Overweight And In Debt: The Correlation Between Weight Gain And Pocket Drain

In the last few weeks I have been practicing what I like to refer to as a “frugal diet.” It really isn’t a diet at all, at least not in the traditional sense. No, this is much more informal. I still eat what I want to for the most part, but do have a couple rules such as not eating anything processed, watching my sodium intake and limiting myself to only a couple “treats” each week. I also stop eating when I have had enough – something that is hard to retrain when you are accustomed to eating until you’re stuffed.

During these last few weeks of experimenting with new eating habits we have also been working to pay off debt at a fever pitch. I quickly discovered something – it is hard to focus on both goals, at least it is for me.

While the correlation between weight gain and the accumulation of debt is fairly obvious (it’s all about excesses) doing battle on both fronts is downright hard to do! Heck, working towards any two large goals simultaneously is difficult, but for some reason losing weight and paying off debt are particularly difficult because they involve changing habits.

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 towards 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.

So how does one work on losing weight and paying off debt at the same time? There are three basic approaches I have found that work well. One of these might work more for me than for you, or you may find some combination of the three to be most successful. As individuals, we each have a different tolerance for change, various amounts of willpower, resources, etc. So go with the plan that generates the most results for you with the least amount of pain.

The Cold Turkey Approach

Those who go “cold turkey” immediately toss everything bad from their pantry, their refrigerator, and their wallet. They cut up credit cards, immediately convert to a cash envelope budget system, and cancel all forms of entertainment from their spending plan.

Similarly, these same people immediately eliminate everything “bad” from their diets – including all their favorites foods. Rather than practicing moderation, they practice elimination – as in getting rid of anything they believe is off limits.

The problem with this approach is that the new habits are most difficult to maintain. Suddenly removing all fun from your diet and your wallet often creates a feeling of resentment as your body tends to turn on itself with increased cravings for all those things you eliminated.

One or the Other

If you are like me and it seems impossible to pull off successfully losing weight while paying down debts, pick one or the other and stick with it. If you can, simply “tread water” with one plan while focusing your energy on the other. If you decide to try to lose weight, debt repayment may slow as you invest in your health for a period to get a jumpstart on weight loss.

If you decide to pay off your debt first, it may mean that you won’t be ready for the pool by summer, but at least your budget will be lean and mean. At a minimum, try to avoid gaining weight, something many people do when their health is not a top priority – believe me, I am the perfect example of this phenomenon.


This is the approach that works best for me. I have found that by simply reducing the bad things I eat, and amount that I spend, I can lose weight and pay down debt balances. Both goals tend to take longer with this approach, but because they are running concurrently I should arrive at my goal weight and debt freedom at just about the same time!

Rather than going cold turkey, or giving preference to one goal over the other, I simply reduce the frequency of one or two bad habits keeping me from achieving both goals. Here are two revised bad habits I had for each goal:

Revised Eating Habits

  • Limit myself to one soda per day (diet). I used to drink two or three sodas a day – sometimes more. By limiting myself to one soda, a diet soda, I am reducing the number of liquid calories while still enjoying a soda with dinner.
  • Late-night snacks must include a protein, and be less than 200 calories. I am a bit of a night owl. The problem with staying up too late is that you get hungry. It wasn’t uncommon to find me parked in front of the computer sipping a cold Coca Cola and munching on a bag chips late at night. Instead, I now eat a small snack properly proportioned with protein and only a few carbs.

Revised Spending Habits

  • Reduce magazine subscriptions/purchases. I have let all but two magazine subscriptions go, and I rarely purchase one at newsstand. Magazines used to be a weakness for me, but now I look forward to the two that arrive by mail, and occasionally I’ll pick up a third one while browsing the bookstore.
  • One meal out per week. This one could really belong in both categories. Eating out less helps your waistline and your wallet, as restaurant food is often unhealthy and overly expensive. For the most part we eat in, but we do make it a point to venture out once a week for a meal out as a family.

The bad news is that there does in fact appear to be a correlation between weight gain and debt accumulation. The good news is that there is a correlation between weight loss and debt reduction. The same shift in habits for one goal also works for the other, but neither goal is necessarily easy to accomplish. However, with proper motivation and discipline, it is possible to make improvements to both your health and your wallet.


  1. I lost 80 lbs. three years ago and have kept it off. I did this in combination with a financial fitness plan, and have been able to maintain both. My philosophy is to stay away from anything that is being marketed to you! Diet foods — specifically labelled as diet foods — are garbage. Eat clean, NON-processed foods. That is the secret to maintaining a healthful weight.

