Prioritizing Time and Money

“Ten years ago, I turned my head for a moment and it became my life.”

Poet David Whyte wrote a great book, “The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America” aimed at helping people find meaning and balance in their careers (and here I thought poets just lived in their mom’s basements while pulling a few shifts at a hipster coffee shop). There is a one-line poem in his book that, 18 years ago, led me to reassess my professional goals:

“Ten years ago, I turned my head for a moment and it became my life.”

Today, this poem makes me think about our roles as fathers and providers, and the needs of those who depend on us. Not what they want, but what they need. Here’s my stab at a priority list (in order):

1. Baseline providing, e.g., food, a decent house/apartment, safe neighborhood, schools, basic stuff, basic fun stuff, too

2. Time with you

3. Better stuff, e.g., fancier clothes, new toys, video games, new bike

4. Extra stuff for you, e.g., new cars, a big house, fancy vacations

How much of #2 do we sacrifice for #3 and #4, without even realizing it? I contend that, when we pursue priorities 3 and 4 above, we sometimes fail to think through the opportunity costs (the economic concept that basically means that the time, money or other resources you spend on one goal can no longer be used to pursue another goal). If we thought about this more, many of us might reconsider how we spend our time.

Another great book, “Why Men Earn More” by Warren Farrell looks at factors that cause certain careers, industries and jobs pay more than others. Farrell explains that, among other things, jobs that require or strongly encourage extensive travel, long commutes, long work weeks, bringing work and/or performance-related stress home, and being on call when away from the office earn significantly more than jobs that are more stable, have more regular and reasonable hours, and do not make such time-based or psychological demands.

In contrast, jobs with lower earning potential may not make us “richer” financially, but often have other non-financial benefits—more satisfying work, better work-life balance, less stress and more free time. In short, jobs that give us lots of 2 usually represent a trade off on priorities 3 and 4, and jobs that provide us the means to pursue 3 and 4 usually represent a trade off on priority 2.

If you have a demanding career, it is extremely hard to scale back or downshift without jeopardizing all you’ve worked and sacrificed for. Partner tracks and corporate ladders are not exactly forgiving if you try to revise the deal. Big-time income also often means financial commitments to such expenditures as private schools or jumbo mortgages on houses requiring upkeep and landscaping. It is seductively easy to get stuck on auto-pilot and continue on a fast track, even if it is no longer what is best for us or our families.

There is nothing wrong with working hard and earning a big paycheck. I’m not saying we shouldn’t have nice things if we can afford to. After all, providing our children with the financial resources to make their lives easier is part of our very important role as provider. I’m just suggesting we first think through the trade offs involved, and then choose what’s best for us and for our families. And if we do that, I think more of us may realize that priority 2 should come before priorities 3 and 4. As much as our families appreciate having really nice things, they need YOU far more.

The top regret expressed on one’s deathbed is “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.” I hope that none of my friends and readers to look back and say, “Ten years ago I turned my head for a moment and it became my life.”

How have you grappled with these issues? Let’s discuss in the comments section.


Read more on Work/Life Balance on The Good Life.

Image credit:  The U.S. Army/Flickr

About Scott Behson

Scott Behson is a Professor of Management at Fairleigh Dickinson Scott Behson is a Professor of Management at Fairleigh Dickinson University, a busy involved dad, and the author ofThe Working Dad’s Survival Guide: How to Succeed at Work and at Home, the Amazon #1 best-seller helping dads achieve better work-life balance. He runs blog, writes for Harvard Business Review, The Huffington Post, and Time, and has appeared on MSNBC, Fox, NBC and NPR. Scott was a speaker at the recent White House Summit for Working Families. He lives in Nyack, NY with his wife, Amy, and son, Nick. Contact him @ScottBehson on twitter.


  1. Hi Michelle- Thank you so much for the comment. It is my fervent wish that, when my son is older, I can look back on the time we shared, and the young man he’s become, in the same way that you do with your children.

    Incidentally, I live in the lower Hudson valley and could not enjoy living here more.

