Throughout my grade school years, I was always pretty chubby. Or, as my parents diplomatically labeled it when trudging towards the husky section of the department store, “big boned”. How flattering…(also, get your head out of the gutter).
During my freshman year of college, I added 20 pounds to my already-chubby frame. That was when I made it my personal mission to get lean. When my sophomore year of college began, I was 100% committed to losing weight.
I developed a gym routine, and refused to let excuses get in the way. I stopped my late-night meal habit that mainly consisted of a meatball sub or a personal pizza. I quit ordering large pizzas and hiding alone in my dorm room so I wouldn’t have to share any.
Most importantly, I started to feel really good. This was partially because it was super rewarding to follow through on hefty challenges/changes I imposed on myself. And obviously, I was feeling more healthy overall so this attributed a good amount to my newfound sunny vibes.
Weight loss = money gain?
Fast forward to later in my 20’s, when I learned that healthy, sustainable financial habits have life-changing implications. When these habits are built and fostered, they lead to a life lived much more on your terms.
And these habits can lead to positive life changes much quicker than you would ever expect. Had this realization not registered so clearly in my brain, I wouldn’t be where I am now — amidst a voluntary sabbatical from paid work.
That is why financial freedom is a pillar I write about on this blog, hoping to educate and inspire others.
My ability to build healthy financial habits was, no doubt, influenced by lessons learned through my weight loss journey.
There are obvious parallels in the psychology that applies to both of these arenas. The lessons learned and strengths built from one can be applied to the other. This drastically increases the odds of success, while decreasing timelines to achieve that success.
There are three outcomes from my weight loss journey that tangibly enabled my success with personal finance:
- Diminished need for instant gratification
- The 180 degree deprivation flip (turning perceived deprivations into rewards)
- Real-time decision making informed by a big-picture outlook
Diminished need for instant gratification
One of the most significant barriers to success when it comes to both weight loss and a healthy financial life is that ugly monster called Instant Gratification.
It’s a tricky entity. It makes us think that if we don’t see instantaneous results, we are failing. And if we think we are failing, we stop trying. And then we actually fail, and we lose hope for ourselves. Later, we reference the past failure as justification for not taking further action, or as justification for not trying to improve our current situation.
Instant Gratification also tricks us into thinking that we want something at this very moment, when that thing is in direct conflict with our own interest. It could be one more beer or glass of wine, one more slice of pizza, or a shiny new bluetooth speaker on sale at Amazon after we told ourselves “no more frivolous purchases”.
When the first few weeks of my weight loss journey went by and the number of pounds lost was trivial, it was hard to maintain an optimistic outlook. Because early on, those few weeks felt like a lot of time invested with little return on the investment.
Just like when you invest the first hundred dollars into your brokerage account, and it feels like such an insignificant amount. After the first few weeks, the gains are small (or possibly non-existent), dividends haven’t rolled in yet, and it feels like there is so far to go – so far that it seems futile to even start.
A strategy that helped me to overcome these pitfalls of instant gratification early on was to celebrate the small wins.
If you managed to resist a dessert, or ordered a healthy option off a menu with tempting and unhealthy choices, acknowledge and celebrate these accomplishments. If you decided to transfer $50 to your savings account, or if you upped contributions to your retirement account by 1% —again, acknowledge and celebrate these accomplishments.
Write them down, track them, reflect on them at the end of the day. Train yourself to appreciate them, and your instant gratification outlook will start to flip.
The 180-degree deprivation flip
As you gain control over instant gratification, another powerful change happens: You start to realize those things you thought you wanted actually make you feel worse. And instead of feeling deprived of them, you feel rewarded for overcoming temptation to have them.
During junior year of college, I used my extra meal credits to stock up on candy at the campus convenience store. A single meal credit netted six candy bars. I piled the candy into a drawer, and forgot about it.
The more I did this, the more I felt a sense of reward each time I added candy to that drawer and closed it. It got to the point that merely thinking about that candy, and overcoming temptation to have it, was rewarding.
By the end of the semester, I had a spread of about 150 candy bars that I managed to not consume, even though they were mere inches from my grasp for months on end. I scooped them into my arms and carried them into the common area of the dorm, for anyone to take as a parting gift during final exams.
When I challenged myself to start saving a significant amount of my income, seeing my net worth grow with each paycheck became rewarding. Saving money didn’t feel like a deprivation. Rather, I would have felt deprived by spending that money on things that restricted my future freedom while providing a marginal benefit today.
After some of the early small wins compound, the reality that your goals are achievable sets in. When this happens, a new level of motivation kicks in. And that takes us to point number three.
Real-time decision making informed by a big-picture outlook
No matter how exciting a goal seems when you set out to accomplish it, nothing matches up to the moment when things click. This is when you start to see things really working, and you understand that it’s actually happening. There’s no doubt in your mind that the goal will be met, if not exceeded.
This level of confidence is when you start making automatic snap decisions with the goal in mind.
When I was losing weight, the click moment happened when I stepped on the scale and weighed less than I did coming into college.
When I set the goal of achieving financial independence, the click moment happened when I banked every cent of my raise and didn’t miss a penny of it.
If you know that your plan is working, there’s less resistance when it comes to foregoing temptations in the heat of the moment. When you have established that base level of confidence, it’s harder for anything to stand in the way of the big picture. In short, better decisions are made when focusing on the future.
And this is the holy grail. Overcoming instant gratification leads to overcoming a false sense of deprivation. And this better enables you to make optimal decisions automatically.
Jenny Blake sums this up perfectly in her book Pivot:
“Peace of mind is the dividend we collect from paying for the day with supportive habits.”
The end result of my weight loss journey was exactly what I wanted: I was lean. Depending on who you asked, I was too lean. I was more confident, having set ambitious goals to transform myself and exceeding them.
My parents, meanwhile, had to stop calling me big-boned.
The hurdles I overcame when losing weight prepared me for building a strong financial foundation. And that foundation has already enabled massive life changes for the better.
Always remember that the struggles of today will continue to pay dividends on many future days. This is hard to comprehend in the present moment. But it will help push you through the challenging dips on any journey towards improving yourself.