Aligning Health Goals with Personal Finance Goals

It’s no secret to anyone reading The Simple Dollar for very long that I’m a goal-oriented person. I find a great deal of power in setting goals for myself, developing plans for those goals, and working toward them by executing that plan as well as I can and revising it as needed.

I view my own life as a series of spheres (physical, mental, social, spiritual, financial, professional, marital, parental, avocational, intellectual) and, ideally, I want to always have some kind of goal going that provides a lot of value to each of those spheres. However, that doesn’t mean I always have nine or ten goals going at all times; in fact, I usually try to keep that number around five.

I do that by aiming to come up with goals that serve two or more spheres at the same time. Most of the big goals I come up with in life are ones that really hit two or more of those areas at once and usually have a secondary benefit for some of the other spheres.

Some of these spheres tend to have a lot of synergy. There are a lot of goals I can define that scratch both the “intellectual” and “avocational” goals at the same time, because I like hobbies that make me think. There are a lot of goals that scratch both the “parental” and “marital” goals if they’re focused on building a great home environment for my wife and my kids (and that often helps me with a few other spheres indirectly).

What I really wanted to focus on today is another pairing of spheres that seem to have a lot of synergy, and that’s “financial” and “physical.” I find that there are a lot of really powerful goals that touch on both the “financial” and “physical” spheres at the same time by encouraging both financial and physical fitness.

I covered some of that synergy in my post earlier this year on the connections between your physical life and your financial life, but I didn’t really delve into actually setting goals for yourself that took advantage of those extensive connections and overlap. Today, that’s exactly what we’re looking at: translating the extensive overlap between physical health and financial goals into meaningful goals for both spheres.

As I stated in the earlier article, the core of physical life, for me, is whether or not I feel good and energetic and relatively pain-free each day such that I feel like I can take on life’s challenges, and am I doing what I can to keep that state going forward, both in the short term and the long term. I want to feel good enough to do the things I want to do for as long as I possibly can, and the better I feel, the better.

As I’ve stated elsewhere, the core of one’s financial life, for me, is having the financial resources to live a contented life, to protect that life as much as possible from unexpected events, and to improve one’s financial state so that one no longer is required to work for a living to sustain their contented life.

Let’s start by making a list of areas where these two elements overlap meaningfully, drawing at least in part from that previous article.

Paying attention to your physical health and taking action in positive ways reduces both your short term and long term health care costs. You’re simply going to avoid a lot of health issues if you do the things you should be doing in terms of your personal health, and that directly benefits your pocket in terms of lower health care costs, both now and in the future.

Your food, beverage, and vice costs are lower if you’re consuming a healthy diet and minimizing vices, both of which contribute to a healthier life. Your beverage costs are going to decline if you switch to almost exclusively drinking water, which is one of the best health moves you can make. If you give up consumption vices that are bad for your health, such as alcohol, cigarettes, caffeine, or hard drugs, that’s an expense that disappears out of your life. Even eating a healthier diet with a high proportion of fruits and vegetables prepared at home is going to be a significant money saver over the typical American diet. Most of the consumption choices you make for your health are also going to help your financial situation as well.

Your insurance costs are lower if you can demonstrate a higher level of health. This is particularly true for health insurance and life insurance, but there’s a smaller effect for other kinds of insurance as well. Both life insurance and health insurance are quoted based on data that includes some of your vital statistics, and thus the better those statistics, the better off you are.

The healthier and more energetic you feel, the more you feel ready to take on challenges and projects, many of which can be enormous money savers. Trust me, I’ve been there – the less healthy and less energetic you feel, the harder it is to motivate yourself to do anything. This is key, because many of the things you need to do to cut your spending require at least some energy output. When you feel completely unenergetic, it’s hard to convince yourself to get up and go to the grocery store or to make a healthy meal.

The healthier and more energetic you feel, the easier it is to raise your income level. This also applies to income. The healthier and more energetic you feel, the easier it is to be productive at work and to build the kinds of professional and client relationships that will help you earn more money.

Of course, investing money into your health in unnecessary ways undoes some of these financial benefits, so there is enormous benefit in finding cost-effective ways to keep your health in line. That’s why a great goal that straddles the line between health and finances seek out low cost and highly effective strategies for achieving that goal. For example, opening the wallet to buy a gym membership or a bunch of exercise equipment or a bunch of kitchen gear are definitely not in line with financial success and may have marginal success for your health as well.

