Simply CJ: Can’t buy me time

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This article first appeared in Personal Wealth, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on August 1 - 7, 2016.


WHEN we think of famous actors, Justin Timberlake does not quite make the list. So, it was no surprise that I passed on watching the movie In Time, in which he had a leading role, until someone recommended it to me.  

The plot and setting were quite intriguing. Set in 2169, people had been genetically engineered to have perfect health and appearance. At age 25, they stop ageing and their clock begins counting down from one year — in other words, they have a year to live unless they find a way to gain more time. Once their clocks run out, their bodies self-destruct. Time has replaced money as currency.

Everyone in the movie has a luminous green digital clock on their arms, measuring how much time they have left. Everybody’s life revolves around ensuring they have enough time. A day’s work at the factory might earn you 48 hours. A cup of coffee or a loaf of bread might cost you a couple of hours. A soup kitchen gives out a few extra hours, instead of bowls of soup. Those with time are rich while those without are poor.

Will, played by Justin Timberlake, comes from the ghetto and is falsely accused of murder. He is forced to go on the run with a beautiful wealthy hostage, Sylvia, played by Amanda Seyfried. The setting of a love affair between two people from different sides of society allows the audience to compare, in a very brutal way, the difference between the haves and have-nots.

For the have-nots, the cost of literally breathing goes up every single day and with only days left on their clocks, you can’t help but feel the stress. Time is precious, so you find the poor moving quickly as their clocks tick down. The rich, on the other hand, move at a leisurely pace and are prepared to take on more risk as they have decades to spare.

The premise of the movie rang quite true as I thought about my own situation of constantly balancing time and money. We have limited time, and we use it to conduct activities in exchange for money. We spend eight hours a day working for money. We sell a part of our life, our time on earth, for money.

But more often than not, we disregard time as an asset. If someone approached you for a loan of RM100, you would think twice. But when asked to attend a time-wasting mind-numbing one-hour meeting, how many of us actually stop to think about saying no? Some of us might say it is acceptable to turn down the loan request, but probably not culturally acceptable to turn down an invitation to a meeting. In this society, my hunch tells me we value money over time.

Many of us scrutinise our credit card or bank account statements, especially in an environment where costs are going up and things are looking a bit tough. Unfortunately, people do not look at time the same way. And I do not mean time on a daily basis. Most financial planners probably ask how much money you have to meet your goals. A key question should also be how much time you have to meet your goals. Time is as important an asset as money.

When we spend more time on our goals, we do not have to spend as much money. Here is an example. Assuming I would like a nest egg of RM2 million by the time I turn 65 and I am prepared to invest my money in something that gives me a return of 7% per year. How much will I have to put in to achieve this goal?

  • If I start at 25, I will need to set aside RM762 a month to reach this goal. Over 40 years, I will have contributed RM365,740.
  • If I start at 35, I will need to set aside RM1,639 per month — more than double the amount if I had started 10 years earlier. Over 30 years, my contribution will be RM590,178.  
  • If I start at age 50, I will need a whopping RM5,600 per month. Over 15 years, my contribution will be RM1.1 million.

The earlier I start, the more time I am giving my funds to generate returns. So, assuming I start at 25, I will have contributed RM365,740 to my retirement goal of RM2 million, and the rest will come from the returns generated over 40 years of saving. Evidently, when we spend more time on our goals, we do not have to spend as much money. And that rings true because for the most of us with limited funds, there are hundreds of demands vying for it.

For people in their 20s and 30s, retirement may seem like a lifetime away. I get it. When you are just starting your career, it is understandably difficult to think about what life would be like after it ends. But you have something that money cannot buy — time.

Ong Shi Jie (CJ) is head of integrated marketing and analytics at OCBC Bank (M) Bhd