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Money Can’t Buy Love, But Here’s What Can


Photograph by LuckyBusiness/iStock

Photograph by LuckyBusiness/iStock

After the shopping buzz around the holiday season fizzles out, Valentine’s Day is a much-needed boost for businesses, which bombard consumers with gift ideas for spoiling their loved ones. But as it turns out, no box of chocolates or bouquet of roses can outweigh the ultimate bliss of time spent together, according to new research from Harvard Business School.

Previous research by assistant professor of business administration Ashley Whillans indicated that spending money on time-saving purchases can increase individual happiness. To figure out the secret to happy relationships, detailed in a new working paper, Whillans surveyed more than 3,000 individuals who were married or in marriage-like relationships and who spent money on time-saving purchases. One couple paid movers $200 to handle the labor and time-intensive task of moving all their belongings from their old apartment into a new one. Another couple outsourced their laundry to a service that handled the tiresome washing and folding for between $40 and $50 a visit. But Whillans found that it wasn’t simply the act of minimizing the number of chores that led to relationship bliss. For example, moving to a professionally managed apartment and therefore no longer needing to mow the lawn isn’t enough to bring couples closer together. Only when couples consciously elect to turn the time saved from outsourcing a task into quality time spent together—by going out to the movies or cooking dinner together—does Whillans’s study show a positive correlation between outsourcing chores and relationship satisfaction.

The study also found that couples who elected to spend part of their income on time-saving measures were more resilient when it came to dealing with the inevitable conflicts associated with any committed relationship. “It’s sort of like a social-support idea,” Whillans says. “If you’re stressed, a healthy coping response can be to seek out a friend or family member to help you deal with that stress. Time-saving purchases are like another kind of social support––maybe your in-laws are coming over and the house is a mess, so you need a cleaner. Or maybe you and your partner are both working really hard and don’t have time to clean. We find that when couples respond to those kinds of stressors by purchasing support, they experience greater relationship satisfaction.”

 She warns, however, that time-saving purchases are not the be-all-and-end-all key to relationship satisfaction. The benefits of time-saving purchases appear primarily when couples are faced with controllable stressors, such as too much laundry to fold. When faced with an uncontrollable stressor, such as a death in the family, couples who spend their money instead on distracting, uplifting experiences––a dinner date, a short vacation––are likely to be happier.

 Of course, hiring cleaners, signing up for a laundry service, or outsourcing lawn-mowing can all end up costing much more than material gifts. Ximena Garcia-Rada, a doctoral candidate in marketing, has good news for couples who wish to achieve higher degrees of relationship satisfaction but have limited disposable income. Based on research done by working with Brierly professor of business administration Michael Norton, Garcia-Rada posits that relationship rituals are highly valuable in and of themselves. The researchers define a ritual as a task that is repeated over time, but continues to have symbolic meaning for the couple. Bringing one’s significant other coffee every day doesn’t count if he or she takes that coffee for granted, but going to the movies together every Friday night can establish a romantic ritual. Garcia-Rada says that her preliminary findings have interesting implications for the commonly held notion that scheduling intimacy is less romantic: “Couples who actually schedule time to cuddle, for example, end up developing a ritual to do so. That indicates a commitment to the relationship, and commitment is a key driver to satisfaction.” 

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