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Investing for beginners: Time value of money

Today’s lesson is about the Time Value of Money

The time value of money is one of the most important concepts to grasp in investing. Happily, it’s a pretty instinctive one.1

The time value of money reflects how you’d rather get a certain sum of money today than exactly the same amount of money in the future.

Money in the hand now is worth more than exactly the same amount received in a year’s time.

This explains why locking your money away for a longer time (usually) earns you a better return.

The longer you lock your money out of reach, the less it is worth right now.

You need to expect a higher return on your investment to compensate you.

Show me the money!

Which of the following would you prefer?

  • £1,000 now
  • The promise of £1,000 in five year’s time

Of course you – and all rational investors – would prefer to receive £1,000 today.

Five years is a long time to wait. Even if you didn’t want to spend £1,000 right now, you could put the money received today into a deposit account earning interest for five years. If you got 4% interest2 on £1,000, then after five years your money would have grown to £1,217.

Why choose to have £1,000 in five years when you could have £1,217 by taking £1,000 now and investing it?

It’s a no-brainer.

Looking further out

Let’s extend the idea to imagine you’re deciding between:

  • £1,000 in five years
  • £1,000 in ten years

Anyone sensible would prefer to have £1,000 in five year’s time, rather than to wait ten years for exactly the same amount.

Time value thus describes a continuum. A sum of money received now is worth more than exactly the same amount in the future, which in turn is worth more than the same sum at a date beyond that.

Finally, let’s say you can get 4% interest on cash today, as in my example above. (We’ll ignore taxes and the like for simplicity.)

Which would you choose between these two options:

  • £1,000 today
  • £1,040 in a year’s time

If you could expect the £1,000 received today to earn 4% interest over a year, then the value of these two choices is the same.

How do we calculate the time value of money?

All other things being equal, the time value of money represents the interest one might earn on a payment received today, if it was held earning interest until a future date.

The fixed income from safe government bonds is normally used to calculate the present value of a future payment.

The income from government bonds is assumed to be a risk-free rate of return.

But what if that future payment is not guaranteed?

What if your I.O.U. note comes instead from your cousin Bob? Or from a volatile stock market-linked investment such as a share or an index fund?

Without the certain guarantee that you’ll eventually be paid the full amount, the future value of the same sum of money is even lower because uncertainty as well as time value makes it less attractive.

A discount rate can be used to estimate the present value of that future uncertain payment. This discount rate reflects both time value and risk.

As an everyday investor – particularly a passive investor – you may never bother using a discount rate to work anything out. Leave that to analysts.

Just realise that there is (or should be!) mathematics and reasoning behind our gut instincts about saving money.

Time value of money and your investments

Time value can be used in financial calculations to work out things like the present value of a growing annuity.

Such calculations are often built into calculators and spreadsheets. You can find some worked examples on the time value of money Wikipedia page.

But as I say, we’re only looking to understand the gist of the theory here.

The rule-of-thumb is that money put away for longer periods of time will need to offer a higher rate of return to compensate for it not being available to invest in other (potentially superior) assets during that time.

Uncertainty about the future also plays a part, as I mentioned.

Uncertainty is in some respects another word for risk. Remember that that there are many different types of risk when it comes to investing. Usually you’re just swapping one risk for another to best suit your circumstances.

In a savings account you’d be worried about inflation, for example.

Would you be wise to lock away your money for five years at 5% if inflation was 4% and rising?

Probably not.

With a fixed duration security such as a government bond, the nearer today’s date is to the date the government will fulfill its promise to buy the bond back from you, the likelier it is to be priced close to its redemption value.3

Look several years out though, and time value combined with uncertainty about factors such as inflation and government debt will more influence the price of that bond, moving it above and below its redemption value.

Key takeaways

The maths can get complicated, but the takeaway is clear. For all assets, time, uncertainty, and expectations combine to influence risk and return.

Time value of money is often neglected by private investors. But you do need to consider it when deciding whether a particular asset and/or the income it produces makes it a good investment.

This article on the time value of money is one of an occasional series on investing for beginners. Please do subscribe to get our articles emailed to you to learn more! And why not tell a friend to help them get started?

  1. Note: It’s not to be confused with option time value. Nothing is simple with options! []
  2. I’ve just picked 4% as an example, to keep the maths meaningful. I know you can’t get 4% on cash currently. That’s not the point here. []
  3. The redemption value is the money you’re promised to be paid by the government when the bond’s lifetime is up. []
{ 6 comments… add one }
  • 1 Eric July 18, 2014, 10:01 pm

    We should briefly mention that what you say is true in an inflationary environment. It is not true in a deflationary environment. If prices are going down, I probably would rather have 1,000 a year from now than 1,000 now, as long as I understand the risk of failure of the other party to pay.

  • 2 AH July 21, 2014, 11:03 am

    Even in a deflationary environment that’s only true if:

    a) effective interest rates are negative, and however you manage your money (cash, bank, any sort of investment) you’re sure/likely to lose a part


    b) you have absolutely no use for the money now

  • 3 AfroLatino November 1, 2021, 12:58 pm

    Thanks for this article – very helpful indeed!

  • 4 Barn Owl November 1, 2021, 10:03 pm

    I was recently looking at and interesting example of this in a US inheritance tax assessment from 1884! The deceased had left the income of his estate to his wife for the duration of her life (the estate was stocks and real estate) and then the proceeds to be inherited by descendants after her death. Assuming no inheritance tax between married couples how much inheritance tax should be charged in 1884? You have variability of the asset value, but also variability of the term as well.

  • 5 Andrew November 2, 2021, 1:19 am

    Another example would be the Set for Life lottery game (winning £10K/mo tax free for 30 years)

    How much would you accept as a lump sum alternative?

    £1M? £1.5M?

  • 6 mr_jetlag November 2, 2021, 10:50 am

    @Andrew, that’s a fairly simple annuity calculation. At 3% inflation your lumpsum should be £2,377,823.55… ish

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