Let me guess… losing weight is high on the list of your New Year’s Resolutions? No, I don’t have a crystal ball. That is consistently in the top three resolutions uncovered by surveyors each year. Yet it’s not even mid February before many resolution-makers have thrown in the towel.
Not this year. New research has shown that your health and your wealth are inextricably linked. That’s why experts say that we often lose weight when we get our finances under control, and a study out of Germany last year found that being in serious debt makes you twice as likely to be overweight or obese. But you have to go about it the right way.
Here’s a six step plan that you can use to accomplish not just one, but both of those goals:
- Start with one thing first. It’s not easy to tackle two daunting tasks at once. And dieting – whether with your stomach or your wallet – can be incredibly daunting. So pick either your weight or your money as your first focus.
- Deal with feelings of deprivation. When you start reigning in your spending so you have money to pay down your debt, you might actually gain a few pounds at first, says April Benson, a psychologist who specializes in compulsive buying. “You do need to be on the lookout for your impulses to transfer from shopping to eating. When you’re trimming your spending, if it feels like deprivation, you’re going to try to fill yourself up in another way. Eating is the one that I see the most.” One of the best ways to deal with that is to give yourself small manageable goals. Save $10 to put toward your debt this week or drink water instead of soda. Next week, you can aim to save $15 or start taking a walk on your lunch break. If even that seems like too much, alternate so you focus on your weight one week and your debt the next.
- Once you’re feeling in control, layer. You’ve dropped a few pounds or paid down a few hundred in debt and now you’re feeling pretty good – right? In fact, what you’ve learned is impulse control. You’ve given your willpower a workout. Now it’s time to add on the second half of the equation. You’ll see that the challenge you’ve already conquered will help you. When you get a grip on your finances and live in the black, instead of in the red, you’ll be less stressed out, which helps reduce stress eating. In the short term, losing weight increases your self-esteem, which makes you less prone to emotional eating and shopping.
- Pick a new distraction. If you substitute eating for shopping, or shopping for eating, you’re right back to where you started. Instead, Benson says to “try to figure out what you can do – what’s going to meet that need that isn’t going to erode your life in the way that turning to food, and stuff, does?” Call up a friend and see if she can get together for coffee, take a long walk, go on a run, or organize a space in your home that has gotten out of control. All of these things can help quell the feelings that might drive you to shop and eat.
- Reward yourself. We all need something to look forward too, and often, it’s easier to meet goals if we make them tangible. Give yourself milestones, and when you reach them, have a mini-celebration: Join a friend for a drink, get a manicure, have that cookie you’ve been wanting. To keep yourself on track, think about what reaching your goals will mean. If you pay off debt, you might have an extra $300 to put toward something you want, like the payment on a new car or a trip to the beach next summer. And if you shed the extra weight, you can wear a bikini on that trip with confidence, or play with your kids without getting winded.
- Finally – and this is not a step but more of a long-term change – you’ll want to delve deeper. Once you’ve seen some early progress, it’s also time to figure out why you’re overspending and why you’re overeating. Often, says Benson, it’s about loneliness. When you’re at the mall, you’re surrounded by people, and the sales clerks all want to make you happy. Another common root is low self-esteem. You already feel bad about how you look, so you figure one donut won’t make a difference. You need a boost, so you head to your favorite store, where you can try on a new outfit and everyone will tell you how amazing it looks on you. Or maybe it’s plain old boredom. You have too much downtime, at work or at home, so you’re constantly snacking and online shopping. Whether you’re shopping or staring into the fridge, Benson says to ask yourself a few simple questions: Why are you here? How do you feel? Do you need this? She also has a great saying: “You can never get enough of what you don’t really need.” That’s one of the reasons why eating and shopping often spiral out of control – we’re trying to fill a void, but going about it in the wrong way. Once you’ve pinpointed what really drives you to the store and the fridge – and often, it’s the same thing – you can start dealing with it in a constructive, lasting way.
Jean Chatzky is financial editor of NBC's "Today" show, a contributing editor at More magazine and author of "Money 911: Your Most Pressing Money Questions Answered, Your Money Emergencies Solved." She recently launched the Jean Chatzky Score Builder in partnership with smartcredit.com. Check out her blog at jeanchatzky.com and follow her on Twitter and Facebook.
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