Barbara O’Neill, Ph.D., CFP®
Extension Specialist in Financial Resource Management
Rutgers Cooperative Extension
The Rutgers Cooperative Extension Small Steps to Health and Wealth™ (SSHW) program “encourages participants to make positive behavior changes to simultaneously improve their health and personal finances.” That is our “elevator statement” or the short sound bite that we use when we only have seconds to explain the program. A key feature of SSHW is helping people overcome their obstacles so they can move forward with making positive changes such as losing weight and saving money. What’s stopping you from becoming healthy and wealthy? What are the major obstacles that keep getting in your way? For many people, it’s one or more of the following six items. If you can overcome these obstacles, you’ll increase your odds of success.
Denial - People generally think they’re doing a whole lot better than they actually are. It is much easier to remain in a state of denial than to change personal behavior. When people examine how they’re doing and compare their current practices to expert recommendations, they often feel more pressure to change their behavior (e.g., spend less and exercise more) and many don’t want to. American marketing methods also encourage immediate gratification and discourage taking the time to make sustained behavior changes.
Environmental Influences - Behavior change researchers have found that environmental conditions affect our ability to make positive changes. People are more likely to change for the better when they can replace unhealthy environmental influences with healthy/positive ones. Poor environments are obstacles to making progress. A poor health environment example is not having a refrigerator and microwave at work so you can bring healthy lunches. This encourages eating expensive, high-calorie “take out” meals. A poor financial environment example is an employer that does not provide any payroll deduction savings opportunities.
Fear - Fear of change can cause people to “freeze” and take no action. The key to overcoming your fears is to, first, acknowledge them and, second, research them to determine if they are truly worthy of concern or simply “False Evidences Appearing as Real.” What is it that you fear most about changing a health or financial behavior? Write your fears down. Is it to saying “no” to family members? Having a heart attack while exercising? Losing money in the stock market? Once you’ve identified your fears, check them out. Knowledge is power. Often when people learn more (e.g., stock market history), they are less afraid of making changes.
Lack of Specific Goals - New Year’s resolutions aside, many people fail to set specific health or personal finance goals. The best goals are written and include a time deadline and a numerical target (e.g., amount of weight change or increased savings). In virtually every book about health and finances, there is some mention of the need to set goals prior to making behavior changes. Goals that aren’t written down and quantified are little more than dreams that often go unfulfilled. Written goals make it easy to plan action steps and monitor progress. They are also motivational. Lacking goals is like taking a trip without a map or a destination.
Negative Thought Patterns - People who are chronically pessimistic tend to give up more easily (or not even attempt to make a health or financial behavior change) compared to those with optimistic thought processes. Fortunately, negative thought patterns are “fixable.” The trick is to purposefully counter negative thinking patterns with positive thoughts and evidence of past successes. For example, instead of thinking, “I will never lose 30 pounds,” say “I will lose 2 pounds a week over the next 15 weeks” or “I lost weight once, I can do it again.” The same can be done with financial actions, such as saving money and reducing debt.
Other People - Friends and family can be a resource or an obstacle to health and financial progress. When you are pressured to take action that causes you to take a step backward, it is time to speak up and address the issue. Many communication experts recommend “I” messages because they allow someone to express their feelings without making accusations against the other party. An example of a financial “I” message is “I get worried when I spend more than $500 on our credit card.” A health “I” message is “I am concerned that being overweight will cause us to have some health problems.”