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Personal Health and Finance Relationships

October 2014

Personal Health and Finance Relationships

2014 is the 10-year anniversary of the Cooperative Extension Small Steps to Health and Wealth™ (SSHW) program. Conceived at Rutgers University in 2004, when educational programs and research related to health and personal finances were generally conducted on separate tracks, SSHW offered a unique integrative approach. Combining health and personal finance education within a research-based behavioral framework, SSHW is now a signature Cooperative Extension program that has been replicated in over a dozen states.

SSHW encourages people to make positive behavior changes to simultaneously improve their health and personal finances and focuses on small daily action steps that can achieve significant results over time. The program includes a Website that includes monthly health and financial messages, classes for different target audiences, a blog, podcasts and animated videos, downloadable posters, online daily activity challenges, published research about health and personal finances, and a 132-page downloadable workbook that is available in print and for free downloading from the SSHW Web site.

Most recently, the Personal Health and Finance Quiz was added to provide online users with an assessment of their daily health and financial practices as well as conduct data for research about associations between health and personal finances. People who complete the Personal Health and Finance Quiz indicate one of four frequencies for their performance of ten daily health behaviors and ten daily financial behaviors. The responses are Never, Sometimes, Usually, and Always. Upon completion of the quiz, they receive a score for each section of the quiz (i.e., a Health Score and a Finance Score), a Total Score, and links to additional online resources for improved health and financial management. Extension educators around the country are using the quiz to teach people how small positive daily actions can contribute to long-term well-being.

During the past decade, increasing numbers of research studies and educational programs have followed the lead of the Small Steps to Health and Wealth™ program and integrated health and personal finance topics. A recent example is a study in the journal Psychological Science in June 2014. Researchers Timothy Gubler and Lamar Pierce from Washington University in St. Louis studied psychological factors underlying physical and financial health. They found that the decision to contribute to a 401(k) retirement savings plan was associated with whether individuals acted to correct poor physical health indicators that were revealed during an employer-sponsored health examination.

The 401(k) plan contributors showed improvements in health behaviors about 27% more often than non-contributors. One possible explanation is that they score high on the personality trait of conscientiousness. The take-away messages for consumers are to save for retirement, eat right, and exercise. It should be noted, however, that the relationship between savings and health was correlational, not causal. In other words, saving for retirement will not automatically improve your health. Good health habits take work and, even then, there are no guarantees.

Another way that health and finances have increasingly been connected is through workplace programs that integrate both aspects of employees’ lives. Human Resources departments of large companies typically contract with specialized companies that provide holistic “workplace wellness” programs for their employees. Examples of these companies are Two Medicine Health and Financial Fitness and Simplicity Health Plans, both of which provide customized workplace wellness programs for employers that incorporate health and financial education. Simplicity Health Plans has also developed a proprietary Health Index Calculator to forecast for individual employees the financial impact of their poor health habits and the potential savings of improved health habits. Seeing a dollar figure resulting from personal unhealthy habits (vs. average national figures) has been found to be a powerful motivator to change behavior.

The Small Steps to Health and Wealth™ (SSHW) program and efforts by employers and others to address Americans’ health and personal finances holistically will undoubtedly expand in years to come. Each aspect of a person’s life affects the other. Perhaps the Ancient Roman Poet Virgil said it best: “The greatest wealth is health.”