Paying less for entertainment
Tan Jee Yee 

Why would anyone ever want to go outside? It’s hot and mosquitoes are aplenty. Rain can splash down anytime. Food is getting increasingly expensive, and so is petrol. And you need to deal with people. In short, there’s nothing much you can do outside that is better than what the great indoors offer.

We jest, of course. There’re certainly many benefits to being in the sun, fresh air and society. Still, we live in a time of unprecedented entertainment, so much so that it’s almost inevitable for us to spend amply for television, movies and games.

With rising affluence, Malaysians are expected to pay more for entertainment. In a 2017 report, BMI Research forecasts that as Malaysia’s disposable income rises, people will spend more on non-essential items like leisure and entertainment activities.

BMI’s household spending breakdown notes that essential expenditure (covering food, housing, utilities, clothing, transport and communications) will account for some 59% of total spending, which the report says is normal for a developing market.

With higher disposable income now, the rest of our spending will likely go towards gratifying our entertainment needs.

But we’re smart people. We understand our need for leisure and laughter, but we’re also aware that spending far too much on entertainment would topple the delicate balance of our finances. Even as we spend on entertainment, we need to do so wisely.

The good thing is there’re ways to get more affordable means of entertainment without sacrificing the satisfaction it can provide.


Streamlining your TV

The quintessential Malaysian household entertainment is satellite pay TV. It’s not uncommon to find a house fitted with the iconic grey satellite dish, or hear a neighbourhood-wide collective groan when the rain comes to disrupt services.

Pay TV’s greatest strength is quantity – you get hundreds of channels ranging from home movies to sports and variety shows, in different languages. What more could one need?

The problem with pay TV, however, is that it can often become entertainment in excess – that is, you may be paying for content you don’t watch. Most households may watch only a few channels, but because satellite TV bundles multiple channels per package and you’re a stickler for content variety, you may end up paying for channels you hardly watch.

The smarter way to streamline your television is to move to streaming videos on demand (SVOD) services instead. You may have heard of services like Netflix and iflix, and the key reason they’re permeating in modern culture is that they’re simply cheaper, and you can watch the content you want at your convenience.

The cheapest pay TV packs on Astro can go for more than RM60 monthly, and this doesn’t include the initial satellite dish installation fee, which can cost RM99 without a contract. In comparison, Netflix in Malaysia costs only RM42 per month, without any installation cost.

Netflix is comparatively more expensive than iflix as you’re paying for original content produced by the service, which are mostly critically acclaimed and highly sought after. iflix, on the other hand, costs only RM10 per month, giving you access to hundreds of TV series and movies.

If you’re worried about content variety, there are other SVOD services that offer more specific types of content. Dim Sum, for instance, offers Asian content for RM15 monthly. Similarly, Viu also offers Asian content – primarily Korean TV series – that can be viewed for free, with additional and premium content available for RM10 monthly.


Overall lower cost

To access SVOD, you need Internet connection, which most households already have. High-quality SVOD services require fast broadband speeds, although copper-based connection of 1Mbps can also stream content, albeit at a lower quality.

Justin Lee can attest to some substantial savings by switching to SVOD. “I used to pay more than RM180 monthly for TV. We simply didn’t question the price until I realised one day that we barely watched most of the content, and my daily TV usage was only two hours,” the 38-year-old marketing executive says.

Lee now subscribes to Netflix, paying RM42 monthly. “It’s good. I can watch the content I want during my daily two hours, and there is kids’ content for my children too. The subscription also allows me to watch on my smartphone during my work break.”

You might be wondering: “How do I get SVOD on my TV if I don’t own a smart TV?” Well, SVOD can be run on any laptop, which you can easily connect to your TV using easily-available cables. Mobile devices can also push the content to your TV using Chromecast attached to a dongle.

If laptops are out of the equation, users can opt for Android boxes that can connect to TVs with Smart TV capabilities, including access to SVOD services. While each tiny set-top box costs more than a satellite TV installation, it functions as a media player as well. Plus, the overall cost of subscribing to SVOD is ultimately cheaper.

We should learn how to spend smarter on entertainment – Freepik

Gaming for cheaper

It’s likely you’re already playing video games one way or another, either on your mobile phone or PC. Beyond mobile and browser-based games, though, video games can be perceived as fairly expensive endeavours. However, there’re also ways to save heavily on games.

