By Barbara O’Neill, Ph.D., CFP®, Rutgers Cooperative Extension, [email protected]
There are three major things that people budget in life- money, time, and calories- and they are all related. For example, physical activity to burn calories and working at a job both take time and eating less food saves money.
Many articles have been written in the health field about “budgeting” calories as a way to lose weight. People can visit an online Calorie Calculator and get their recommended daily calorie “budget” (a.k.a., calorie salary) based on factors such as age, gender, height, weight, and activity level.
Then it is up to individuals to “spend” their calories wisely throughout the day on meals and snacks and try not to exceed their “number.” Similarly, people make choices with the money they have available to spend. Barring an infusion of cash, such as a settlement or contest prize, most people build wealth slowly by living below their means.
Let’s go back to a calorie analogy. The basic principle to lose weight is to eat fewer calories than you burn in a day. For example, if the calculator says you need 1,874 calories to maintain your weight, you’ll lose a pound a week if you consume 1,374. A financial equivalent example is earning $50,000, living on $46,000, and saving $4,000.
How do you live below your means? Many experts recommend starting with a detailed written or computerized budget with specific dollar amounts and categories. While this sounds great in theory, the reality is that only 32% of American households actually prepare a written budget or use budgeting software.
So what else works? Many people live on less than they earn by automating their savings. Commonly called “pay yourself first,” this strategy gives savings the high priority of a rent or secured loan payment. Savings gets deposited before people receive their take-home pay and they somehow learn how to live on less. Another strategy that works well for some people is personal “decision rules” that restrict their spending.
Consider this analogy from the world of NASCAR Motor Sports. Ever since a car wreck nearly killed hundreds of spectators in the grandstands at Talladega in 1987, when a speeding car went airborne, races at Daytona International Speedway in Florida and Talladega SuperSpeedway in Alabama have required drivers to use “restrictor plates” that limit the horsepower of their cars and slow them down.
To avoid overspending, people also need “restrictors.” In other words, cues that they’ve “had enough.” Not everyone will have the same restrictions, however. Rather, the amount that people spend relative to their income will vary. Looking for some specific ideas? Consider the following examples of personal financial restrictors:
- Spend no more than $800 on holiday gifts and parties
- Carry a revolving credit card balance of no more than $500 at any time
- Charge no more than $200 per month in new purchases
- Spend no more than $75 per week at the supermarket
If you want to lose weight, you monitor calorie intake by writing down what you eat and how much. Want to get ahead financially? You do the same thing by tracking income and spending. By writing things down- be it food intake or household expenses- you increase awareness of current practices and motivation to change. You also look at food and spending choices in a different light and mentally ask yourself “can I afford it?” For tracking worksheets for health and finances, see http://njaes.rutgers.edu/sshw/workbook/01_Track_Your_Current_Behavior.pdf.
Research conducted with a Rutgers University online quiz suggests a positive association between a wide array of recommended health and financial practices. This is not surprising since many of these activities require a time commitment, discipline, and/or sacrifice. Conversely, some people overeat and overspend and say they’ll cut back later to “balance things out.” Unfortunately, many never do.