Anyone who has ever experienced stomach-churning worry about bills, debt, retirement, or all of the above knows that our financial and physical lives are connected. But experts say there's an upside: Getting your bucks in a row can nudge you to make better health decisions — and vice versa. In other words, when you develop good habits in one area, you often end up applying them to the other, says Ric Edelman, a financial advisor and author of The Truth About Money.
It makes sense when you think about it, explains Carolyn McClanahan, a Jacksonville, FL, financial planner who was an urgent-care doctor before she went from stitching up patients to drawing up budgets. The same mind-set that pushes someone to, say, invest in her 401(k) may also drive her to work out.
"Both health and wealth depend on consistency, attention, and balance," McClanahan says. "They both prompt you to ask, How can I live the most fulfilling life now, and make certain I'm going to be OK in the future?"
If you've wandered off track with either — nearly everyone gets a little liberal with the plastic or pastries sometimes — take inspiration from these three women. Each of them turned a challenge in one area into a triumph in both.
"As a cancer patient, I spent like there was no tomorrow — but there was!"
Valerie Murray Larenne, 48, Irvine, CA
I remember thinking around my 40th birthday, OK, now I need to get a mammogram. But it wasn't at the top of my priority list, and a year rolled around before I scheduled an appointment. Right before I went in to see my doc, I felt this funny aching in my breast. By the end of the month, I'd learned that I had stage III cancer, so aggressive it had spread to my lymph nodes.
I was a single parent, and my first thought was of my 5-year-old son. Even before my diagnosis, I'd gotten our financial documents in place: a will, a trust, enough life insurance. It was comforting to know that, no matter what, he would be taken care of. I was luckier than a lot of people too — I had a government job with great benefits, so my diagnosis wasn't financially devastating. In the end, I had seven months of chemotherapy, a mastectomy, and a lymphadenectomy, and I paid less than a thousand dollars out of pocket for treatment.
But my illness was expensive in other ways. Cancer is sad, painful, and terrifying. I had moments of real despair — which I dulled with shopping. Before I got sick, I had excellent credit, even though I wasn't super disciplined about paying off my balances every month. With cancer, however, my attitude became, I don't know if there's a tomorrow, and you can't take it with you! I splurged on trips, clothes, wigs, perfume, and anything else I thought would make me feel good. I treated my family, too: For my son's birthday, I could've bought him a bike that cost $100, but I got the $500 model instead.
I was exhausted from treatment, but I responded well to it and went into remission. The worst seemed to be over. That triggered another spurt of spending. Life is short, I thought, and I'm going to enjoy it!
By the end of 2014, I was embarrassed to find myself $20,000 in debt. By then I'd remarried, and I didn't want to tell my husband that I was in over my head. I knew he'd want to help, but I considered it my responsibility, so I quietly resolved to pay it off.
I took advantage of my excellent credit and transferred my balance to 0% interest cards. I also found a website, ReadyForZero, that helped me figure out a repayment plan. And aside from the basics, I stopped spending money. No more big trips. No new clothes. It worked: Through a year of scrimping, not only did I pay off the debt, but I also acquired much better spending habits. If I want a new blouse, I'll treat myself — within reason — but I refuse to carry balances anymore. What I discovered is that I have enough. I don't need new clothes or fancy vacations when I have my health.
"I paid off $130K — and lost 130 pounds."
Elizabeth Benton, 33, Portsmouth, NH
For as long as I can remember, I've struggled to lose weight — and usually in not-so-healthy ways. Like the time I spent two months eating nothing but protein shakes and chicken broth. Or when I followed my idea of a low-cal plan: filling up on fat-free ice cream and sugar-free cookies. When I went off to college in 2001, I weighed more than 300 pounds and was obsessed with finding the perfect diet, one that would help me ditch the extra weight for good. So I gave up a scholarship in Greek and Latin, and switched my major to nutrition. To pay for it, I took out a bunch of loans, and then more when I went to grad school. By the time I landed my first job as a nutrition educator, I was still obese — I hadn't found the magic weight-loss bullet I'd been searching for. On top of that, I was up to my eyeballs in debt: I owed $130,000, and made about $37,000 a year.
Fast-forward to 2009. I'd just gotten married and bought a house. Between the mortgage and our set of his-and-her student loans, there wasn't much money left over, though my husband at the time and I both had good jobs. That's the thing about debt — it sucks up your resources, even if you make a decent living. While my friends would do fun stuff like travel, I felt as if all I ever did was work to pay off bills.
