Coffee Break: Making sense of weight, money and taxes

This article first appeared in Capital, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on February 26, 2018 - March 04, 2018.
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A classic song by The Beatles goes:
Don’t ask me what I want it for
If you don’t want to pay some more
’Cause I’m the taxman, yeah, I’m the taxman


This song is absolutely irrelevant to what you’re about to read, except that I’m listening to it while I type this and it’s about money, and money is what we’re talking about here.

Well, money and body weight, that is. Two things that preoccupy the minds of most people in Malaysia, the land of rising living costs, where over half the population are either overweight or obese. (We are Asia’s fattest country. Let’s admit that and move on.)

The thing is, the two have much in common. Take it from me, a skilled veteran in battling weight problems and in using money to stay alive.

Both boil down to one concept: mathematics.

To manage your weight, you need a calorie deficit — burn more than you eat. Money is the opposite: spend less than you earn and you’ll have a fatter wallet.

A lot of the time, these two matters come down to our choices and how we perceive cost and worth.

For example, do we go to that fancy Japanese restaurant for lunch, paying RM1,000 per head, or do we go for cheap, fulfilling nasi Vanggey that only costs RM4.80 (in Ipoh, that is)? What makes more financial sense to you?

Of course, this makes it sound simpler than it actually is. Managing either requires more than an understanding of how to do so: it also requires commitment and having a process around the numbers.

Most of all, successfully preventing a budget deficit or a calorie surplus requires the realisation that it will be an ongoing way of life.

There are no quick fixes, like that three-month crash diet plan that sets you up for a bad rebound.

Personal finance gurus will agree that you cannot out-earn bad spending habits. No matter how much you scrounge and toil for that extra bit of revenue, it is unsustainable if it is just going towards keeping up with ever-increasing spending.

Granted, sometimes we see the light later in life, and by then, are saddled with the legacies of our past decisions. Maybe by that time, 98% of our spending will be going towards our operating expenses, with 12% to service debt interest charges alone.

If those numbers sound familiar, that’s because the country is spending that much on those things too. So, credit cards, personal loans, anyone?

Or, if you’re talking about weight, you’ll be stuck with all those excess kilos, which will take a while to burn off — if you can find the willpower to get on a treadmill, that is.

But the point is, the change starts when you acknowledge the problem. Something like saying to ourselves, “yes, I overspent” or “yes, I overate”.

Once you can say that, you’re halfway through the door to a better life. Next up, stop doing those things and get into full disclosure mode — you can’t manage what you don’t measure.

That means no more secret loans, no more debts and liabilities you hide from your spouse, no more junk food at 2am that doesn’t go into your calorie-tracking app.

And here’s where that willpower comes in. Once you honestly lay the numbers down and realise where the cuts have to be made, you can’t escape the reality anymore.

Just go create that calorie deficit and budget surplus. It will be taxing, but perseverance will earn dividends.

Over time, both your body weight and your money will become more manageable.

Then, you’ll be able to choose that RM1,000 Japanese lunch over the cheap nasi Vanggey any day too. Then again, just because you can do something doesn’t mean that you should.

And if you ever feel like you’re taxing yourself too much to get these things under control, let’s just go back to the song:

Should 5% appear too small
Be thankful I don’t take it all
’Cause I’m the taxman, yeah I’m the taxman

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