Overcoming Obstacles and Taking Action
Barbara O’Neill, Ph.D., CFP, Extension Specialist in Financial Resource Management
Karen Ensle, Ed.D., RD, Family and Community Health Sciences Educator
Rutgers Cooperative Extension
“Obstacles are those frightful things you see,
when you take your eyes off your goal”
So what’s stopping you from becoming healthy and wealthy? What are the major obstacles that
keep getting in your way? For many people, it’s one or more of the following items: denial,
environmental influences, fear, lack of specific goals, negative thought patterns, not knowing where to
get started, and other people (e.g., family and friends). Let’s examine each obstacle individually:
Here’s a recent example. According to the 2004 Retirement Confidence Survey, the following
percentages of workers gave either “no thought” or “little thought” to: how to manage money in
retirement to not outlive savings (66%), how to pay for health expenses not covered by Medicare (70%),
and how to pay for long-term care costs (79%). Yet, two-thirds (68%) were “very confident” or “somewhat confident” of the adequacy of their retirement planning and savings. Similarly, six in ten
people who qualify as overweight under government standards said they were at a healthy weight in a
2004 Associated Press poll. Why the disconnects? Two reasons. One is that people generally think
they’re doing a whole lot better than they actually are. The second is that it is much easier to remain in a state of denial. If people find out how they’re doing and what they ought to be doing, they feel more
pressure to change their behavior (e.g., spend less and exercise more) and many don’t want to.
American marketing methods also encourage immediate gratification and discourage taking the time to
make behavior changes.
Behavior change researchers have consistently found that environmental conditions affect one’s ability
to make positive changes. People are more likely to change for the better when they can replace
unhealthy environmental influences with healthy/positive ones. In the book The Health and Wealth
Factors, author Angie Hollerich listed environment as one of twelve common factors associated with
improvements to health and wealth. Poor environments are obstacles to making progress. A poor
health environment example is not having a refrigerator and microwave oven available at work so that
you can bring healthy lunches. This encourages eating expensive, high-calorie “take out” meals. Two poor financial environment examples are having a weekly “gambling pool” with coworkers and an
employer that does not provide any payroll deduction savings opportunities.
Financial experts often write about fear as a major influence in investment decisions. Fear about making
any type of change can be paralyzing and cause people to “freeze” and take no action. The key to
overcoming your fears is to, first, acknowledge them and, second, research them to determine if they are
truly worthy of concern or simply “False Evidences Appearing as Real.” What is it that you fear most about changing a health or financial behavior? Write it down. Is it to saying “no” to family members?
Or having a heart attack while exercising? Or losing money in the stock market? Once you’ve identified
your fear, check it out…ask a doctor or financial advisor, visit reputable Web sites, or attend a meeting
for people with similar concerns. Knowledge is power. Often when people learn more about an issue
(e.g., stock market performance data), they are less afraid of making changes.
Lack of Specific Goals
Short-term New Year’s resolutions aside, many people fail to set specific health or personal finance
goals. The best goals are written and include a time deadline and a numerical target (e.g., amount of
weight change or increased savings). In virtually every book about health and finances, there is some
mention of the need to set goals prior to making behavior changes. Goals that aren’t written down and
quantified are little more than dreams that often go unfulfilled. Financial Fitness Quiz data (see www.rce.rutgers.edu/money/ffquiz.asp) from Rutgers Cooperative Extension’s Money and Investing
Web site have shown written goals, with a specific target date and dollar cost, to be the second least-
frequently performed financial practice, after having a will. This is unfortunate. Written goals make it
easy to plan action steps and monitor progress. They are also motivational. Lacking goals is like taking a
trip without a map or destination.
Negative Thought Patterns
Winston Churchill once said, “The pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity. The optimist sees opportunity in every difficulty.” People who are chronically pessimistic in their world-view tend to give up more easily (or not even attempt to make a health or financial behavior change) compared to those
with optimistic thought processes. Fortunately, negative thought patterns are “curable,” according to
Martin Seligman, author of the book Learned Optimism. The trick is to purposefully counter negative thinking patterns with positive thoughts and evidence of past successes. For example, instead of
thinking, “I will never lose 30 pounds,” say “I will lose 2 pounds a week over the next 15 weeks” or “I
lost weight once, I can do it again.” The same can be done with financial actions, such as saving money
and reducing debt. When bad things happen, try to view the glass as “half full” rather than “half empty.”
Think of how much worse things could have been, instead of how bad they are.