Goals That Benefit Both Health and Finances

What we want are goals that produce significant health benefits – and thus the cost savings described above – without significant financial input (at least, not to get started). Here are four specific types of goals that will help you see real gains with improving your health, and within each we’ll look at some specific goal examples and how to implement them without spending a lot of money.

Physical activity goals are ones that aim to increase your physical activity and thus physical fitness. Physical activity helps to reduce your heart rate, reduce your resting blood pressure, raises your overall energy levels… it’s just good for you in pretty much every dimension.

Of course, there are many ways to make a physical activity goal very expensive, like buying a gym membership or buying lots of exercise gear. We want to focus on free or very low cost physical activity goals.

A daily step count goal This simply encourages you to walk more. Setting a goal of “I will walk 6,000 steps each day” or “I will walk 10,000 steps each day” or “I will walk 20,000 steps each day” is a very clear goal that doesn’t have any additional costs and is easy to achieve. You’ll likely want to slowly ramp this goal up over time, starting with a level that’s easy to achieve and then ticking it upwards. I recommend aiming for at least 10,000 steps.

How do you track this? Your smartphone can easily do it. There are a number of pedometer (step count) apps for Android, and on iOS the built-in Health app functions as a pedometer. You just have to have your phone with you.

A daily (or “X times a week”) home exercise routine The variety of home exercise routines is endless. It really depends on your goals. Do you want flexibility? Core strength? Balance? Cardio health? There are different home exercise routines that can help with each. For example, my home exercise routine is mostly oriented toward flexibility and mobility and balance (which inherently helps with core strength), with a little bit of cardio mixed in.

You can find tons and tons and tons of great routines on Youtube for home exercise without equipment that helps you with whatever goal you have and at whatever level of fitness you desire. The key is to make sure that you’re doing something that’s not way above your level of fitness (rendering you miserable – you can work up to that over time) and something you at least mildly enjoy. I never, ever stick with fitness routines that I dread or make me feel miserable.

A daily deliberate practice goal is a great option if you’re trying to build up a particular physical skill. For example, I have a daily deliberate practice goal of doing a series of taekwondo kicks very slowly (I do community taekwondo classes with my entire family, and the slow kicks are a great form of deliberate practice). This is all about the things you’re doing in your life already and may not be applicable to you at all, but if you’re involved in any kind of regular physical activity or sport, there’s almost always some sort of specific deliberate practice you can do at home to get better at it.

Food consumption goals are all about getting a better grip on the food you put into your body. This is often done to combat obesity and ideally move people toward a more optimal body weight for their height, which reduces the likelihood of many, many health conditions from heart disease and various types of cancer to diabetes.

Food consumption goals can take all kinds of forms depending on your goals.

A daily calorie goal basically means that you’re aiming to only consume a certain number of calories in a day, however you choose to do it. For most people, this is a reduction in calorie intake and thus should result in reduced food costs.

There are many smartphone apps that do a great job of counting and recording calories. You simply set a daily calorie goal and log the food you eat as you go along and the app will tell you how many of your daily calories you’ve consumed and how many you have left.

It’s worth noting that such goals are far more valuable if they represent a gradual permanent change rather than a radical and unsustainable change. A good way to start is to set a calorie goal that’s just a little lower than what you need to maintain your current weight, then nudge it slowly downward if you so choose. This won’t mean rapid weight loss, but it does mean lifestyle changes that you can actually sustain.

A daily increase in fruit and vegetable consumption and/or a reduction in meat and dairy consumption is a goal that can easily be achieved with a rule like “Eat vegan before dinner” or “Accompany all meals with a fruit” or “Eat a serving of vegetables at the start of every meal.” It really depends on how you want to approach it.

These kinds of changes work best when you’re consuming things you actually like. If you only like certain vegetables, stick to those and avoid ones you don’t like (and try a few new ones here and there).

A reduction in meals eaten outside the home is a goal that orients you toward home food preparation, which can save a great deal of money over the long term. This also can improve your health because, for the most part, meals prepared at home are typically healthier than meals at restaurants (where the aim is usually fast and delicious with little consideration of health).

