Over a decade ago when I was getting my financial counseling accreditation, I started volunteering at my local Cooperative Extension office and I came across a small book called “Small Steps to Health and Wealth.” In it, the authors made a connection between people’s finances and their health, and the idea really resonated with me — mean, who doesn’t want to be both wealthier and healthier?
While the book is based on scientific research and data, the central concept is fairly simple: personal health and financial health are related, and we can use many of the same strategies to try and change both sets of habits and behaviors.
Small steps can lead to big changes
The idea of making incremental changes to one’s lifestyle is one of the cornerstones of the book, and it is actually something we talk about quite a bit here at Military Saves. “Start Small, Think Big” is one of the basic tenets of our program.
However, the thought of making substantial change in our lives can be daunting. Just like you wouldn’t try to run a marathon the very first time you went jogging, you shouldn’t try to max out your retirement plan with your first paycheck.
Some people get so overwhelmed at the thought of saving (or exercising) that they do nothing. The key is to take it slowly, like saving $5 a week or taking the stairs instead of the elevator, and then building on that positive behavior.
One of the things that I would regularly tell my financial counseling clients was to track their expenses: the only way to have control over one’s money is to know exactly where it goes.
The same holds true with diet and exercise. There are free apps, like My Fitness Pal, that help you track your efforts — and of course there are gadgets like Fitbits and Apple watches that do it as well. Or you can make a spreadsheet, jot it down on your calendar or on the back of an envelope.
Set a goal
Knowing where your money is going, how many calories you’re eating or how many minutes of activity you’re completing allows you to be better informed when it comes to setting a realistic goal for your efforts. Studies have shown that the act of setting a concrete goal makes you twice as likely to achieve it.
Make a plan
You wouldn’t set out on a road trip without an address, or at least some general idea of your destination. By creating a plan for your money, diet or exercise you will be in control of the progress toward reaching that goal. It also keeps you accountable to make sure you are following your roadmap and making adjustments where needed.
The Military Saves Pledge is the first step in a simple spending plan: by setting a savings goal and dividing it up into monthly increments, you give yourself a roadmap for savings. For example, by promising yourself that you will save $25 per two week pay period, you can build up a $650 emergency fund in a year.
You can make the same sort of plan to work toward health goals, such as minutes of physical activity per day, or steps taken, or servings of fruits and vegetables.
Do what works for YOU
Having a realistic, workable plan is crucial to success. When I teach personal finance classes, I often compare an unrealistic spending plan to a “quack” diet. I might lose a ton of weight if I subsisted on a diet of only grapefruit and vinegar, but I wouldn’t be able to sustain that diet, and I certainly couldn’t live with it long term.
A viable spending plan, just like a viable exercise plan or diet, is not a short-term fix. It’s also something that needs to evolve over time to meet changing needs.
Help is out there
When military families want to make the health and wealth connection, there are plenty of resources. There are financial counselors at family service centers on every installation who can help create a spending plan, and free counseling is available through Military OneSource.
While some installations have brick and mortar wellness or fitness centers, there are also many online resources available through Military OneSource.