    If you are a healthy weight, exercising regularly and eating clean food, your wallet is going to grow just from this. Exercise is easy to do with some running shoes or a bicycle. (yes! Use the bike to commute! Save gas, and get in shape at the same time!)

    Think of the savings in healthcare, prescription drugs, anti-depressants! All can have a direct correlation to your diet and exercise level. I completely disagree with RB above. That overweight-ness will lead you to many financial headaches in the future regardless of your ninja status.

    There are so many healthful, low cost substitutes for foods that have been marketed to us. For instance, I make kefir water instead of soda pop. It is effervescent, refreshing, very tasty, healthful and the best is that the cultures used to make kefir water grow on their own! Soon I will have some kefir grains to share with someone who would like some and they will be on their way to making a healthful drink that hasn’t been packaged and marketed to them by a big corporation. Same with sourdough breads, sprouted grains, etc. etc. etc.

    I get angry when I think about how we have been tricked into thinking we have to have this or that product to help us maintain our health. In reality it is quite simple. The answer is: Keep It Simple. Simple foods, clean food: simple exercise, easy exercise and you will see the results!

  2. I have never heard of debt reduction being difficult because someone is trying to lose weight. I cannot even fathom such a thing happening.

    May I just say this?

    When one has to cut back on expenses, they are not going to be able to afford diet foods or gym memberships.

    Reading about the way people lived during the Great Depression would be helpful. I don’t recall seeing many overweight people in those days. They worked much harder than we do (particularly around the house). They didn’t have access to the processed, junk food we have today.

    You might be interested in a recent post from my blog: “No Income and the Basics of Life”


    Mrs. White

  3. The easiest way for me to save money and reduce my waistline is to plan what we eat. Not just dinners, but also breakfasts, lunches, etc… By posting a list on the fridge of what’s inside both fridge and freezer, I know exactly what I have and what I need to use up. I keep my plan loose for the week and switch meals around from one day to the other if needed, but this way I tend to really use up my ingredients rather than toss produce or half-used containers of ricotta, etc. This REALLY saves money, even though I’m buying organic most of the time. (PS — write to organic companies for coupons.)

    Another rule: no sweets unless I make them myself from scratch. I truly enjoy them, my kids love to help me bake, and they taste better. Bonus points for using up in-season fruit.

    As for exercise, unless you live in a really unsafe neighborhood, do you really need more than a pair of good sneakers? Walking is free. Even an exercise band is cheap and can sub in for light weights.

  4. I agree that in general a gym membership isn’t needed to help increase your fitness and decrease your weight. That said a good pair of running or walking shoes is essential, but a cost I consider essential. It is also always worthwhile to see if your company offers programs for free such as visits to a nutritionist, reimbursements for gym memberships, or other benefits that can be helpful. Not always, but worthwhile to verify.

    If you have cable or satellite tv it also helps to look into fitness channels. You get free workouts (or at least no added cost if you have the service already) and there are many options. Great for me who would get bored easy with 1 dvd.

    I agree with the previous poster about planning meals. It saves money when you know what you have on hand and plan ahead what you are going to cook. It allows you to use what is on sale and cooking at home is almost always healthier than eating out (so helps the budget and health at the same time).

    And for magazines check out your library. Many allow you to check out previous months, which can be a free way to help you enjoy that splurge without paying out of pocket for it.

  5. I completely agree with the meal planning and cooking from scratch mindset! This step alone supported us in so many ways…better time management, decreased stress and meal prep was a snap…..and when you maximize your time with your food budget it adds up to money not spent on last minute food purchases which equals some extra cha-ching to pay down debt . Pop and chips and snacky snacks are reserved for special occasions….birthdays, barbecues, holidays. we just do not keep them “in stock” around our house.

  6. My family found that weight loss was an unintended (positive) consequence of saving $$$. Once we started relying on mass transit/walking and started skipping eating out in favor of cooking at home, the pounds dropped off. I’m not sure about my incredible shrinking husband, but I went from a size 14 to a size 8 in about a year.

    Which led to our budget-busting unintended consequence – needing to replace our clothing. Or at least buy some decent belts.

    You’re right, though – moderation really is the key. While some of our changes happened more quickly than others, we never did anything cold turkey. It just wouldn’t work for us.

  7. It truly is difficult to keep two lofty goals going at once, but the meal planning is a great idea. If you’re interested in non-gym exercise, I don’t know if just walking will do. Sure, there were no gyms in our grandparents and great-grandparents day, but significantly more people were farmers, or at least did many strenuous chores. Even washing clothes in the old style burns more calories than walking around neighborhood. That certainly doesn’t mean you need to join a gym. You might try getting some fitness dvds from the library. You can do them with the kids, promoting good exercise habits, and it will be free to try, so you can see if the workout really replaces your gym routine without spending money finding the right dvd.

