• Co-occurring species often differ in their leaf lifespan (LL) and it remains unclear how such variation is maintained in a competitive context. Here we test the hypothesis that leaves of long-LL species yield a greater return in carbon (C) fixed per unit C or nutrient invested by the plant than those of short-LL species. • For 10 sympatric woodland species, we assessed three-dimensional shoot architecture, canopy openness, leaf photosynthetic light response, leaf dark respiration and leaf construction costs across leaf age sequences. We then used the YPLANT model to estimate light interception and C revenue along the measured leaf age sequences. This was done under a series of simulations that incorporated the potential covariates of LL in an additive fashion. • Lifetime return in C fixed per unit C, N or P invested increased with LL in all simulations. • In contrast to other recent studies, our results show that extended LL confers a fundamental economic advantage by increasing a plant's return on investment in leaves. This suggests that time-discounting effects, that is, the compounding of income that arises from quick reinvestment of C revenue, are key in allowing short-LL species to succeed in the face of this economic handicap.