How did I get to this point? How did I get this fat and this in debt? I don’t make any extravagant purchases, but I’m living paycheck to paycheck. I don’t live beyond my means. Or do I? For many, the descent into debt and fat is gradual. It’s not one big purchase or one big meal, but rather a series of small meals and purchases that we have never dealt with. There consistently needs to be a corresponding deficit? to offset each excess. Otherwise, it accumulates. In many ways both debt and fat have interest. Here’s how I have observed the progression or what I like to call, “How to get Fat while Going Broke in 4 Easy to Follow Steps!”:
- We see something we want; either to buy or eat. We know we don’t have the money to purchase it or the need to eat it.
- We determine the easiest route to obtain or justify it. These are both mental and fiscal shortcuts that we use. We often use the justification that we deserve it or earned it. With food we will then proceed to eat it and with purchases we will then proceed to use credit, since saving or postponing doesn’t immediately satisfy our desire.
- We’ve now created either a caloric or fiscal debt that needs to be remedied. This requires us to either: a) go below our appropriate fiscal and caloric budgets (dieting and saving respectively) to make up the difference or b) return to normal fiscal or caloric budgets and increase our caloric expenditures (exercise) and increase our income or c) ignore the issue until it comes to a head.
- Repeat the cycle. Each subsequent decision becomes easier to use and we get used to the mental shortcuts and justifications. After all, past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior and thus the fat on our lives accumulates.
For most of us this begins in our young adult lives. This is where we are introduced to the wonderful world of credit cards, cell phone plans, and student loans. Most of us aren’t given the practical applications or limits on these items, but rather the vague notion that they are all perfectly normal and that you need them. Many of us either ignore or aren’t taught how to manage these items. I don’t have to worry about the credit card because it has zero interest for 90 days or my parents will pay it off. I don’t have to worry about my student loans because I won’t have to pay them back until I graduate and have a job. I need a cell phone so I might as well get the newest smart phone available to me. It doesn’t help that our trip into this world
most often coincides with the time in our lives when we may start drinking alcohol. Beer and credit cards do not mix. There is no reasoning with a drunk 21 year old on why he shouldn’t be using a credit card to buy pizza at 2 am. This is when the debt/fat correlation begins in our lives– as students and starting off in the workforce– with limited funds and plenty of wants.
This is where my path to being overweight and in debt began. I started at West Virginia University in the fall of 2002. I was dropped off, given a credit card (for emergencies only of course) and given undue freedom. I did have a job throughout college, but it did little to reduce the influence of alcohol on decision-making. I would order food most nights and go out drinking with friends as often as possible. Within a year I had gone from wrestling at 152 lbs. in my senior year in high school to 215 lbs. in my freshman year at WVU. I thought I only had gotten a little fit and had mostly put on muscle since I was still active playing rugby in both the fall and spring.
Spoiler Alert: I had gotten fat. “Freshman 15” had nothing on me. I was working with a “Freshman 65”. I accomplished this massive weight gain through a series of “emergencies” that I needed to use my credit card to remedy. These “emergencies” frequently took the form of Natty Light and Rusted Musket (Best Sandwiches in Morgantown). By the end of freshman year, my credit card was revoked by my parents. To this day, I am too embarrassed to ask them how much I racked up. That’s when an interesting thing occurred. I didn’t gain any more weight for the rest of college. I didn’t stop eating out or drinking mind you. I was just limited by my meal plan and what I earned at my job.
After graduating, I took the normal route in life. I got a job. I got married, and then replaced some credit card debt, rent, and no car payments with some credit card debt, a mortgage and two car payments. All of this was normal though. Just like conventional wisdom that you add a pound every year. Everybody has car payments, a mortgage, and at least some credit card debt. Everything seemed within our means. Our home wasn’t extravagant. We had bought a reasonable condo. Our cars were conservative as well– his and her matching 2010 Toyota Corollas. Our credit card debt had stayed roughly the same, going a little up and down. We didn’t have high limits so we didn’t think too much of it.
The debt accumulates. That pound of weight adds up over the years. What started off as $5,000 in credit card debt had ballooned closer to a half a million when taking into consideration home, auto, student, and credit card debt. That few extra pounds in college had morphed into 50 lbs. of fat. Both of the exponential increases occurred concurrently and from the same causes.
Now the balance of managing the debt with normal expenses becomes more and more precarious. One unexpected expense such as a high deductible or a busted hot water heater can cause it all to crash down. In my case, it was losing my job while an independent contractor, which meant no unemployment benefits.
I believe my story is similar to the many. We start with a small debt or a slight change in our eating habits for the worse, but it happens at a time of new found freedom and without the discipline to manage it correctly. Most of us don’t have to answer for our eating and spending mistakes immediately, but the eating and spending mistakes give us some sort of fleeting instant gratification. I venture to guess that most high schools don’t teach things like money management or how to cook anymore. Is it any wonder then that so many rely on the most immediate resolutions to post scholastic life’s problems. I don’t have a lot of money and I don’t know how to cook, but I have a credit card and I’m hungry, so I eat out. This is the first thing that we need to do in order to overcome our debt and fat: anticipate and prepare for situations instead of reacting to them and trying to manage them. The excuse that something couldn’t have been anticipated isn’t valid either.
First, I believe most of the situations we find ourselves managing are situations that are entirely predictable. These include things like not having a lunch or dinner planned and resorting to eating out. Did we not know ahead of time that we would want to eat lunch? Further, we can predict that our hot water heater may need to be replaced once every 10 years.
We need to plan for such an event starting when we get the heater in the first place. Other similar expenses include birthday & Christmas gifts, car inspections and breakdowns, vacations, and taxes. All these things we let sneak up on us even though they are entirely predictable and within our control to plan for.
Second, we tend to accumulate debt without full knowledge of what that debt completely entails. This isn’t just the complete legal terms on a credit card we signed up for (although that would be recommended). We need to have a full knowledge of the entire cost. For instance, I took a mortgage on my first home for $210,000 with 4.1% interest, 30 year term, and pay approximately $5,000 in taxes and $1,200 in insurance annually. On the surface, the debt appears to be $210,000. The debt isn’t over until it’s been paid back. By the time the debt is paid back, my total cost will have been $365,297. Would I have bought the same house knowing ahead of time that it would cost me $365,297? No, I wouldn’t have. I also could have saved myself $83,797 by having a 15 year mortgage instead or even more by saving more for a down payment and thus borrowing less. I was distracted by the home instead of focusing on the method with which to earn the home affordably.
We do the same thing with food. We focus on how good the food will taste no matter how briefly, instead of the health costs it will inevitably impose on us. Would we be so cavalier in our eating habits if we gained the fat immediately after eating the food rather than it sneakily gathering around our waists? Maybe, but we definitely would think twice about many of the meals. It might also stop the habit of spending and eating inappropriately.
Author: David Matthews
I started this site as a way of discussing what I’ve learned about the relationship between personal finances and physical fitness. What I have learned allowed me to lose 50lbs and improve my credit score 150 points in the same year and become a happier person.
Husband. Father. West Virginia University Grad. Licensed Insurance and Financial Professional. Sports fan (Philadelphia, WVU, and Manchester City). I’m also a huge nerd (like Magic: The Gathering huge)