Small Steps to Improve Health and Wealth

By Barbara O’Neill, Ph.D., CFP®, Rutgers Cooperative Extension, oneill@aesop.rutgers.edu

People don’t have problems any more. They have “issues” and sSmall Steps to Health & Wealth logoome of these issues (e.g., obesity, diabetes, lack of savings, and high debt) affect their health and personal finances. Service members and their families, of course, are not immune. The Cooperative Extension Small Steps to Health and Wealth™ (SSHW) program encourages people to make positive changes to simultaneously improve their health and personal finances. Below are specific steps:

  • Convert Consumption Into Labor- Research how many hours of exercise, gardening, house cleaning, or other physical activity are needed to burn off a certain number of calories. A comparable financial example is “converting spending into labor” by calculating how many hours of work are needed in order to buy something.
  • Meet Yourself Halfway- To lose weight, decrease portion sizes by one-half. For example, eat one cookie instead of two. A comparable financial example is to reduce spending on “discretionary” expenses such as meals eaten away from home, lottery tickets, clothing, and food. Don’t cut out spending on these items completely but spend less than you do now. Plans to change are more likely to succeed when people don’t feel “deprived.”Downsize Eating and Spending- Buying less food saves calories and cuts costs. For example, eat lunch portions or appetizers at restaurants and/or take food home for another meal. Household spending can also be downsized. Simply figure out ways to purchase items for less (e.g., thrift shops) or buy fewer of them.
  • Say No to Super-Sizing- No matter how much of a “deal” upgrading a meal’s size may be, don’t be tempted. Rather, eat fewer calories by ordering smaller portions. Ditto for non-food spending such as “buy three and save” offers when you only need one item. Avoid “deals” that require you to spend more to “save” more.
  • Track Eating and Spending- Most people don’t know how many calories they consume daily or how many dollars they spend monthly on “incidentals” such as snacks, beverages, children’s expenses, and gifts. One of the best ways to increase awareness of current practices is to record foods eaten and dollars spent for a typical month or two. Then analyze relationships between eating, spending, and emotions and make needed adjustments.
  • Photo by Alan Cleaver. CC BY 2.0
    Photo by Alan Cleaver. CC BY 2.0

    Compare Yourself with Recommended Guidelines- A nutrition example is body mass index (BMI). A BMI of 18.5 to 24.9 is considered healthy, 25 to 29.9 overweight, 30 to 39.9 obese, and 40+ morbidly obese. A comparable financial example is a person’s consumer debt-to-income ratio, which is calculated by dividing monthly consumer debt payments by monthly take-home (net) pay. The recommended ratio is 15%-20% or less.

  • Start Small- Simple behavior changes, such as drinking an small can of soda instead of a large bottle (or, better still, water!) or using less butter, salad dressing or other spreads, can help people lose weight. The same is true for small financial changes. Two examples are saving a dollar a day, plus pocket change, in a can or jar and adding $1 a day (about $30 monthly) to the minimum monthly payment required on a credit card.
  • Follow Nutrition and Personal Finance Standards-People often understand portion sizes better when they are compared to common objects. Three ounces of meat is the size of a deck of cards and one cup of rice or pasta looks like a tennis ball. A common standard for personal finances is saving three to six months expenses for emergencies. This means an emergency fund of $6,000 to $12,000 for a household that spends $2,000 a month.
  • Control Intake and Outgo- For weight loss and improved health, this means reducing the calories you consume, increasing exercise to burn off more calories, or doing both. For improved finances and positive cash flow, increased income, reduced expenses, or doing both, are the keys to success.

For additional ideas about strategies to improve health and personal finances, visit the SSHW website. For a personalized assessment of personal health and financial management practices, take the Personal Health and Finance Quiz and save the date of October 11 for a webinar on this topic. Health & Wealth Relationships will be presented by the MFLN Personal Finance and MFLN Nutrition & Wellness teams. This 90-minute presentation will focus on the correlations between positive financial behaviors and positive health behaviors.