How Many Hours Do You Have to Work to Pay for That Vacation or Dinner?

take-home pay

What if instead of paying our bills with a debit card, we paid with our time?

It would be like in those old-time movies when the protagonist forgets his wallet and has to wash dishes to pay for his dinner.

Before being handed our cup of coffee at Starbucks, we’d have to sweep the floor and whip up some lattes. And making a car payment would entail washing 100 cars over the course of a month.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because this is how the vast majority of us make our income. We trade chunks of our time in exchange for money.

So while you don’t have to work a shift at Starbucks in order to earn a chai tea latte, the same principle holds true: You’re paying for your drink with the time you spend earning the $4 you hand to the barista.

When I think about purchases that way, there’s a bit more baggage attached to my cup of tea. Many financial experts recommend calculating your exact take-home pay per hour in order to understand just how many hours you’re working to pay for each purchase.

How Much Do You Really Make in an Hour?

The easiest way to break this down is to plug your salary into an online tool that will calculate how much you earn per hour.

However, to get a true picture of your pay per hour, you’re better off taking your monthly take-home pay and dividing by the number of hours you worked.

If you’re a freelancer or someone with a variable income, things get a little trickier, but you should be able to get a ballpark figure. This number shows exactly how many hours you would need to work in order to replenish your checking account after a given purchase.

Once we’ve done our homework, how do we make use of this number?

For me, it’s another tool in my quest to make better decisions around money. I may be less likely to take that expensive trip if I realize it will cost me 50 hours of work. Instead, a weekend at home sounds pretty nice and will likely only take a couple of work hours to fund.  

Let’s say you make $20 an hour after taxes and deductions. Here’s a breakdown of what some basic purchasing decisions would look like when converted into hours of time spent working.


The average price of a new car is $32,000. For our $20-per-hour example, that’s 1,600 hours of work, or 40 weeks of working full time.

On the other hand, the average used car goes for about $16,000 (so, 20 weeks of full-time work). That’s half the price of the new car and half the amount of working hours.

Dinner Out

In 2015, Zagat conducted a survey and found the average person spends $39.40 when out for dinner. In this example, that’s two hours of work to pay the check.

While we don’t have exact numbers for the average cost of a home-cooked meal, anecdotally, let’s say it’s $10 per person (or 30 minutes of work). So by eating in, you reduce your costs by 75% and save almost $30.


The cost of an average movie ticket reached $8.39 this year. If you include popcorn and a drink, we’re talking closer to $15, or 45 minutes of work.

If you trade your movie ticket for an evening in with some Netflix, you basically cut that in half (or more), and also get to stream movies and TV shows for an entire month.


For me, the most tempting place to splurge is on a great vacation. And it appears I’m not alone, as estimates place the average vacation cost at a whopping $1,145 per person. Our example worker will be putting in 57 hours at the office to pay for that trip.

What would happen if we swapped out the traditional vacation for a staycation? We’d save on the flights, hotel and rental car right off the bat.

A staycation doesn’t have to mean moping around the house alone. By factoring in a few nights out and some excursions closer to home, we could probably put together a pretty amazing staycation for $200. That’s 10 hours of work, almost 80% less than a week away.

While calculating your per-hour earnings won’t save you money in and of itself, keeping this information in mind as you make decisions and set your budget just might change the way you allocate your money.

Because, unless you’ve got a trust fund or some pretty serious investments, money equals time.

Your Turn: Did you calculate your per-hour earnings? Was the figure more or less than you expected?

Lyndsee Simpson is a writer and editor living in Washington, D.C. She’s invested far too much of her time/money in paying for chai tea lattes.