Not Knowing Where to Get Started
The secret to getting ahead with improved health and finances is getting started. For many people,
however, the first step is the worst step, because there are no prior experiences or role models to follow.
Unsure of what to do, who to call, where to go, and/or how to do something, we simply fail to act. Then
procrastination and inertia set in and health and personal finance goals begin to seem insurmountable.
At the end of this fact sheet, you’ll find ten “generic” health and wealth action steps to get you started on
the path to success. Now there are no excuses. Additional background information can also be found
from the resources listed in the fact sheet Small Steps to Health and Wealth? Resources.
Friends and family can be a resource or an obstacle to health and financial progress. When you are
pressured to take action that causes you to take a step backward, it is time to speak up and address the
issue. Many communication experts recommend “I” messages because they allow someone to express
their feelings without making accusations against the other party. An example of a financial “I”
message is “I feel worried with more than $500 on our credit card” instead of “You are spending too
much money.” A health “I” message is “I am concerned that your overweight may cause health
problems” instead of “you are getting too fat.”
Generic Health and Wealth Action Steps
Not sure where to begin? Consider these commonly recommended strategies for improving health and
? Planning Worksheet. wealth. Then complete the Small Steps to Health and Wealth
Health Action Steps
? Be physically active. Buy a pedometer and track the number of steps walked per day. The
recommended goal is 10,000 steps (approximately 5 miles), but many people fall far short of this
mark. Any gradual increases (e.g., walking 250 steps more each week) are steps in the right
direction (pun intended). The 2005 Dietary Guidelines For Americans recommends a minimum of
30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise (e.g., brisk walking) per day and 60 to 90 minutes for
those who want to lose weight or sustain weight loss.
? Read the nutrition fact labels on foods and use them to meet your daily caloric intake. Use a “pocket
calorie counter book” for unlabeled items and restaurant meals. Give yourself a daily calorie
“budget” and try not to exceed it. If one meal is particularly high in calories, compensate by eating
less at the others. To lose about 10 pounds per year, eat 100 fewer calories per day or spend 100
extra calories in daily physical activity. ? Make smart menu substitutions a permanent habit. For example, replace whole milk with 1% or
skim milk, tuna packed in oil with tuna packed in water, regular salad dressing with low-fat, low-
calorie dressing, and potato chip and nacho snacks with unbuttered popcorn, baked potato chips, or
? Decrease the number of calories consumed by reducing the amount eaten at meals and as snacks. A
good way to start is to simply decrease current portion sizes by one-third or one-half. Save the
leftovers for another meal.
? Calculate your body mass index (BMI), which is a ratio of height to weight (see the calculator at
www.consumer.gov/weightloss/bmi.htm). If your BMI is 25 or over, follow the steps described
above to gradually lower it to between 18.5 and 24.9, which is considered a normal BMI range.
Wealth Action Steps
? Track household spending for a month or two by writing down the amount spent and the expense
category (e.g., gas for car). Use this information to develop a spending plan (budget) that includes
savings for financial goals. Increase income and/or make reductions in discretionary expenses (e.g.,
food, clothing, entertainment), as needed, so that income = expenses + savings.
? Place two dollars a day, plus pocket change, in a can or jar. At the end of a month, you’ll have about
$80 to $100 accumulated. Save this money in a bank account or, better still, if you have credit card
debt, add it to the minimum payment due on a credit card. One of the best “investments” people can
make is to use their savings to pay off outstanding credit card bills with double-digit interest rates.
? Set up “automated routines” for saving and investing. For example, have money directly debited
each month from your bank account to purchase U.S. savings bonds, shares in a stock index fund, or
stock from companies with a dividend reinvestment plan. You won’t miss what you don’t have.
Anytime you get a raise, put some or all of the extra money into savings or investments or use it to
? Participate in a work-related retirement savings plan (e.g., 401(k)). If you’re not currently enrolled,
sign up and start saving. If you’re currently saving something, save at least 1% more of your pay.
Try to save at least the amount required to earn the maximum savings match from your employer
(e.g., 6% of pay). This is “free money” that, unfortunately, many workers pass up the opportunity to
earn. A 50-cent on-the-dollar match is like earning an automatic 50% investment return.
? Complete the Ballpark Estimate retirement planning worksheet developed by the American Savings
Education Council (see www.asec.org) to get a rough estimate of what you need to save each year to
fund your retirement. Try several scenarios until you get to an affordable savings figure. Then
adjust household income and expenses to “find” the required dollar amount and start saving.
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