This article is about applying insights from one area of life (diet, nutrition) to another (spending and personal finance).
In places, I will spell out the analogy….at other times I will leave you to join the dots. But trust me, the dots are always there…
Winter is a dangerous time for comfort eating and I let things get a bit out of hand in the run-up to Christmas, culminating in a peak weight of 14 stone 5 pounds (201lbs).
I could say that the weight gain was mostly muscle, not fat. But I could say lots of things…it doesn’t mean they’re true. It was time for me to “lean down” rather than “bulk up”.
In a moment of self-awareness, I realised there was only way to tackle this effectively. And that was to start writing down everything that I ate in a food diary. No
cheating selective amnesia. Just 100% ownership of the problem issue.
I’ve pinned the food diary up on my fridge door where i) I see it every day and ii) where it acts as the last line of defence against self-sabotage. It’s a regular reminder of what I’m trying to achieve.
What does a food diary look like? Well here’s an example template from the excellent book The Happy Body:
How does it work? Simple, you write down everything that you eat.
There is no blame, no shame and no judgement. There is only radical honesty.
When you start, you don’t even need a diet, you just need to need to record what’s going on. The magic of recording everything is that it slowly and naturally changes your behaviour. What gets measured, gets managed.
Later you can start to optimise your diet as well as recording it. That means experimenting with what works best for you. For me, the best diet is the most natural diet. So I aim to eat mostly stuff that our hunter-gatherer ancestors might have eaten.
Stuff that grows. Stuff that used to swim / fly / graze. Not things that get manufactured in a factory. No processed carbohydrates (e.g. bread, pizza, pasta). No Frankenstein-style industrial foods (e.g. margarine or corn oils).
Everyone is different. If I want to get fat, all I have to do is look at some pictures of bread. This is ironic because for years I was aware of (and influenced by) the basic diet advice issued by The Government / NHS / Doctors. This recommended eating plenty of carbohydrates (e.g. bread, rice, potatoes, pasta, noodles etc). Aaarrrrrrggghhhhh!!!
The other thing “they” tell you is to do more exercise. And that’s fine…but you can’t out-train a bad diet. You can think of getting in shape as 75% diet : 25% exercise.
As someone smart once said: diet advice is science’s biggest fail of the last 50 years. It makes you think : what else have “they” been telling us that’s also bullshit?
I’m not saying that mine is The One True Path or that you HAVE to eat this way. All diets work to the extent that you eat less processed crap and take in fewer junk calories. It’s silly to argue over
whose which diet is “best”. The best diet is the one that YOU can stick with long term. Stickability is everything in the diet game…just as it is in the money game.
I don’t even like the word diet as it comes with baggage: it conjurs up images of deprivation (just as budgeting conjurs up images of penny-pinching). For this to work long term, your new way of eating needs to become part of your habits.
In the modern world, many (most?) problems are problems of abundance not of scarcity. This is another reason why The News is mostly rubbish: everything is framed as if more money were the answer to all problems.
Don’t get me wrong: I’ve been poor and being rich is certainly better. But when you have money, you can afford lots of stuff that is bad for you (junk food, alcohol, drugs and consumerism). The results are all around us.
There are certain “domino foods” to avoid. A domino food is where one goes down, they all go down. For me that’s peanuts, alcohol and milk-chocolate (>70% cocoa dark chocolate is fine). Remember that Pringles catchphrase: Once you pop, you can’t stop? Avoid anything like that.
Most days, I’m combining my “Imperfect Paleo” diet with intermittent fasting: an 8 hour (or less) feeding window from say midday to 8pm. This just means that I skip breakfast, have lunch and then a big, slap-up meal in the evening (to go to bed feeling satiated). The more you do it, the easier it gets.
The thing I have to watch for with intermittent fasting is not grazing all through my eating window…best to stick to 1 or 2 big, satisfying meals that you will appreciate all the more for not having snacked beforehand. Again, you can be flexible around this principle – an apple before supper never killed anyone and might just take the edge of your hunger before your meal and keep you from falling off the wagon big-time.
Perfection is an unattainable mirage. If you are anything like me, you have to consciously give yourself permission to fail on occasion. It’s not really failure. You just have to pick yourself up and climb back on the wagon for the long journey across the plains to The Promised Land.
One of the big mental breakthroughs I had was when I managed to reframe the initial feelings of hunger as a reminder that fat is being torched from those abz. And as time goes by, I found my appetite reduces and adjusts to the new regime. Its a bit like hedonic adaptation in reverse.
The psychology of it is crucial. In the first week or so, I lost about 4 pounds and the weight came off steadily and consistently. The real test came in the second week when the progress started to slow down and things became more inconsistent. The big test comes the first time that it feels like you’ve denied yourself and yet when you weigh yourself, the scales show that your weight has gone up. The emotional response of my inner toddler was to sulk and say: if it isn’t working, I’M GIVING UP!
As I wrote in Get Rich with Follow Through, this is known as The Dip. According to Seth Godin, all success in life lies the other side of The Dip.
The Dip is normal and it’s all part of the process. Progress in any domain is hard-won and its two steps forward, one step backwards.
Imagine a rookie FI seeker who has made progress: they’ve worked hard to pay off expensive credit card debt, they’ve built a cash emergency fund of 3-6m and invested their first £1,000 in a Vanguard stockmarket fund. They are then dismayed to see it fall in value to £900 on “poor trade figures” (or some dubious explanation in The News).
Ouch! Should they give up? Should they pause until the investing outlook is clearer? No, that’s The Dip right there, people! Push on through.
You need to measure the right things. Here’s something else that Weight Watchers won’t tell you: progress is not about weight loss, it’s about change in body composition. Muscle is heavier than fat so, if you are eating low carb and doing some weights, your weight can be unchanged whilst you are making progress and getting leaner. The easiest way to check your progress is to jump up and down in front of a mirror and see what moves. The more scientific way is to get a bod pod or DEXA body scan.
It’s the same with cutting spending or losing weight or any long-term behaviour change. You don’t just read something once and then magically change. Nope, you read, you process, you re-read to fully absorb the new ideas. And, most important of all, you take consistent actions that add up over time to great results.
Let’s finish with money. If you want to spend less and save more, you probably don’t need a budget…you need to track your spending.
Here’s a quick reminder of how you can do that:
- You spend from one bank account. If there are 2 of you, you can use a joint account where you both have debit cards.
- At the end of the month, you download all of the transactions into a spreadsheet.
- You then rank the items by size (largest first, smallest last) and you see where it all went. Group each item into categories that make sense for you (eg food groceries, heating, recreational drugs etc)
- Make a graph of the results (updated monthly) and pin it up somewhere you will see it everyday
- Repeat until financially independent
If you find it more effective to use an app to automate the process, fine. All I’d say is that the whole point is not to make spending too easy or too painless. The point is to get into the weeds and get a handle on your spending “up close and personal”.
Let’s be honest, most people don’t track their spending. Who wants to live like that? All I would say is that tracking your spending WORKS. It brings conscious awareness and your spending will likely glide down over time doing this.
Let me finish with SOME GOOD NEWS. People who have been good with money for a long time don’t need to track their spending because living well within their means is just a natural habit…it’s become part of who they are. This means there is no way they’ll ever run out of money.