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Barbara O’Neill, Ph.D., CFP®

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What makes some people practice positive health and financial behaviors while others do not? Many people, including health and financial educators, policy makers, and behavioral researchers, are interested in knowing the answer to this question. Findings from recent research studies provide some interesting insights:

  • A study found in the Journal of Family and Economic Issues found that households whose members tend to lead less healthy lifestyles are more likely to hold non-collateralized debt (e.g., outstanding credit card balances). Three possible explanations for this finding are common factors (e.g., personal preferences) affecting both finances and health, poorer health causing debt, and debt causing poorer health behaviors.
  • An Applied Economics Research Bulletin article described a study that explored whether self-regulation, proxied by regularly dining together with family, is associated with better financial preparedness and greater wealth accumulation. Individuals who regularly ate meals together with their family increased their wealth at a faster rate than others and showed a greater preference for investment portfolio diversification.
  • The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published a study of 1,000 children from birth to age 32 and found that childhood self-control predicts physical health, substance dependence, personal finances, and offending outcomes. Effects were found regardless of intelligence and social class. The researchers recommended interventions to address self-control to save taxpayer dollars and promote prosperity.
  • A study published in Psychological Science found that employees who participated in a 401(k) plan were more likely than their non-contributing counterparts to take action to correct poor physical health indicators indicated in an employer-sponsored health exam. The positive association between recommended health practices and retirement savings was attributed to individuals’ conscientiousness and time-discounting personality traits.
  • The Journal of Financial Counseling and Planning published a study of associations between health information search behaviors and financial well-being. The researchers found that individuals who read the nutrition details of food labels were more likely than others to engage in five different retirement planning activities. Diet and physical activity were not significantly related to the financial planning, however.
  • In a similar study published in the Journal of Human Sciences and Extension, respondents to an online self-assessment survey who reported reading nutrition labels had higher health and financial practice scores than others. In addition, respondents who had higher health practice scores had higher financial practice scores.
  • The association of planning behavior and health and financial practices was described in a Journal of Financial Planning Online survey respondents who reported frequent planning behavior had higher health and financial practice scores than others and higher health and financial practice scores were positively related.

So, what do all these research findings mean?  It appears that certain personality characteristics are associated with positive health and financial practices. Research studies mentioned factors such as conscientiousness, self-regulation, planning, and future-mindedness, which appear to be evident in multiple aspects of people’s lives.

Financial educators and counselors should consider health and finance relationships in their professional work. A simple client query such as “Tell me what you are doing to take care of your health” could yield valuable insights. Activities that foster the personal qualities noted above can be incorporated into briefings and counseling sessions. An example is “Backwards Planning” to foster future-mindedness and sequential planning competencies. Use post-it notes to identify a sequence of steps that must be taken to get from Point B (a future goal) to Point A (today).