  2. This is so true. Eleven years ago, after realizing I was deeply dissatisfied with my outwardly successful life (house by the beach, full time nanny, high-paying career), I made the decision to move my family 3,000 miles to a small town in the mid-Hudson River Valley (NY). I don’t know why THEN was the moment, but the feelings of dissatisfaction, longing to spend more time with my kids, and the desire to work at something that really meant something, had crept up on me. Finally, I realized geography was the thing trapping me in that life; the cost of living in Southern California was just too high for me to give up my lucrative career.

    Once we got settled in New York, I reveled in the time I had to spend with my children. We took walks and threw rocks in the river, ate PB&J for lunch, played games, napped on the couch together. I was acutely aware of what a gift these moments were. Eventually, I found my way back to writing and went on to publish four books (my fifth will be out later this year), and while my marriage didn’t survive, I am grateful every day for the life I lead. Sometimes money is a bit sporadic (*cough*publishing*cough*), but I have NEVER ONCE regretted my decision. Most important, I KNOW my children are different for my daily involvement in their lives, and now that they are 20, 18, 16, and 13, I look at them and am so proud of the people they have become. It is difficult to deny that the additional time spent together didn’t make a difference.


  3. Not crazy about my day job, but it does allow me to spend time with my wife and kids which is something my dad didn’t do.

    I get a decent paycheck and we have all the things in 1 and 2, 3 is when we have the cash and 4 is out of reach. The time with my wife and kids more than makes up for the expensive things we don’t have. My wife and I have been down the path when our oldest was younger, not going there again.

    Wonderful article.

  4. Wow, great article and so glad you wrote it. If I could do it all over again, pretty sure I would give up the high paying career that almost put me into an early grave. 15 years ago I gave up that career and am so much happier. Doubt very much if anyone in my former industry even knows my name much less my perceived accomplishments.

    I have a gallery wall with at least 150 pictures of our life. Different times and events with family and some friends. Every night I stop and look at what was truly important and what will last long after I’m gone. From my prom pictures with my wife to the addition of the most beautiful grandkids. All the “things” we had are long gone but these memories live with me daily.

    Again, thank you for writing this article. Hope more people read it.

    • Thank you, Tom After I posted this article to my own blog, I got several responses like yours. It is deceptively easy to stay on a path even when your priorities change. It sounds like you figured things out and have a full life- that is my aspiration, too.

  5. @Scoot: Just to give you an example of the unexpectated bumps in the road that need to be discussed. I decided that time with my kids was more important than buying them 100.00 dollar sneakers or other new stuff they didn’t need. However, their mom had an entirely different view. She showered them with everything they asked for, our son- a teenager with no job- had a sneaker collection !? Our daughter regularly ran up 300.00 phone bills while I was paying for private school.

    This duality of philosophy caused many problems for my children and for me that had to be worked through. My children began to identify me as being cheap and uncaring about their needs and I fell out of favor.This had the added effect of making me feel miserable, questioning my masculinity and my chioces and going to therapy so I could manage my frustrations.
    Deciding to make less money, missing out on career opportinities to be with family, takes some serious planning. Like how are you going to live if your spouse leaves you? How are you going to compete in the job market, that doesn’t want old people-too exspensive-, after the kids are grown and you are older?

  6. @Scott: I wasn’t aware that I was in an argument. I certainly don’t feel that way. I think that role reversals are not to be taken lightly and that there are some aspects of the process that men and women need to be aware. I wish I was, I would have made different choices.
    Fathers have to negoiate a double bind and get mixed messages just like I got.In the one hand, he is defined still by how much he earns with the added pressures of being more involved in the nursery. I know how to do that and come out on the otherside resonably sane.

    • Agreed about the mixed messages and lack of support. If it were easy, we all wouldn’t struggle with this to some extent. Thanks again for reading and your thoughtful comments.

