Is It Easier to Lose Weight or Pay Down Debt?

I’ve struggled with two things most of my adult life: my weight and my credit card balances. Most of the time I find myself focusing energy and resources on fighting both fronts, but have found it much harder to lose weight than pay off debt. Apparently, I am not alone. After reading a post by a fellow blogger I began to ponder reasons why this seems to the be the case for most overweight people struggling with debt.

Like anything worth doing, both weight loss and debt reduction require a lot of discipline and hard work. Some people are fortunate to have been born to parents with fast metabolisms, but others like me just look at a milkshake and gain three pounds. Some have benefited financially from a family inheritance, or simply from their parents sound financial advice. However, I wasn’t exposed to personal finance concepts growing up (not making excuses, I own my mistakes), and my parents have both struggled with their weight for as long as I can remember.

My wife and I have remarked that if we focus on one plan or the other we seem to have success, but we struggle when trying to work on them concurrently. This sort of reminds me of the old save vs. pay down debt argument – which one comes first, and which one takes a higher importance. The fact is they are both important, but by trying to accomplish them at the same time you divide your resources, making each half of the plan less effective.

I have been able to pay down debt, but I still struggle with weight loss. I think I have found the answer to this riddle. Paying down debt provides instantaneous, concrete results. If I pay $500 on a credit card, my account balance immediately drops by $500. However, if I eat clean for a week, drink lots of water, and get in three or four good workouts, I may or may not actually lose any scale weight (based on fluid retention, muscle growth, etc.). This is discouraging, and typically derails my nutrition and training plan. I immediately revert back to bad habits, stop working out and eat everything in sight.

The answer for successfully losing weight and paying down debts is to extend the timeframe for accomplishing your goals. My weight wasn’t put on overnight, and my credit card balances represent years of unintelligent spending. Why do I think I can clean them both up in a month or two? It is simply not logical. Common sense tells us that it takes time to pay off thousands of dollars in debt, or lose fifty pounds of fat, but we as human beings let our emotions get the best of us.

To combat these emotions I’ve decided the best approach is to very closely monitor my debt snowball plan, but very loosely monitor my weight loss plan. I will continue to update my total debt balance with each payment made throughout the month. However, I will avoid taking measurements or stepping foot on a scale until the end of the month. Some argue weekly intervals are better because you can make slight course corrections if what you are doing isn’t working, but for me weekly weigh-ins are discouraging. Besides, if I am heading in the right direction my clothes will fit better, I will sleep better, and I will have more energy. These measurements are more important success indicators than body fat percentage or scale weight.

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  1. Losing weight – for me – is much more difficult than getting out of debt. Why? When I put $1 towards debt reduction, I can calculate, exactly, how much more I have to pay. But, I might workout for 3 days and eat perfectly – expecting to lose a pound or two – and the scale might not go down – or, it might eve go up! So, for me, the answer is LOSING WEIGHT!
    Great post!
    Rock on,

  2. I lost over 40 pounds last year, and like you say – it didn’t come off in a day. But it did come off over a few month period.

    What is the secret you ask? Consistent exercise and healthy eating. there is no real secret i guess.
    I worked out 6 days a week, 3 with weights, and 3 with aerobic exercise of some kind. I ate 5-6 times a day with small portions – so i was never really hungry.

    If you can lose 1 pound every week or even every 2 weeks, you’re well on your way to healthy weight loss. Good luck!

  3. I find that I can lose weight and pay down debt almost at the same rate… I spend less money on bad food (you know… expensive fast food, etc.) and have more money with which to pay off debt. OK, so that might be too idealistic… 😛

    It’ll be a little easier when the weather warms up because there are so many ways to exercise for free outdoors.

    Best of luck!

  4. I’ve found that no matter how well I eat, if exercise isn’t in my plan nothing happens. I’ve found it really helpful to eat protein at every meal and to go to the gym three times a week (an hour every time, 30 mins cardio, 30 mins weights). I’ve almost lost 10 pounds but it’s taken me almost 4 months. I think seeing dollars go toward debt is easier to see than ounces come off. Keep at it!

