Barbara O’Neill, Ph.D., CFP® Extension Specialist in Financial Resource Management Rutgers Cooperative Extension
Want to improve your health and personal finances? Take the Small Steps to Health and Wealth™ Challenge. The Challenge is a six-week activity where individuals or teams track points on a daily basis for practicing recommended health and financial behaviors. The Challenge is part of Small Steps to Health and Wealth™, a national Cooperative Extension program developed because many Americans have both health and financial “issues.” Societal problems that have been widely reported include an increasing incidence of diabetes and obesity, low household savings, and high household debt. SSHW was built around a framework of 25 research-based behavior change strategies. It is believed to be the first long-term program ever developed to motivate Americans to simultaneously improve their health and personal finances. A literature review, conducted while developing the SSHW program, revealed little previous programming or research linking behavior changes in health and personal finances. In the academic literature, most of the research about health and financial linkages is at the macro level (e.g., the cost to society of obesity, diabetes, or smoking), rather than studies of individuals changing their behavior. The SSHW Challenge is a behaviorally-focused activity that encourages the adoption of recommended health/nutrition and financial management practices. It can be done by individuals or by small groups and is ideal for worksites, military bases, college classes, and organizations that meet regularly. In the case of group participation, individuals can organize a team of, say, 4 or 5 people, report their point totals weekly to a team captain, and receive ongoing support and recognition. Organizations that run a SSHW Challenge may want to organize a celebration at the conclusion of the program and/or award prizes as an incentive to participate. Participants in a SSHW Challenge are “on their honor” to report their activities accurately; if they cheat on the reporting of their points, they are only cheating themselves by not following recommended practices. The SSHW Challenge was originally developed to last 6 weeks but could be lengthened or shortened to fit the needs of a participating organization. Individuals can “challenge” themselves indefinitely to improve their health and financial practices by printing out new weekly tracking forms or creating a Microsoft Excel® spreadsheet to track their progress. It has been well documented that, when people monitor their behavior and measure their how they’re doing, they are inspired to do better and the results generally show. The SSHW Challenge is based on the performance of ten recommended practices on a daily basis: five that involve health and nutrition and five that involve financial management. Ten points are given for performing each one. The five daily health and nutrition practices are: eat at least 4 cups of fruits and vegetables; get at least 30 minutes of exercise; drink water or unsweetened beverages instead of sugar-sweetened beverages; walk 10,000 or more steps with a pedometer; and learn something new about health and nutrition. The five daily financial management practices that are included in the SSHW Challenge are: save a $1 bill (or more) and/or pocket change; invest $5 or more per day (including automated retirement savings plan deposits); track money spent throughout the day; eat lunch prepared at home; and learn something new about personal finance. The latter activity, for both health and personal finances, can be accomplished by visiting Web sites, attending seminars, or by reading, listening to, or viewing media reports. For further information about the SSHW Challenge, visit the website. There, you’ll find a summary of a pilot test of the program as well as all the forms that are needed to conduct a Challenge and frequently asked questions. Why not make start a mid-year resolution to improve your health and personal finances? The SSHW Challenge is an excellent way to get started.