Friday, August 24, 2007

Analogy between Physical Health and Financial Health

I've been dieting and trying to be more healthy for the last year, and as I now sit at what seems to be a plateau I find myself wondering what makes healthy eating and exercise so difficult. Reflecting on how some friends treat food, and how others treat money, I see a strong analogy between being physically fit and financially fit.

When I go to a fast food restaurant, my eyes go straight to the value menu. The idea of ordering what you want without regard to price is foreign to me. If I see someone order something for $2.49 that is just slightly different from another item that's $0.99, I can't help but wonder what on earth they're thinking. Spend $1.79 on a soda that costs them less than dime in syrup?? Inconceivable! And yet, what do some of my friends think when they watch me order? Double cheeseburger??!? Doesn't he care about his heart? Milkshake??? Does he know how much sodium is in that? Inconceivable!

Mentally, I always see financial decisions in terms of cost and value. I know that my choices are not independent, and money I spend on something is money I can't spend on something else. I have a plan, for the short term and for the long term, to meet important goals for myself and my family - and failure to meet these goals just isn't an option. I apply my analytical skills to any key decision, and do whatever research is needed to have a basis to make a good decision. I may (and do) splurge on occasion, but it's within limits and it only happens when I've done the saving first.

Mentally, my decisions on physical fitness are completely opposite. I don't have a plan, no goals, I decide based on what I feel at the moment. I don't think in terms of caloric budget, I'll exercise solely when it's fun, and can't say no to a desert waved in front of me. While I've lost weight over the past year, I've not changed my mindset, or my eating habits. If I stop the exercise again, it will all come back. Is there anything I can learn from comparing financial fitness to physical fitness?

Rate of Savings = Income - Expenses. Total savings = sum of this over time. Period. It's really that simple. If your expenses exceed your income, you incur debt. When the interest on the debt becomes significant, you're in big trouble. Many people make dieting difficult, counting all sorts of things, all kinds of rules and theories. But it's not rocket science. Weight gained or lost = Calories eaten - Calories expended. If you eat more than you burn off, you gain weight. It doesn't matter if it's a calorie from fat or from carbs, 3500 of them will cost you a pound.

If I shop and don't consider budget, or in this case, spending allowance, I'll buy the new shiny and go into debt. If I go to a restaurant and don't consider my caloric allowance, my chance of making a good decision is not good. Even worse, the "prices" aren't on the food. I can see two similar shirts next to each other, one for $19.99 and one for $59.99, and the decision is clear - not so with calories. At McDonald's it doesn't say on the menu that super-size fries are over 600 calories while the vanilla ice cream cone is just 150, or that Hash browns are just 130 while the steak/egg bagel is 700 calories. If I say 'no mayo' on my favorite chicken sandwich, I save 25% on calories. At Taco Bell, the Mucho Grande Nachos are 1320 calories (!) while a soft chicken taco is just 190 ( Doing better with a Arby melt with cheese or a market fresh sandwich at Arby's? Would you believe 340 vs 810 calories, respectively? Deluxe potato? 650 calories. The Jamocha Shake I love? 470? Ouch. How about a healthy salad? The one I like is the Chicken Finger salad. Ouch! 570 calories vs 70 for a garden salad.

All-you-can-eat buffets are opposite from the perspective of finances and fitness. You pay one price, and the more you eat the better 'value', but basically you are paying for your calories bite-by-bite. That second large plate full of food adds a brief temporary satisfaction, but doubles your calories, makes you feel stuffed, and makes you want to lie down and rest.

One of my most effective changes this year was driven from a financial perspective. At most restaurants, including my favorite local chinese and mexican restaurants, the servings are enormous. I was always sleepy in the afternoon went I went there. I tried saving half my meal and taking it home in a box and felt no hint of hunger in the afternoon. Two for one special on cost of meals?? I'm all over that!! It's a side benefit that I'm not consuming nearly 2000 calories for lunches anymore.

How then do you maintain weight? You need a budget - you have to intentionally restrict your caloric intake to not exceed your caloric burn. With finances, you can adjust income or reduce expenses to meet your budget. With your body, you can reduce what you eat or increase how much you burn. If you want to lose weight, you need to burn more than you take in. Like savings, this does not happen without effort. Like savings, 10% is a great start, and up around 50% is not sustainable for the average person. In upcoming posts I'm going to say more about diet and exercise, how I've lost significant weight, the role of exercise in a fitness plan, and I'll try to encourage those of you who might be struggling with your weight.

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