Around then, I came across a book by financial expert Dave Ramsey. He believes that in order to escape the grip of debt, you have to be as focused as a gazelle when it's dodging a predator. That really spoke to me, and I immediately looked for places to scale back. I trimmed our cable and cellphone plans, and started packing lunch instead of buying it. If someone sent me $50 as a birthday gift, it went toward our debt. If I got a raise, it went toward our debt. We tackled the smallest bills first, to gain momentum, and in less than two years, we were able to pay off close to $130,000.
As I turned my finances around, I had an epiphany about my years of yo-yo dieting. All my life, I'd told myself I couldn't lose weight because I'd never been able to commit to a plan. But I'd just seen how single-minded I could be! I realized that the real problem was how I alternated between extreme deprivation and extreme indulgence. I decided to take on weight loss in the same way I'd attacked debt, starting small and building up momentum.
First, I gave up Chik-fil-A; then I gradually shifted to eating healthier foods. Also key: I vowed to get off my butt and start moving. I bought a treadmill, and later hired a personal trainer to help keep me accountable. For years, I'd struggled with my weight. Today, I've lost a total of 130 pounds. I would never have imagined it, but paying off debt helped me to address the biggest health challenge of my life.
"Debt was my panic trigger."
Aja McClanahan, 36, Chicago, IL
When I was 20, I ended up in the hospital with a racing pulse and thumping chest. I thought I was having a heart attack, but the doctors gave a different diagnosis: panic attack. Over the next few years I would have several. At first, I didn't think to connect the anxiety with money, though I'd been stressed about debt ever since I took out my first college loan, and my attacks continued as my bills grew — eventually, my husband and I owed $120,000 in student loans, car loans, and credit cards. But once we got the debt under control and I could literally breathe more easily, I realized it had been terrible for my health.
Our money troubles had started to snowball while my husband was working as a postal carrier and I stayed home with our daughter, doing small jobs on the side. We thought we could get by with one steady income, but we had no idea how to handle our finances. We were renting a big house, and both had nice cars, yet whenever I went to the grocery store, I'd find myself wondering, Will my card go through? One day, my husband came home from taking the rent check to our landlord — who was only in his thirties — and said, "How come he owns two houses, and we're just paying him rent?" Together we decided to tackle our debt.
We moved in with my mom for a while to cut expenses. I also started keeping a budget and took on extra work to make a bigger dent in our bills. Looking back, that's really when my anxiety attacks stopped — once I was clear about what I could spend and had a plan to fix things. That's not to say that our progress was easy. After I started my own marketing business, we added a little debt. And when my second daughter was born, our payments slowed. But by 2013, we had $19,000 left to pay off — most of it from an old student loan of my husband's. I called the school we owed and told them we could settle the debt — if they'd let us just pay the $3,700 principal. They agreed! It's true that money can't buy you happiness, but I found peace of mind when I got my finances together — and that's priceless.
How to Crack the Wellth Code
When financial planner Carolyn McClanahan hung out her shingle in 2005, she was already used to doling out life-changing advice, thanks to her first career as an urgent-care doctor. "But I wanted to be able to help people lead better lives before they were in crisis mode, and in a long-term way," she says.
Here's her prescription for getting proactive about money:
1. Don't wait for the big leaps.
With both your money and your health, aim for progress, not perfection. Small steps in the right direction — even if they're a little wobbly — can be game changers. For example, you might think you're too cash-strapped to save, but squirrel away even a few bucks and you'll see a payoff. "Even $20 a week adds up over time — and, more important, it forms a habit," McClanahan says. It's the same with your health: You may not always be able to get to the gym, but make it a habit to, say, take the stairs, or walk instead of drive sometimes and you'll build momentum.
2. Be willing to go back to the drawing board.
Think it's too late to save for retirement? Or to get fit? Tell the negative Nancy who's set up camp in your brain to zip it. "There's always a way up. You just have to step back, put things in perspective, and say, OK, how do I get there from here?" says McClanahan. (And if you can't figure it out on your own, call in reinforcements!) This is an especially important step to take after a slip, whether it be too many slices of pie or that couldn't-afford-it vacation.
3. Check in on your whole self.
Have you ever kicked booty in one area of your life — shooting up the ranks at work, for instance — just to see other parts fall to pieces? "It happened to me in med school, when I gained 30 pounds," says McClanahan. Now she makes an effort to consider each of her main "life quadrants." She asks herself, Am I taking care of my physical health, my emotional health, my social health, and my work life? Of course, none of us is going to be perfectly balanced all the time. "But if you don't keep tabs on your progress, you might find one day that you've moved far away from your goals," she says.
This story originally appeared in the September 2016 issue of Dr. Oz The Good Life.
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