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It Only Takes a Few Small Changes

December 2008

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

Best wishes for a happy holiday season and a healthy and prosperous new year. As December rolls around, many people begin to mentally take stock of where they stand and think about changes they’d like to make to improve their life (e.g., weight loss, reduced debt, and increased savings). Media outlets help foster their resolve with lists of recommended actions and stories about successful behavior changers. For example, People magazine runs a feature early each year called “Half Their Size” which describes how various people lost half their body weight. All of the subjects who are profiled are inspirational role models for readers.

Fear of making a change, including not knowing where to get started, holds many people back. One way to overcome this natural tendency, with respect to changes to improve health habits and personal finances, is to select 3 to 5 of 25 possible Small Steps to Health and Wealth™ (SSHW) behavior change strategies. It helps to select several behavior change strategies that are interrelated. For example, someone might decide to defy someone as a result of a teachable moment by kicking a healthy behavior up a notch (e.g., walking 10,000 steps per day instead of 6,000 steps).

The remainder of this article describes specific small steps that I took to improve my health and parallel financial improvement strategies. Perhaps this story can inspire you. I decided to “live the SSHW book” to lose some weight and ultimately experienced success. Despite a three hour a day round trip commute to work and a sedentary job, I lost 30 pounds (150 lbs down to 120 lbs, 2 lbs lower than Ali’s final weight on The Biggest Loser), or 20% of myself, over the course of 10 months. It took time and motivation but, in the end, the results were worth it. All of my inspiration and action steps came from Small Steps to Health and Wealth™.

As is the case for many people, my behavior change began with a teachable moment (SSHW Strategy #18), specifically a high cholesterol reading. I then negotiated with my doctor to try to avoid taking cholesterol drugs through diet and exercise and set out to defy him (SSHW Strategy #5). My body mass index (BMI) indicated that I was overweight and I vowed to get it below the recommended benchmark of 25 (SSHW Strategy #13). From there, an action plan was needed. To step down to change (SSHW Strategy #20), I switched from 2% milk to skim, substituted apple sauce for cooking oil, started eating carrots, instead of cookies, for a mid-morning snack, and switched to fat-free muffins and Cheerios for breakfast.

The second part of my DEA (diet, exercise, and attitude) program was increased physical activity. In other words, I “kicked it up a notch” (SSHW Strategy #21). Religiously wearing a pedometer, I ramped up my daily steps from an average of about 6,000 a day to twice that amount. As suggested in SSHW, I “found” pockets of time to exercise including 20 minutes at the office before starting work, during lunch hour, around an outdoor shopping mall on the drive back from work, and in the evening at home. Slowly the pounds started rolling off, as I first breezed through the 140s and then the 130s. What a sense of control and accomplishment!

A downside of the weight loss was that clothes that initially got loose later looked downright baggy. A couple hundred dollars of “basic” clothing (e.g., pants and skirts two sizes smaller) were ultimately needed. Fortunately, due to the recession, stores had lots of sales. Another unexpected result was that the high cholesterol reading that started everything did not drop enough, due to a poor family health history and a post- breast cancer treatment drug, called Femara, which raises cholesterol. So ultimately, I couldn’t defy my doctor.

Nevertheless, I became healthier. Similarly, financial parallels can be found for the above-mentioned SSHW strategies. For example, calls from bill collectors are a teachable moment to address outstanding debt. Having consumer debt no greater than 20% of take-home pay is following a recommended benchmark. Ramping up 401(k) plan savings is an example of “kicking it up a notch” and reducing discretionary spending is a way of “stepping down.” Regardless of what changes you make, remember that you can’t reach a goal unless you set one. Any small change you make to improve your health and finances is a step in the right direction.