I have never felt like the fad follower when it comes to food. By that I mean, I haven’t done the cabbage soup or the grapefruit diet. But in hindsight, I’ve done my fair share of diets. While I’ve never felt restricted, each time, there was still a sense of “right” and “wrong,” foods and a rebound in the opposite direction when I was set loose.
I’ve regretted setting myself up for failure like this, and for getting sucked into the diet industry. I’ve struggled with just accepting myself and trying not to feel guilty for eating an apple when it was banned on the sugar-free plan I was on the month before. Most of all, I’ve felt exhausted by all the information, the conflicting guidance, and the constant chase for an unattainable diet nirvana where I feel amazing but get to socialize and eat cheese, drink wine and be merry!
Recently, I’ve started to look at my diet experience in a new way and appreciate it for all I learned. And those learnings apply so pertinently to my financial health, as well as my physical health.
1. If you act out of fear you will f*$! it up. We do the juice cleanse to lost 20 pounds in mere weeks, or worse, we get so freaked out we do nothing at all and eat to make ourselves feel better and dig into a deeper hole. Get excited about taking better care of yourself and setting yourself up for a healthy financial future, and you’ll likely make better decisions.
2. Action beats education. I’ve met people who’ve lost weight by starting to take three flights of stairs up to their office rather than the elevator. Granted, commitment to take the stairs might indicate a better frame of mind, and that person might be gradually making other positive changes, but the initial focus is on a small win. Starting with something small and manageable, like taking the stairs or skipping buying lunchtime beverages, can help build the self-confidence to take more small steps. One tiny repeated action can really make a difference, no matter whether it’s with your wallet or your waistline.
3. What works for someone else might not work for me. Sally might be happy having plain oatmeal for breakfast and a chicken salad for lunch every day. Sally might balance her checkbook every night. But I would get bored and stressed. There isn’t one answer; we’re all different, and you have to own what works for you. If you don’t like writing down every dollar you spend, you can use a tool like Mint and intermittently check in on your accounts, or you could even set up a direct debit with a rough savings amount based on some back-of-the-napkin calculations and tweak it until you get it right.
4. Don’t assume that Sally who eats cake when you get coffee doesn’t have a very healthy diet the rest of the time. It’s easy to justify your $600 a month restaurant spending by looking at your friends who dine out all the time, but don’t assume they’re popping bottles every night behind closed doors. A healthy plan should include room for indulgence, but there’s a difference between planned and budgeted indulgences and automatically grabbing that brownie with your morning coffee “just because.”
5. Some things are outside your control, but more is in your control than you think. Your genes; the stock market. It’s easy to get disheartened when things don’t go as planned, but if you focus on what you can control, you’ll likely get a kick out of taking some control irrespective of the results. You may even find that results come even if those results don’t get you on the Victoria’s Secret runway.
6. The most boring advice is usually the most effective. Eat less and exercise more. Set aside what you can and invest for the long term. There is a lot of financial advice out there, just as there are a lot of sexy diets ready to seduce you because they’re new and make big promises. There’s bitcoin, but there are also time-tested, simple rules that work.
7. It’s important to know what’s important. I know a guy who works 100 hour weeks as an attorney and earns a great income but lives in an apartment furnished with IKEA furniture. I have friends who don’t care for cheese and would rather eat salad and fit into a size two than have a nightly nibble of parmesan. I like fresh flowers and categorize my yoga membership under “essential daily living expenses,” and I also like parmesan. Work out what’s important to you, and build a plan around that.
8. The goal is to be happy and [financially] healthy — not healthy and miserable. Deprivation is not sustainable for most people, and mastering the art of not being perfect is a counterintuitive way to ensure long-term success. Identify the treats that make you happy. Create room for them. It doesn’t mean that you only eat donuts on the third Friday of every month, but maybe the day you do go for that custard-filled beauty at breakfast, you opt for a lighter lunch. Maybe when you splash out on a vacation you make an effort to cut down on dining out for a few weeks before.
Alexandra is a 31-year-old corporate lawyer. She is an eager home cook and dinner party host and sometimes remembers to meditate. Her parents always remind her that when she was 18 years old, she told them “I just want enough money that I never have to think about it.” She’s done well so far with the not thinking about it part, but she’s still in the very early stages of learning about what is “enough” money for her and how she can get it.
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