Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The money diet

I am one of those hateful individuals that has never had a weight problem. I don't crave desserts or sweets, I eat when I get hungry, I eat until I'm full, and my weight stays within a stable 5 pound range with no real effort at all. I even lost all the weight from my first pregnancy in a little over one year, without trying. I was wondering when all that would return to bite me in the butt...

The concepts of nutrition and weight gain have always seemed simple to me. People gain weight because they are consuming more calories than their body burns. If you want to stop gaining weight, you need to consume the same number of calories you burn. If you want to lose weight, you need to consume less calories than you burn, a strategy often referred to as 'dieting'.

While these concepts have seemed obvious to me when it came to eating, I can now see how I was totally oblivious to their application in the financial realm. We were gaining debt because we were spending more dollars than we had. To stop gaining debt, we have to spend the same amount of money that we have. And to lose that debt, we have to spend less than we make. We need to go on a money diet.

To bring the comparison further, it seems like there are basically two ways to lose weight: reduce the amount you eat, or increase the amount you move. Apply that thinking to finances, and you can see that there are two basic ways to eliminate debt, as well: reduce the amount you spend, or increase the amount you make. Suddenly, I have far more compassion for people who struggle with there weight. In theory, the strategies sound easy. In practice, they are hard. No wonder everyone is looking for a quick fix gimmick.

Increasing the amount we make is tricky, much like adding more exercise to someone's already busy schedule. We have found a few ways. My husband got a small salary increase at work, and has brought in some extra sales commissions. I worked a few extra hours at my job over the summer, as the opportunity came up.

But the real doable thing for us is decreasing the amount we spend, the dieting. The same willpower, the same feelings of deprivation affect us as any other dieter, as we try to cut back. Let me share my diet-inspired strategies with you.

Custom weight plan: Friends of mine have done WeightWatchers, and told me that the first thing you do upon joining is meet with the staff to determine your 'points'. You have a set number of points you can spend everyday, and you can't go over, just like a budget. To create our budget, we sat down, looked at all of our expenses, and set spending limits in each area, keeping the total of all the spending under the amount we take in every month.

Cut out junk: High calorie foods --> high interest loans. We traded in our credit card debt, with an annual interest rate of nearly 20% for a personal loan with a rate of 3.75%. It is like switching from sugar cookies to whole grain bread, only you feel liberated, instead of deprived.

Counting calories: We track all of our spending now. One spiral bound notebook for each of us, plus one for the car, were all we needed to invest in. We also added envelopes to the front of the notebooks to store receipts for the things we buy, allowing us to take a closer look at how we are spending our money at grocery and department stores.

Weighing in: Saturday mornings are finances time now. Our budget is in a computer spreadsheet, and we enter all of our actual spending once a week, and compare it to our limits in each area. We have split our budget limits into half-month periods, so we can see if we have spent most of a limit in the first week, there is not much left for the second one, and we adjust accordingly.

Plan ahead: People seem to eat the worst food when they are under-prepared and on the run, and that is when our worst spending happened, as well. Now, we are planning meals for a whole week, and going to the grocery store once to get what we need for them. We also leave enough time in our morning routines to put together take along lunches and snacks. If we go to a restaurant now, it is because we planned to and budgeted for it, not because there was nothing to eat, or we were too exhausted to figure out what to make for supper. We also pack snacks, drinks and toys whenever we go out, so that we are prepared for the day, and don't need to make any convenience purchases.

Avoid temptation: Successful dieters don't hang out in bakeries and fast food restaurants. We are avoiding stores when we can, shopping with lists when we can't, and leaving our credit cards at home. These strategies are adding up to far less impulse shopping, the donuts of the finance world.

Like extra pounds, the debt we have racked up is unattractive, and makes it harder for us to do the things we want to do in our lives. And, along with all the other committed dieters out there, we are looking forward to our 'After' photo.

Everything we need for a Saturday morning 'weigh in'

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