When we talk about debt, we often use metaphors that suggest it has physicality: carrying debt, shouldering a burden, even that money owed weighs you down. That’s not a coincidence. Research from Northwestern University spells out the linkages between debt-related stress and an array of health issues, including a greater likelihood to be overweight. Just like added weight, stress can raise blood pressure and cause conditions such as indigestion and acid reflux, according to the American Psychological Association.
You can start to make small changes now that can make an immediate impact. We spoke to experts—financial advisors and doctors—to explain some of the fundamentals of paying down debts and losing weight.
Look to the future
For some people, change is difficult until something bad happens. Whether it’s your financial or physical health you’re concerned with, it’s best to start making positive changes before you reach a tipping point. Rather than dwelling on the actions that got you to this place, think about building a more positive future, for yourself and the people around you. Luckily, it doesn’t require a life overhaul. You’ll be surprised and motivated by how quickly the positive effects of incremental changes show up.
For instance, when you stop accruing unhelpful debt—like that from credit cards—and start to pay it down, you may see your credit score begin to tick up almost immediately, says Erik Carter, a New York-based financial planner. A higher credit score may help to get a loan approved, secure a lower interest rate or even get a new job, Carter explains. Speaking with a financial advisor is a great place to start—he or she can help you determine your best path to financial security (such as deciding what to pay off first and how to move your debt around to get the lowest interest rate possible).
Some of us don’t realize we’re in the danger zone until something bad happens, particularly when it comes to extra weight and unhealthiness. “Our bodies are very forgiving to a certain point,” says Camron Nelson, M.D., a preventative medicine physician in Dallas. You can be overweight and not have adverse health effects until years down the road, when you find you have hypertension or are pre-diabetic. His recommendation is to address the problem now, when it’s primarily about the weight, instead of eventually combatting both extra pounds and a weight-related disease. Being overweight and having too much bad debt both have cumulative effects, so taking care of it now means you’ll have to put in less work to get healthy.
Know your metrics
Begin shedding weight or debt by taking stock of your starting point. You’ll want to identify and track several figures, including the size of the debt or debts (and how much interest is charged on each), and understand your expenses breakdown. “If you don’t know, look at your last three months of bank and credit card statements, rather than making a guesstimate,” Carter says. Having a complete picture that includes mortgages, car payments, and retirement fund goals can be motivating. It’s a reminder that the positive steps aren’t just for your immediate financial future, but for decades ahead.
There isn’t just one useful figure in dropping debt, nor is there one end-all, be-all number in weight loss (i.e., what the scale says is not enough). “Cholesterol, blood pressure and blood sugar numbers are just as important and sometimes more reliable stats,” Nelson says. “Often the weight is the driver to things like hypertension and blood sugar abnormalities, so to focus on the weight as a determinant is not enough,” Nelson says. “You need to own all your numbers.”
Adopt a measured response
Once you have your stats, set a goal and timeframe that allows you to succeed without making huge sacrifices—something that may involve some trial-and-error. “If you cut back too much on spending and you feel like that’s not sustainable, you can always readjust upwards,” Carter says. Say you’re tallying up your expenditures and, in doing so, you realize you’re going out to eat a lot. Rather than saying you’re going to stop going out altogether—a drastic change that is probably unsustainable and ultimately discouraging—instead, make a plan to curtail how often you go out, Carter says. These, paired with other incremental changes, like switching to a more modest cable package (or opting for streaming services), brewing coffee at home in the mornings and taking domestic trips instead of big vacations, add up.
That money you’re saving helps pay down your debt. And you’ll want to take steps to reduce the overall amount you owe as much as possible. That can include asking your credit card company for a lower interest rate, transferring your debt to a card with a lower interest rate, refinancing with a home equity loan, or getting a personal loan (which can carry a lower interest rate than credit cards). If you have debt in different places, in most cases you’ll want to put your extra payments against whichever carries highest interest first, Carter explains.
And when you’re ready to lose weight, take a similar, methodical approach. We’ve been conditioned to think two, three or even more pounds lost per week is doable. Not so, says Nelson. “Two to three is excessive, and it’s not realistic in most situations to sustain that degree of weight loss.” Instead, look to cut around 100 calories per day from your diet and burn about 150 more calories a day through exercise. For many, this can equate to about a half pound lost per week, which amounts to a thoroughly respectable 26 pounds per year, if you have that kind of weight to lose. Nelson has found that, for his overweight patients, the first 90 days are crucial, since that’s when new, good behaviors become habitual. There’s no hard-and-fast amount of time in which the new habit will stick—a paper published in The British Journal of General Practices estimates it takes two to three months for a behavior to become second nature, so keep at it knowing it will get easier. Ultimately, weight loss isn’t something you can rush.
Even with a realistic goal, a sensible plan and lots of support, change can be hard. At the outset, adopt a patient and persistent mindset that you can fall back on when you have a tough period. And don’t be shy. Celebrate your successes with those who have helped you, just maybe not at an extravagant dinner—either in terms of calorie count or the check.
Marcus by Goldman SachsTM offers a fixed-rate, no-fee personal loan that helps you manage credit card debt. Learn more at marcus.com
This article was produced by Men’s Journal and sponsored by Marcus by Goldman Sachs.