Students who prioritize money miss out in 1 major way after graduation

Chasing a big salary could come with a high price. 

Photo by Hunters Race on Unsplash

In May, millions of college grads who were lucky enough to have job offers faced a choice: Do you take a higher paying job even if it comes with long working hours, or a lower paying job that might even come with a healthy work-life balance? It may be too late for those recent grads to change their minds now, but a team of psychologists can offer advice to the class of 2020: One of these paths has stronger ties to long-term happiness than the other.

Ashley V. Whillans, Ph.D., is a behavioral scientists at Harvard Business School who studies how time and money shape happiness. Time may not be the first thing on the mind of a recent grad weighing their job options, but new research by Whillans and colleagues in Science Advances shows that time and money often come at the expense of one another.

Put simply, if you would rather work fewer hours and have less money, you might value time more than money. If you would rather work longer hours, like nights or weekends, and have more money, you may value money over free time. Whillans’ team’s research published on Wednesday shows that recent graduates who value time over money actually end up happier in the long run. She argues that this is the case for one major reason: That time-valuing attitude puts them on a trajectory toward making more rewarding decisions — including career choices.

“This study allows us to provide the first test of the question of how the values we hold about time and money (or how we generally prioritize time and money) have the potential to shape the happiness we derive from our entire lives,” she tells Inverse.

A year after graduation, college students who value time more than money reported higher subjective well being. 


Whillans’ study is based on the experiences of 1,000 recent graduates from the University of British Columbia. First, she asked the students to decide whether they valued time or money when they were still students, and then followed up with them a year later after a major life transition: graduation. When her students were college seniors she found that 61.7 percent of students valued time more than money, and 38.3 valued money more than time before graduation.

The students didn’t change their priorities that much after a year in the real world. A year after graduation, 14 percent of students who used to value money more than time in college decided time was more important. Thirteen percent of students who valued time more than money had rearranged their priorities to prioritize money. Ultimately, her analysis suggests that most people who prioritize time will continue to prioritize time, and people who prioritize money will still prioritize money a year later.

But those two attitudes were important because they affected students’ motivations when it came to making major life decisions like choosing a job.

Students who value time over money chose careers and activities that were intrinsically rewarding — meaning that people chose jobs based on whether they would derive gratification from their work. By comparison, she notes that people who value money often choose careers that are extrinsically rewarding, offering prestige and a high paycheck.

That difference is part of the reason that Whillans suspects students who value their time end up happier in the long run.

"When we are focused on our first job, we are often wrapped up in thinking about how much money we are going to make."

There are lots of reasons that some people value money over time, some of which are a matter of circumstances. It’s easier to focus on time at the expense of money if you don’t have to worry about repaying student loans and feel financially stable. But even when she controlled for socioeconomic status, she still found that people who valued time over money reported higher levels of happiness.

Students who value money tend to pursue extrinsically rewarding activities, whereas those who value time pursue intrinsically rewarding activities. 

Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

At the end of the day, Whillans’ team’s results suggest that finding a way to value time over money is probably a more stable way to chase happiness. It doesn’t mean your job has to feel like your life’s purpose. But it does suggest that it’s worth valuing your time as much as you value a paycheck, and considering how much of that time you have to sacrifice to take a certain position.

“When we are focused on our first job, we are often wrapped up in thinking about how much money we are going to make, with little recognition of how this job might fundamentally shape the way that we spend our time,” says Whillans.

“I hope my research asks people to think not only about how their job choices affect their pocketbook, but also how these choices affect their free time and the happiness they derive from each and every day.” 

The dream would be to get paid a ton to do something you find intrinsically rewarding. But for recent grads who may be forced to make the choice between the two, her results provide good reason to not be too swayed by a paycheck.

Abstract: How does prioritizing time or money shape major life decisions and subsequent well-being? In a preregistered longitudinal study of approximately 1000 graduating university students, respondents who valued time over money chose more intrinsically rewarding activities and were happier 1 year after graduation. These results remained significant controlling for baseline happiness and potential confounds, such as materialism and socio- economic status, and when using alternative model specifications. These findings extend previous research by showing that the tendency to value time over money is predictive not only of daily consumer choices but also of major life decisions. In addition, this research uncovers a previously unidentified mechanism—the pursuit of intrinsically motivated activities—that underlies the previously observed association between valuing time and happiness. This work sheds new light on whether, when, and how valuing time shapes happiness.
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