Week 10: Doing the Math

I have learned that the swiftest traveller is he that goes afoot. Thoreau

English: Henry David Thoreau, photograph taken...

Thoreau’s argument is an intriguing one. He and another man want to get to the same place. Thoreau leaves immediately on foot. The other man must earn the money first for the fare. Thoreau asserts, using the fares of his time, he would arrive first.

This got me thinking: does this concept apply to today? I drive a car which gets about 22 miles to the gallon. I filled my tank this week. I paid $3.70 per gallon. Let’s say I wanted to get to Bend. A trip to Bend, then, costs $3.70. It takes me almost a fifth of an hour to earn that amount — about twelve minutes. So, I would have to drive to Prineville (where I work) which is fifteen minutes, work for twelve minutes, work for another twelve minutes to pay for the gas required to go to work, then return to the original point which is fifteen minutes. At that point, I would leave for Bend — a half hour. Total time: 1 hour and 24 minutes. To walk 22 miles? About four and half hours. So, today, it’s faster to travel by car than by foot. I wonder whether the same would be true in towns where traffic is a factor?

Of course, this is just a thinking exercise. Most of the time, I’m toting two or three children somewhere. Thoreau didn’t have children to consider. But the exchange of work, time, and money is worth comparing. I weighed these matters out when I decided to stay home while the children were preschool age. I calculated my real hourly wage — adding up what I make, subtracting all the things I wouldn’t have to buy if I didn’t work outside the home, and then dividing by the real hours it takes to work (driving and prep time included). This is variable for any person, but for me, I took my monthly salary, subtracted childcare, lunches out, hairdos, gas, car maintenance, and work clothes, then I divided this total by the real hours I worked — not just the hours I spent at school but prep and grading time as well as driving time.   My real hourly wage was about $2 an hour.

Of course, if I loved my job and it gave me a great deal of satisfaction, this would have to be taken into consideration. Fact is, I loved being home kissing chubby little feet, taking walks and examining bugs on the sidewalk. So I stayed home. With a little tightening of the belt, we managed without that $2 an hour job.

If we take the time to do the math of our activities, I think we get to what we value. I remember an old codger who drove to Portland (30 miles away) to get the cheapest gas. The math revealed he didn’t actually value saving money or time because the Portland trip lost any money saved and it was a waste of time. He must have valued not paying a higher price to someone local. It was important to him to not give his pennies to a place that charged more.

Coupon clippers value their time less because they’re willing to sift through papers and coupons and drive to several places to get the deals. There are people who buy a brand new hybrid car to save money though it would take them years of driving to pay off the gas they save (my father has me convinced that a used Prius saves its worth much sooner). My favorite instance of a person not taking time to do the math is a person who buys a new car to save money on repairs. We’ve always driven old cars — over twenty years old — and we’ve never paid in repairs what a person pays for a car loan. If we analyze the math, we value our money. The guy with the new ride values … his new ride. Both are okay choices, but I think it’s important to be honest about why we do what we do and why we buy what we buy.

Would our lives improve if we walked instead of drove? Would we secure more happiness if one of us contributed in meals from scratch rather than work wages? Would a garden produce more than its worth in seeds?

Paul just bought chicks for the girls. From what I understand, it takes awhile to break

Egg yolks.

even after spending money on the chicks and get-up. If we do the math, we realize we don’t save much money. But … if we compare our own home-laid eggs to the price of organic eggs, we might make a case for raising chickens to save money. Moreover, we’ve tasted the two and the brilliant yellow yolk from a home-raised chicken is far superior to the bland and milky egg yolks purchased at the store. In this instance, cheaper isn’t better for us.

The key is to check our values and make sure our money and time is going toward those values. Perhaps regular four-hour walks and garden-to-table meals would feed our souls more than earning a wage for someone else.



  1. Great thought-provoking blog. I am so fortunate that I work for a family business where I can bring my kids–or leave them with loved ones while I substitute teach. Otherwise, we’d stay home all the time, too.


  2. Congratulations on your chickens! In addition to the eggs they will eventually produce, you will also be able to do many of the lessons in Comstock’s handbook of nature study that pertain directly to the chicken – types of feathers, shape of beak, etc. And your girls will always remember caring for them. I am going to see if walking places can help me here in Bend where things are closer to home.


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