Small Steps To Health and Wealth

By Christina Wells,2014-05-18 05:01
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Small Steps To Health and Wealth

    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”

    Henry Ford

     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.

Environmental Influences

    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 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.

Other People

    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

    carrot sticks.

    ? 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 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

    reduce debt.

? 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 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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