A good way to do this is to simply set a numerical goal for each week. “This week, I will only eat out twice” could be a great goal if you eat out on a daily basis.

Vice-related goals are aims to reduce or eliminate particular vices from your life – alcohol consumption, cigarettes, drug use, soda, unhealthy snacks, and so on. Such a goal aims for long term health, though cutting out the vice can be difficult. This type of goal has a great short term benefit – the reduction or elimination of the cost of a vice – and a great long term benefit – the reduction in health care costs from the vice.

Complete elimination of the vice is a great goal, of course, but it can be a challenging goal for many people and can have other unexpected consequences. The best first step toward this goal is to simply get rid of that vice in your home (and office and car) and then not purchase any more of it, making it rather difficult to acquire more.

Elimination of the vice outside of specific circumstances is another good goal. For example, people may want to eliminate all alcohol consumption except for social situations outside the home where you drink a maximum of two drinks. This means that you have no alcohol at home and only drink when you’re at a social situation where it’s the norm.

Sleep goals focus on improving the quality of your sleep by ensuring that you get enough hours in bed and that you wake up as naturally as possible. Getting adequate rest drastically boosts energy levels and mental clarity and reduces the chance of illness. There are a number of ways to achieve these benefits through straightforward goals.

Setting an earlier bedtime simply comes down to a goal like “going to bed at 9 PM each weeknight” or something to that effect. In general, on any day when you have to get up at a specific time, you should aim to go to sleep seven to eight hours before you have to arise. Ideally, this enables you to start arising naturally without an alarm forcing you to be awake.

Eliminating sleep-interrupting distractions leading up to bedtime enables you to get to sleep much easier upon going to bed. For example, you might set a goal of “no looking at screens for 30 minutes before going to bed” along with “no devices in the bedroom.” This eliminates the effect that many screens have in terms of keeping your mind fully awake and thus keeping sleep at bay.

Why no “weight loss goals”? It’s easy: your weight is a “result” number, not an “effort” number. Actual weight loss is the result of effort you put into other areas, mostly related to food intake but also somewhat related to physical activity. However, it’s very difficult to predict the rate at which you will lose weight. You can’t actually control that exact number with any precision, and your weight will sometimes be unchanged or even go up after a week or even a month of effort in terms of losing weight (due to things like water retention, salt intake, your body’s unique chemistry, and so on).

If you’re absolutely insistent on using weight as a metric for your health, do not rely solely on the number you see when you step on the scale. Instead, use a weighted average, which smooths out the day-to-day variations in your weight. I highly recommend using the smartphone app Happy Scale for doing this, as it does all of that automatically. You just enter your weight each day and don’t really worry about your day-in day-out number. Rather, if you’re actually doing the steps in your goal, you should see a gradual change in your weight toward your target number.

Tracking Goals

If a goal clearly has a daily or weekly number attached to it (or a daily or weekly “yes I did this/no I did not” attached to it), I find a lot of value in tracking those numbers on a grid, where I fill in a box for each day where I achieved that number. A wall calendar is a great way to do this. For example, if your daily goal is to walk 10,000 steps, use a wall calendar and put a huge red checkmark on each day where you did it and a huge black X on days where you didn’t. It’s subtle, but it really encourages you to fill up the spaces with the positive marks rather than the negative marks. Most fitness goals are easy to break down into this type of numerical or yes/no evaluation.

Beyond that, for all goals, I also like to use the method described in the book Triggers by Marshall Goldsmith, where he identifies a very strong method for reinforcing good behavior in our mind. At the end of each day, you simply do a “check-in” for each of your goals by asking yourself whether or not you did your best today to achieve that goal and scoring your effort on a scale of 1 to 10. As with the previous “check box” method, you’ll find yourself wanting to have a series of high numbers for any goal that you create and thus you will find yourself continually trying to reinforce that good behavior. Over time, the behavior slowly becomes natural.

Final Thoughts

The health goals described in this article not only produce positive results in terms of how good you feel and how your body appears and the long term health of your body, but the goals themselves and the results of those goals have a strong positive impact on your finances by reducing food, insurance, health care, and vice costs both in the short term and in the long term while also boosting your energy and readiness for personal and professional tasks.

A well-designed and well-considered health-related goal is one that benefits the financial sphere of your life. Improve your health and you’re likely to improve your finances, too.

Good luck!

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.