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Step Down to Change and Kick it Up a Notch

March 2010

Barbara O’Neill, Ph.D., CFP®
Extension Specialist in Financial Resource Management
Rutgers Cooperative Extension

Rutgers Cooperative Extension’s Small Steps to Health and Wealth™ (SSHW) program is being replicated by Extension educators nationwide. The goal of SSHW is to help Americans take action to simultaneously improve their health and personal finances. The program is built around 25 research-based behavior change strategies. Below is a discussion of two of them: “Step Down to Change” and “Kick It Up a Notch.” Read more information about SSHW behavior change strategies.

You’ve probably seen television advertisements for a product that helps people gradually quit smoking. Its advertisements use the words “step down” to indicate that exposure to nicotine is reduced in pre-determined stages. “Stepping down” is also a method to reduce household spending. Just like the smoking cessation product, the principle is that people will be more successful, and feel less deprived, if their spending is reduced in gradual stages as opposed to eliminating spending on an item completely.

To illustrate the “step-down principle,” visualize a staircase. Here’s an example of buying pancakes for breakfast. The most expensive method (top step of the staircase) would be going to a “sit-down” restaurant. The next step down would be to buy the pancakes at a fast food outlet. Go down two more steps on the staircase and you might buy frozen pancakes and pancakes prepared with a dry mix. At the “floor” of the staircase would be the cheapest method still: pancakes prepared “from scratch” (i.e., dry ingredients).

The “step-down principle” also works well with other “discretionary” household expenses. For example, buying clothing. Steps of spending, from top to bottom, might include department stores, discount stores, factory outlets, consignment stores, and thrift shops/flea markets/garage sales. Again, the more “steps down,” the greater the savings. You don’t cut out buying clothing completely, but you explore alternative ways to get more for the reduced amount of money you plan to spend.

“Stepping down” can also refer to the frequency or amount of a purchase as well as where it is made. For example, eating out five times per month instead of ten. You can also use the step-down principle to reduce calories eaten. For example, gradually step-down from 1 cup of whole milk (149 calories) to 2% milk (122 calories) to 1% milk (102 calories) to skim milk (86 calories).

“Kick it up a notch” is also a strategy to improve your health and increase your wealth. It means ratcheting up healthy behaviors that you are currently performing (or maybe not performing) in order to make them better. For example, if you currently get 20 minutes of physical activity daily, start exercising for 30 or 40 minutes. If you are saving 3% of your pay in a 401(k) plan, increase your contribution to 4% or 5%.

With the “Step Down To Change” strategy, you gradually reduce unhealthy behaviors such as smoking, high calorie diets, and overspending. With the “Kick it Up a Notch” strategy, you do the exact opposite and take action to gradually increase healthy behaviors such as exercise, saving/investing, and debt reduction. An example is increasing exercise time gradually so that you are eventually walking10,000 steps a day.

Good financial practices can also be kicked up a notch. For example, by contributing more to tax-deferred 401(k), 403(b), and Section 457 plans. The best times to do this are when you receive a raise, or other increase in income, or when household expenses, such as a car loan and childcare, end.

Want to improve your health and/or personal finances? Step down to change and kick it up a notch!