  5. This may initially come across as counter intuitive but focusing on weighing oneself when starting an exercise problem is the wrong focus to have. I’m hitting forty this year and am overweight and unfit. The only time I seriously exercised was close to a decade ago. I was single at the time and living with a housemate. I had stopped playing a team sport because I had damaged two discs in my lower back. I also suffer from mild asthma which I use a peak flow moniter to check.

    Where I lived at the time was quite hilly and I decided on a walking circuit that initially took 75 minutes to complete. I eliminated or all junk food and drink out of my eating habits and only snacked on fresh fruit during the day between the three main meals. I also drank plenty of water.

    After my first month of walking I started to do some stretching exercises, once I had returned home from my daily walk, for my back that had been recommended to me by a phsyiotherapist.

    I weighed myself once a week at the same time each week. More importantly I checked my peak flow readings, how sore and stiff my back was compared to before I started exercising and the decrease in the time it took to complete my walk because my walking speed up the hills increased. After several months I woke up one morning and felt no pian in my lower back and felt like an energetic teenager.

    Losing weight was the bonus of this exercising.

    I will admit that I use every rationalisation in the book to not exercise – I’m too tired and not enough time due to being a father to two young children. When I make the choice to start exercising again, my weight loss would be the measure to use. Decreasing my back pain, increasing my lung capacity and how energetic I feel when I wake up will be my measures of improvement.

    Keep plugging away and enjoy the journey of debt reduction and increased fitness.

  6. I found an activity that serves both ends. I use a combination of bicycling and public transit for my daily commute. If you only consider fuel, it’s not much of a savings. However, the total cost of operating a vehicle per day far outpaces the measly $2.00 I pay each day in bus fare.

    Plus, I’m reading the Frugal Dad RSS feed on my iPod during the bus portion of my commute.

  7. For me loosing weight is definitely harder. Lately especially I’ve found that many of the things I do to earn extra income also require time. In the end I cop out on exercising because I’m tired.

    One mistake I tend to make is attacking everything full force. Instead of having a perfect diet and working out 6 days a week I’m going to start with 3x a week.

  8. there’s some great academic research on how people have a limited amount of willpower, and so focusing on one goal will make it very difficult to work on another. if you’re on a diet, the researchers say, don’t go shopping – you’re just that much more likely to make impulse purchases! and it works in the reverse – if you’re really focusing on your debt reduction, your “loosely monitor weight loss” is a great plan. you only have enough willpower to really exert effort around your debt payments… the weight will, hopefully, reduce itself if you stop paying attention (but keep going to the gym). think of the elliptical time as “budget strategizing time” rather than “working out”!

  9. I’ve lost 85 pounds and paid off debt/built up a six figure net worth over the last seven years or so; I’m not sure which is more difficult than the other. I do find it interesting, however, that at least three very prominent pf bloggers (NCN, Tricia at Blogging Away Debt, and JD at Get Rich Slowly) also have fitness/weight loss blogs. I’m thinking about starting the latter as well, so that might make it four!

  10. I used to work out for a couple of hours 3 times a week in college (weights, some cardio) and I never really realized how useful this was until I went on a meal plan sponsored through work a couple months ago. Because I still had some of that muscle (most of which I have gained back by working out a couple times a week), I’ve been losing about 2.5 lbs a week.

    So I’d guess I’d say paying off debt is harder to me, which is why I let my wife do all of the hard work regarding debt reduction 😉

  11. I think the two things go hand in hand. It’s a lot cheaper to live off salads and vegetables than fast food, and working out gives you something to do when you are trying to avoid spending money on entertainment. Before long it simply becomes a lifestyle.

  12. I think weight loss is all about three things – attitude, diet and exercise. From my experience, reducing carb intake and doing aerobic exercises are keys to successful weight loss.

  13. I believe paying off debt is a lot easier. Weight loss requires constant supervision v.s. budgeting utilizing direct deposit makes counting/distributing money easier. There is no direct deposit allocation for food.