I’ve been slightly overweight most of my life. Now, I was never “obese” by any numbers, but I was always a little chubby. In fact, I remember growing up my mother used to buy me “husky” jeans (She swears that never happened!). As a kid I didn’t really care or notice my weight too much, but started taking notice once I hit high school and I trimmed down when I played football for a few years. I stayed a healthy weight throughout college, but once I started working full-time in an office I ended up slowly gaining weight. I went from 172 lbs up to the 190′s and fluctuated over time. I briefly tried Atkins because my family is one of fad dieters, and that worked for a little while. I bought all these ridiculous Atkins ice creams and breads and things that replaced sugars with some weird form of alcohol. But over the long term it didn’t stick. I imagine that it’s not too unusual a circumstance.
Today, my wife and I have a very energetic nine month-old son. During the pregnancy my wife gained some weight. She may not love me to tell you this but she gained a bit more than the amount that doctors prefer to see. Being the caring husband I am, I gained about 15 pounds in my own sympathetic pregnancy (i.e. I took the opportunity to chow down on seconds at meals and eat dessert every night, and when she ate poorly I did as well). So I ended up tipping the scales at 197 pounds a month after my son was born. My wife wasn’t very happy about her own weight either. So we made a decision: we’d start a diet together.
Today I’m at 167 pounds – I lost 30 pounds over the course of about 4 months. My wife lost all her baby weight plus about 30 more pounds on top of that! And since then I’ve been maintaining my weight and my wife has continued to lose (though she’s scaled back how quickly).
There were a few lessons we learned that apply not only to weight loss but to sticking to your financial goals as well. The parallels are hard not to spot.
It’s About the Data
The only time I’ve ever been able to lose and maintain my weight has been when I actually tracked my calories. I used the Lose It app on my iPhone, but there are a number of apps and websites to help you track what you eat and your exercise. The practice of weighing myself regularly and tracking what I ate alone made me change my behavior and start getting to my goal weight.
I also find that I really needed to measure out my food and look at the nutrition labels. You need to learn proper portion sizes and see how much you really are eating. You can’t easily eyeball 2 ounces of dry pasta. Get a small kitchen scale.
I find that if I just track my weight alone, I tend to do a better job of maintaining, and that to really lose weight I needed to track my weight as well as my calories and exercise – including actually measuring out my portions. It’s all about making decisions based on good data.
Take Google: they’re a company known for meticulously tracking data and using it to help drive decisions and reach goals. Remember those ridiculous puzzle questions they were famous for using in interviews? Yeah, they don’t do that anymore. Why? Because they looked at the data and found it didn’t work. (Heck they may have even gone too far when they used data to determine what shade of blue to use).
The parallel for finances is simple: Track your income and expenses. Track your investments. Keep tabs on your cash flow. The simplest way to do this is to setup an account on Mint or Personal Capital and then visit them occasionally to categorize the expenses (or fix their detected categories).
It’s About Willpower
Once you have the data, it gives you the facts about your situation (as long as you’re not feeding it false data). Usually just gathering that alone will cause the results to improve. But in either case it allows you to see the changes you need to make to reach your goals. You then need to use your own willpower to actually put it in practice.
It became mentally and emotionally more difficult to cheat on my diet by eating poorly or grabbing an ice cream cone at night when I knew I had to add it to my app and see the calorie count go over and into the red.
Obviously, in finances the same rule applies: it becomes more difficult to ruin your budget with impulse buys if you can see exactly how it;s impacting your cashflow and progress towards goals.
Use Laziness To Your Advantage
One change we made was to simple avoid buying the snacks and desserts when we went grocery shopping. If the “bad” foods aren’t in your house, you’re much less likely to run out in your pajamas at night to go grab a pint of Ben & Jerry’s. You can use your own laziness to your advantage this way.
The financial equivalent for me is 401k deductions – you’re squirreling away money for your retirement before you can even get your hands on the money. Taking it a step further automating your finances entirely, including transfers to your investment accounts or emergency savings, lets your money flow towards your goals by default. You actually have to manually act to mess up your progress, rather than the default of needing to manually transfer money out for savings.
The Buddy System
Having my wife and I dieting together we drove one another to lose weight. We’d hold one another accountable for eating well or poorly and going to the gym regularly. There were plenty of times when I’d want to eat an unhealthy snack and then change my mind when I saw my wife choose a fruit instead. We’d both eat a healthy dinner, rather than one of us running off and getting fast food or sneaking snacks alone. We competed over the weight loss. It was a very positive influence for each of us. She also used a personal trainer at the gym for the first couple months as an additional social pressure. She was then responsible for showing up at specific dates and times and getting pushed to train harder than she would have pushed herself alone.
The same can be said of a family’s finances. If everyone’s not on the same page it can be discouraging and counter-productive. If you’re cutting costs and saving money on utilities but your partner isn’t on board you’ll end up just spending the extra savings on frivolous shopping. Or you’ll argue over spending and any change in lifestyle comfort or luxury because your goals aren’t aligned. Be sure you have buy-in from everyone who’s responsible for handling money in your household. A parallel to this is sharing your financial goals with friends or family. Publicly acknowledging your goal and tracking will give you peer pressure to actually achieve it.