  7. OG and Joy- I try not to generalize my experience too far- it leads to arguments like this. IMO, the #1 most important decision you can make in life is who you decide to share it with- if they are supportive of you, value the same things, and share your priorities it is likely that you will find happiness/success down many different paths. If not, virtually no path will be easy.

    And, anyway, my article is really about some who seem to mistake material goods for their families and as more important as an involved father.

  8. @Joy: I am glad that your experience is different than mine, but that doesn’t mean that my experince is any less relevant. One of the problems is simply that role reversals are not easy and are certainly not what I was told 30 years ago to expect when I was a SAHD..Whether you realize it or not, not every woman is going to deal with it as you have and some are going to be confused when they get conflicting reactions and feelings.Many get jealous of the father, some loose sexual attraction to their men,some even have affairs because of these confusing feelings

    .I have learned, thank god, that what I went through was not an isolated event. As a result, much of the anger and revulsion at how I was treated that I have felt has dissipated. I just think that men have a right to know that if they take this path there could be unexpectated troubles that his partner is unaware of.I think thats fair.

  9. @Joy: I can only tell you of my experiences and frankly the way I was treated by the very culture-main stream female American culture- that demanded that men come into the nursery and do their fair share, which was shitty and confusing as hell.If you spend some some reading this site you will find that there are many men who have suffered as I did.
    Which has been good for me because knowing that what I experienced was not an isolated event but is common helped to stop feeling so bad and angry.

    The truth is, when it comes to men in the nursery, it is not always like the experience you had. Many moms are control freaks who get jealous and act as gate keepers of the relationship between a father and his children. This behavior is most often seen in divorces.
    Hence my belief that not all women are ready to be as you were. I am glad that you had a different experience but don’t make the mistake of believing that everyone had your experience.

  10. I am not a father, nor a husband, and I struggle with valuing my time in meaningful ways. Living our values in work, money, and time is not an easy process. Is the unending work really reflective of what I value in my life?

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I think I will struggle with them a little longer.

  11. ogwriter, I appreciate your effort as a SAHD, but I beg to differ with your comment that ‘moms, in general, are ill equipped to offer much support.’

    In my opinion, mums are really big cheerleaders especially for their husbands and when it comes to family matters. I’m married, we both work in totally different careers, but more often than not I find myself trading off my time, money, career etc to support his. I work around his schedule, plan around his schedule and ‘cancel’ my to-do list so as to accomplish what he desires. I even became a SAHM for a little over a year to babysit our newborn because it was a ‘critical’ point in his career which he couldn’t afford to miss up on because it would crush his opportunities forever. Never mind that I was on the 3rd year of my extremely demanding career and still taking babysteps.

    Anyway, my favourite moments are when he stays at home with us, even for a couple of hours, and offers to dome mommy-work, like changing a diaper. It blows off my mind and i celebrate it even 3 months down the line. Why? because I’ve come to realize, through other people’s life experiences that when all is said and done, 3 and 4 won’t cry at your burial. Neither will 1. In the end, it’s only what’s done at 2 which counts.


  12. I like the piece as well, however one thing that really bothers me is how many people out there are struggling to be able to cover all of what is included in #1. Even in two parent, two income families, salaries sometimes aren’t high enough to sustain the rising cost of living.

  13. I took your advice-30years ago and became SAHD, and I am still paying for it.I am STILL the helper parent-not as good as mom- and I am back in school -at 57,trying to find a “career” and purpose. I’d do it again but I was unprepared to deal with the realities of what I faced and moms,in general, are ill equipped to provide much support. Keep up the good work.

  14. I like this piece. I have made some odd career choices but always have put my role as a parent first. (Well, sometimes that took a back seat to battling my demons.) We’ve never had a ton of stuff but we’ve had amazing experiences together. Despite being a female, I’ve worried that I’m “lazy” because my priorities don’t match mainstream America’s…but that concern never lasts for long.

    • Thanks, Felicity. As a man, I’ve made similar choices, aqnd haven’t regretted it in the least. Even my 7 year old understands he needs me there for him more than a new bike every year.


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