

    The desire for positive life energy and a sense of freedom from being overwhelmed by expenses all correlate well with your life energy concept.

  11. YMOYL is a great book. It makes me want to make more money per hour. Much, much more.

    I used to want to be financially dependent as soon as I could, but then I realized that work makes free time and vacation much better, and I don’t think I’d be happy if I never had to work. I imagine I’d find some sort of work to do on a daily basis even if I were completely financially independent.

  12. It is good to put things back into perspective for people. Time really is money, and a lot of the time the trade off isn’t worth the minor Financial returns.

  13. I’m so glad you wrote about this. I also enjoy the same book – well written and so thought provoking. What I have been having a hard time with lately is helping my children understand this concept of life energy. I know it takes time to learn something new, and 10 – 13 years of being able to ask and be provided with many things they ‘need’ will take a while to undo.

  14. Great article! Another great tool to help us resist the urge of those frivolous purchases and to remain frugal. Just asking myself if the new DVD or gizmo is worth the hour of work it takes to earn it helps put things in perspective.

  15. There is a Yorkshire saying ‘a penny saved is a penny earned’, it is absolutely true.

    About five years ago we started to live frugally, having no debt we started ‘clean’ as it were. That was when I started caring for my mother and slowed down my work to almost nil over the time – I was self-employed. Two years later when we had time to put our heads above the parapet, we had saved about a third of our income. We could hardly believe it, but there the money was.

    Spending a few pounds here and a few pounds there adds up to a whole lot of money.

    Debt is slavery, but the inability to stop spending comes near.

  16. Sorry, I forgot to say that my husband started to work out how long he had to work to pay for things about five years ago when we started to be frugal – it was often quite an eye opener.

    His favourite is how long he would have to work to bridge the gap between a new car and a two year old car, which is what we buy.

    It really sharpens the mind to know how long has to be done to buy something ‘fancied’ rather than needed!

  17. I make this kind of calculation in my head fairly frequently.
    Once I put things in perspective of how many hours of my job it will take to pay them off, the decision for me is to frequently not spend my money.

  18. Kristy – if you have 460 @ $15 each, and $15 equals one hour’s take home pay – then you have 460 hours tied up in the collection. At 40 hr/wk, thats 11.5 weeks of work, or over 2.5 months. If it’s important to you, then that still may be fine.

  19. YMOYL is a great book and I like the life energy idea. Regarding the car oil change, you have to look at your net pay/real hourly earnings. (Of course the explanation in the book is more detailed. ) Gross hourly pay- social security and taxes and expenses of working. So the $20 oil change costs you surprisingly more life energy than you would guess from your gross pay. OTOH, if you hate doing it and don’t mind paying more you should go ahead!