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Does frugality make you healthier?

Some people report improved health from money-saving tactics, but financial stress can make it harder to embrace healthy habits.

By Teresa Mears Jun 9, 2010 2:36PM

Here's a new survey that tells us something we could have told them: Being frugal can be good for your health.


First Command's monthly financial survey of 1,000 families making more than $50,000 per year found that 49% of the respondents believe that their frugal habits are making them healthier, and 45% believe that some of their frugal habits are making them healthier. Only 6% said frugality was making them less healthy.


Asked what changes in spending habits were contributing to an improvement in health, families cited these examples:

  • Cooking at home more (45%).
  • Spending less on junk food (30%).
  • Reducing driving costs by riding a bicycle or walking to work (13%).
  • Reducing alcohol purchases (10%).

Scott Spiker, CEO of First Command Financial Services, put it this way:

Middle-class consumers who embrace responsible financial behaviors are also making the types of spending decisions associated with healthy living. ... Middle-class families who commit to frugal living feel more optimistic about their financial futures and report greater fiscal and physical health.

We're in favor of any economic force that compels more people to cook at home and eat less junk food. Our friend Kris at Cheap Healthy Good has lots of recipes and tips on eating well on a budget.

One of the key things we see in this finding is control: Families who make more frugal choices can enjoy the fruits of their savings, both in their wallets and in their well-being. Plus, they suffer less stress if they feel they are in control of both their finances and their health.


We also find that practicing discipline in one area of life sometimes helps you practice discipline in another.

But it's not always easy to fight the righteous battle on two fronts simultaneously, particularly if you're suffering high financial stress.


Several studies have linked debt and being overweight. Jason at Frugal Dad noted how difficult it is to attack both excess debt and excess weight simultaneously.


Unfortunately, the two goals of weight loss and debt repayment also compete with each other in many ways. For instance, imagine a scale with weight loss on one side and debt repayment on the other. As we begin to do things that are healthy, such as eat more nutritious foods, join a gym, buy walking/running shoes, etc., we tend to increase spending, which lessens the amount of money to use toward debt repayment.
On the other hand, if we focus our attention on debt repayment and start eating cheap, unhealthy food, canceling gym memberships and working extra hours to increase income, our health starts to suffer. You see the dilemma.

Those who are picking up healthier habits during a recession are often those who are in the position to make choices, including healthier choices. If you're unemployed, struggling with unmanageable debt and trying to feed a family, you may feel limited in your ability to make frugal choices that will improve your health.


The American Psychological Association's most recent Stress in America survey, in July and August 2009, found that people with the highest stress levels had the hardest time making lifestyle changes that would improve their health.


That survey found that while some people do turn to healthy activities to manage stress -- 44% said they walked or exercised -- more turn to sedentary activities such as reading, watching TV or listening to music. And, 43% said they eat too much or eat unhealthy foods because of stress.


On the bright side, fewer people said they had turned to smoking or drinking alcohol to manage stress, 14% for each activity vs. 18% in 2008.


A 2009 Associated Press/AOL poll on debt and stress found that Americans were experiencing more debt-related stress than they did four years earlier, and that those with high stress levels were more likely to experience health problems, including headaches, back pain, muscle tension, depression, anxiety, ulcers and heart problems.


J.D. Roth at Get Rich Slowly wrote:

It’s a vicious cycle, as financial stress turns into health issues, possibly costly health issues, that in turn increase our money stress. Relationships and job performance also can suffer, creating a bigger pit of despair. It seems that no matter what stage we reach, we have to be careful to not let money stress take over our lives.

What's your answer? Is being frugal helping you pick up healthier habits? Or is financial stress having just the opposite effect and making it hard for you to improve your health? What do you think makes the difference? What tactics have you found to cope with financial stress?


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