I grew up mowing my parent’s large yard. Now I hate all forms of yard work. And yet, almost all single family homes come with large yards. Let’s explore the cost of this and some other norms. Societal expectation we can opt out of to recover large amounts of time and money.
Each of us loses time and money to the assumptions and norms of society. These assumptions are insidious, creeping in to our expectations based on our culture. If we choose to go counter to cultural norms, we can recover enormous amounts of free time, possibly for nearly free.
In this article, which is longer than my usual essay, we’ll go through three examples — having a lawn, buying diamonds, and watching video. That said, if none of these is your personal example of losing time and money to cultural norms, you can apply the pattern to other similar societal expectations.
Allow me to start with the obsessions with lawns. I will use data from the United States, but from what I have seen there are plenty of lawns in other parts of the world. I once watched a man in Uganda cutting a lawn using a machete with a bent tip. Each swing cut one to two inches of grass.
This article in the Washington Post calls lawns a “soul-crushing timesuck” and I could not agree more. But what is more scary about this article is the sheer scale. There are 40 million acres of lawn grass in the lower 48 states, accounting for 1.9% of the land in the country and making grass the largest irrigated “crop” in the nation. I’ll leave aside the environmental impact of using so much treated water (9 billion gallons a day) to raise a non-food crop and just focus on the time these lawns consume.
While speeds vary, a reasonable average to mow an acre of grass is one hour. This does not include time trimming, weeding, watering, fertilizing, or otherwise caring for lawns. Mowing a lawn about once a week is a reasonable average period, so conveniently we can approximate 40 million acres as 40 million hours, or 1 million “full time” work weeks per year.
Think about this. During the summer months, we spend the equivalent of 0.6% of the US workforce (currently 164 million people) just on mowing lawns.
But let’s personalize this to your share. If you live in an area with big suburban lawns, that might be 3 or 4 hours a week. Add in the effort to weed, fertilize and care for the lawn, plus the hours of your life that go to pay for the lawn mower and all the equipment and gas, and this is a real tax on your life. Specifically, about $130 per acre per week, or in excess of $6,000 per year.
So then we must ask, do you enjoy your lawn?
Some people do. They find mowing, weeding, and then simply looking at their acres of green grass relaxing. If you are such a person, great. Owning a large suburban property and mowing the lawn is your version of meditation or bowling or some other hobby.
It is a fact of life that houses in America currently come with lawns. It is the rare exception to have a wooded lot with little grass, or some other form of ground cover. Thus, overall societal expectation means if you want a suburban house in America, yard work comes with the equation unless you go out of your way to avoid it.
Do you find yourself mowing either a literal or metaphorical lawn that you do not want and do not enjoy? How did you get there? How could you stop?
Now let’s talk diamonds. In this case, we are spending our money on something that a single family, the De Beers diamond mining dynasty, has had fabulous success turning into a shared expectation of value. De Beers are the people who created the “two months of salary” guideline for engagement rings and slogans like “A Diamond is Forever.” So not only have they created a sense of value in their product itself, the diamonds, but they have also managed to create a benchmark where if you spend less than two months of salary on their product, you must not love your partner. Giving credit where credit is due, these people are marketing geniuses!
If you truly love the look of diamond jewelry, perhaps some of this expense is justified, although given the visual quality of cheaper diamond substitutes (even many professionals cannot reliably differentiate lab diamonds from natural diamonds with the naked eye) the price tag of your love of “real” diamonds may be debatable.
Ask yourself, how much you may have been taken in by diamond marketing and the widespread acceptance of high “quality” real diamonds as a proxy for how much you care about your spouse (or if you are receiving the diamond, how much they care about you)?
What are the “diamonds” in your life? The expensive items that we covet and buy because society has told us what owning and buying them means. Houses, cars, clothing, boats, and expensive vacations are a few alternative types of “diamonds” to consider. Do you truly love them, or do you have them because you feel you are supposed to?
Finally, let’s consider keeping up with the latest hot TV shows. Have you seen all the Marvel movies? Watched all the Star Wars shows on Disney+? Kept up with the hottest series releases on Netflix?
US data shows that the average viewer is spending 3.5 hours watching TV and another 1.75 hours watching in other formats or devices.
This data always stuns me. 5.25 hours a day, or about one third of waking hours. I would bet that most readers here do not watch this much video, but even if you only watch two hours a day, it would be 700 hours a year, or 17.5 forty hour work weeks of time.
I do watch some TV (after all, I helped start Amazon Prime Video) and I enjoy it. But consider the amount of time you might be putting into this activity. Then also consider web surfing, social media, and other similar passive electronic activities. All of them have some valid relaxation and entertainment value, but if you are finding yourself “short of time,” now you may know why.
In summary, we are heavily conditioned by society as to where we spend our time, money, and attention. Learn to question your default behaviors and be suspicious what you are seeing as your choices may have been created for you.
Make your own choices. Your time and money are literally your life.