Healthy, Wealthy, and Wise

Casey Hynes — Up Close and Personal Finance

Ten years ago, days away from my college graduation, budgeting—and exercise—was the last thing on my mind. My priority was dancing to “Sweet Caroline” during senior nights at the local bar, while spending my last $10 on Long Island iced teas. Who could think about student loans and counting calories when there were priceless memories to be made? If someone would have told me then that one day I’d trade jukeboxes in a crowded bar for nights spent happily budgeting or days spent strength training, I would have laughed.

Fortunately, people change. For most of my twenties, I expended a lot of effort trying not to think about money and health. Sometimes, I’d go on diets and lose some weight, then gain it back again. On the few occasions when I started to get ahead with money, I’d spend it. But I wasn’t too worried (at least not consciously). I had all the time in the world to reach peak physical fitness and start saving.

However, after three bouts of painful diverticulitis and more (equally painful) money meltdowns than I can count, I learned the hard way that taking control of both my health and my finances was the key to living a well-rounded life. Just as I once believed I would never be financially stable, I also harbored a fear I would never be physically fit.

Ever since grade school, I had struggled with body image and was self-conscious about being “fat.” Though I went through periods of losing weight and feeling more confident, that progress was typically short-lived. Before long, I’d return to old habits and regain the weight I lost—and then some.

Like millions of Americans, I ate to cope with stress, which was often caused by money issues. Then I ate because I was stressed about overeating. Then I ate to dissociate from the anxiety and shame I felt. I often joked about being overweight or loudly announced my intentions to start a new diet when I felt self-conscious about eating in front of other people. But nothing substantially changed, and I continued to feel sluggish, tired, and uncomfortable in my own skin.

Looking back, I can see that my issues with money and health were deeply intertwined. I often told myself I couldn’t afford a gym membership or nutritious groceries, yet managed to order greasy takeout most nights of the week. While living overseas, I eschewed inexpensive local fare in favor of costlier Western dishes. Late-night snack runs for Snickers bars, microwavable sandwiches, and other goodies became routine. Each day I’d tell myself the same thing: Tomorrow I’m going to start eating healthier. Tomorrow I’m going to stop spending so much on food.

Deep down, I didn’t know how to curb my unhealthier habits or deal with the underlying psychological causes. It wasn’t until I was in my late twenties that I sought a life beyond constant debt and money stress. There wasn’t a single aha! moment that motivated the change, but rather a series of awakenings as I read and studied how other people developed positive relationships with money. And it wasn’t until my early thirties that I finally applied some of the financial discipline I was cultivating to my physical health.

Frustrated after trying a variety of diets and exercise programs, and worried about my recurring diverticular flare-ups, I purchased a membership at a small local gym. Run by a young husband and wife, the gym’s classes included a mix of metabolic (exercises done at short intervals with little rest in between) and strength training sessions, and they were the hardest workouts I’d ever done. For the first few weeks, I struggled to walk down the stairs because my legs were so sore. Every inch of my body hurt, but I loved it.

As I gained momentum at the gym, I noticed I was making better choices at home as well. It became easier to keep to a disciplined diet, because I wanted to feel energized for my workouts. I began losing weight and prioritizing my health over long-held traditions such as ordering pizza on Friday nights and turning the entire weekend into a “cheat day.”

But the new routine didn’t just improve my health, it boosted my financial decision-making abilities as well. The clarity I felt while weight lifting often carried over to budgeting. Because I had been learning to discipline myself physically, reining in unnecessary spending felt much easier, too.

More importantly, I saw tangible results from prioritizing a truly important expense. In the six months since I started strength training, I lost weight, had more energy, improved my body composition, and noticed a decrease in asthma attacks and diverticular pain. I felt more confident and capable than I had in a long time, and I discovered that I genuinely love lifting weights. Before starting this new routine, I rarely got excited about going to the gym. Now, going is a highlight of my day.

Because of these results, paying for my membership each month is never a question. No matter what else is going on, I make sure I can cover that expense. In the past, the gym was one of the first expenses I cut during lean periods. Now it’s non-negotiable. Not surprisingly, there are always other areas where I can cut back—and those sacrifices are always worth it.

I still have a long way to go on my financial and physical health goals. But knowing that progress in one area facilitates growth in the other is great motivation to stay committed to both.