There are two primary ways to get into video games. You can either buy a video game console – a Sony PlayStation 4 or a Nintendo Switch, for example – or a gaming-capable PC or laptop.

Video game consoles are considered the cheaper channel for gaming. A PlayStation 4 can cost RM1,000 or slightly less, though the console is also sold as bundles that throw in a few games at a discounted price.

A gaming-capable PC may cost more – laptops that can run more graphically-demanding games may cost RM3,000 to RM5,000. The more powerful the specifications, the better it can run games. Generally, purchasing a desktop computer by selecting the components you want will be cheaper. A RM3,000 desktop can perform much better than a similarly-priced laptop.

Consoles, however, are less of a hassle to operate and thus more user-friendly. However, the downside are the prices of games – typically, a physical copy of a new game can cost RM200 or more.

The cheaper way to get games is to go digital, with each copy priced a tad lower than a physical one. However, the best deals come from the variety of digital game sales that are available for both consoles and PCs, which are 50-70% cheaper than physical copies. You may not be playing the latest games on the market, but if you’re patient enough, you can get games for much cheaper.

If you’re not so much into waiting for your games to download, though, there is a growing market of second-hand games in Malaysia. If you’re willing to part with your games, larger game retailers allow you to trade in old games to buy new ones.

Tong trades in old games for cash to buy new ones


Cheryn Tong, an avid gamer, prefers second-hand games. “I’m not that attached to my games, so when I’m done with them, I resell them for cash to get new games.

“That way, you are also sort of giving other players a chance to access games for cheaper. I believe it’s better for the community overall,” she says, adding second-hand games may cost half their original prices.


Music and books

Going digital can also get you music for cheaper. Free services like Spotify give you access to thousands of hit songs for free, with ad breaks in between. Subscribing to a premium account, which costs RM15 monthly, gets rid of the ads and allows you to download tracks for offline listening.

This is much cheaper than buying physical albums, which can cost around RM60 each. The only drawback to streaming music is that the quality is not on par with CDs, though Spotify’s premium subscription gives you access to higher quality audio. Unless you’re an audiophile, it makes more sense to stick to streaming tunes.

Ai prefers to listen to audio books

For books, prowling online offers the best prices. Websites like Book Depository provide discounted prices with free shipping to Malaysia. There’re occasional sales as well, which can net further discounts. BookXcess, which offers discounted books at its physical stores, also has an online store with equally good discounts.

However, the most novel and affordable access to books these days is to download audio books. For instance, Audible allows users access to hundreds of thousands of audio books for a subscription fee of US$14.95 (RM58.55) monthly, which gives them a credit to buy an audiobook.

Amanda Ai Sue Hwei, an online entrepreneur, says while paying RM58 monthly is not necessarily the cheapest way to enjoy books, it’s still much cheaper than buying audiobooks off the shelf.

“I don’t have that much time to read, but I do spend a lot of time driving. The price is frankly worth it if you’re an avid reader like me but don’t want to buy audiobooks.”

How much should you spend on entertainment?

We may be able to get a lot of good entertainment content for cheaper these days, but ultimately, just how much should we pay for it? This is an age-old question for those who know the importance of keeping their finances in check.

There’s no exact equation to set the right amount. The best advice, though, is to spend to one’s means, which entails calculating your essential living expenses to know how much you need to survive, and how much you can afford to spend.

In his book Rich Habits, Poor Habits, American financial planner and author Tom Corley notes that after surveying 233 wealthy individuals on their financial habits and comparing their responses with those of 128 less wealthy individuals (earning less than US$35,000 annually), he finds wealthy people live below their means by keeping unnecessary spending to a minimum.

Corley says the best practice is to spend no more than 10% of your monthly net pay on entertainment. If you earn RM2,000, for instance, then RM200 is your limit on entertainment each month.

However, this doesn’t mean you should stop spending on entertainment altogether. In an article by Fast Company, Cornell University psychology professor Dr Thomas Gilovich says people who spend on experiences find better happiness.

This is because people tend to adapt quickly to objects – the quicker you adapt to them, the less happiness you derive from them. As such, experiences like going to the theatre with friends or learning new skills are more meaningful. Buying a pair of shoes may give you gratification, but you adapt to it so quickly that the happiness fades pretty quickly.

Perhaps it’s also about spending on the right type of entertainment. Buying a new TV may be great, but going outdoors could yield better happiness in the long run. That’s infinitely a better investment.

This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 277.