  8. I agree with many of what the other posters have said (walking, planning meals, etc) and would add that exercise can be a way to save money. To wit: riding a bike to work has allowed me to spend, on average, less than $5/month on work-commute related expenses for the last 5 months. 30 minutes each way means I get my hour of exercise every day, guaranteed. The way I see it, I can give my money to giant petro-corporations by driving, I can give it to the local transit agency by taking the bus, or I can bike, and keep it for myself and give my money to whomever I want.

    Also, you can pay now in the form of exercise related expenses, or pay later in life in the form of hypertension, diabetes, increased risk of cancer, joint problems and whatever other problems you can think of that are caused by excess weight. In my opinion, exercise, like frugality, is something you do with one eye on the present and one on the future.

    Lastly, soda for dinner? C’mon man, saving liquid calories for something other than beer is sheer madness 🙂

  9. You don’t really lose weight with exercise. You can help your heart and all kinds of other beneficial things with it, but you don’t lose weight. To lose weight you have to cut calories. I can see the connection between fat and debt in that both are a result of going over board: fat=eating too much and debt=spending too much. This said, if you are at all diabetic or almost diabetic, exercise is the best thing you can do short of drugs to get your insulin working again.

    You can spend less money and eat less too: just buy less junk food. Rats with access to all-you-can-eat junk food ate 50% more calories than rats with access to all-you-can-eat rat food. It stands to reason that buying less junk causes you to eat less. I mean – I could eat a whole bag of chips, but a whole back of carrots??!!! 🙂

  10. lisa writes:
    “The answer is: Keep It Simple. Simple foods, clean food: simple exercise, easy exercise and you will see the results!”

    Actually, that’s the theory. The reality, for many people who have underlying illness, is not that simple.

    I personally know people who exercise daily, are super, super careful with what they eat (They NEVER ever drink soda of any kind and never did, for example. Don’t eat processed foods or sweets. Very big fresh veggie and fruit eaters, lots of whole grains, some are vegetarians.) and STILL have weight problems.

    They take medications for chronic conditions and they must continue to take them. (The conditions are unrelated to their weight. The weight gain actually started after taking these meds.)

    Those meds are a problem. These folks suffer daily because they are judged about their weight by folks who have poor habits themselves but are lucky that their bad health doesn’t show.

    As for the debt reduction and weight reduction challenges. These are two goals that require intense and often painful choices and actions to successfully implement them. Stress is a big part of those challenges.

    The human body can only take so much stress and financial debt –and the pressure to be thin–stresses the body, which can and does, for some people, affect levels of cortisol, which can result in weight gain.

    It’s a complex situation.

    Do the best you can. Have an intention/goal, create a solid action plan and focus on just doing the work. Regardless of the immediate or short-term results.

    There are thin people who will be dropping dead tomorrow after everyone, including them, thinking they are healthy and fit. There will be fat people working out, living active lives and living for many more years because their cholesterol is good, their blood numbers are good and they are in otherwise good health.

    Despite popular beliefs, etc. and some “science” the reality is we can’t ensure we’ll live longer or more healthily than some of those with bad health habits. (Smoking, eating lots of fats and sugar, no exercise, just a few examples).

    It just is NOT that simple. Athletes drop dead with great frequency and they are in “great shape”. People with money also die after the best health care and the “best” of everything.

  11. There are so many reasons for being overweight and for being in debt that it seems unlikely there’s a “one size fits all” explanation or solution. I’m glad so many commenters have been successful at trimming expenses and fat simultaneously. Personally, if I try to be aggressive about both goals at the same time, I find myself feeling a little out of sorts and deprived because it seems like I’m constantly doint without something. JMO.

  12. You can do anything if you put your mind to it. Good for you trying to pay off debt and loose weight!

    I started being more frugal and loosing weight around December last year. I have always loved saving money and exercising, but I started a business and lost the battle with both. Or should I say I wanted to work on my business more.

    I didn’t like how I felt and looked so I started riding my bike and eating better and I am a lot happier. Now that I am at a normal weight I make sure I eat more so I can ride longer, but I don’t plan meals at all. I like eating what I want so I just make extra and freeze what I don’t eat. That way I have a quick lunch that is healthy and it is something that I actually want to eat.

  13. I’m another meal planner who believes healthy meals are frequently less expensive than processed foods. Actually, I just wrote about that very subject today.

    That said, I do see the correlation between weight loss and financial management. Like you, I found it almost impossible to focus on both at the same time. At this point I am concentrating more on my getting my financial house in order and then plan on shifting the primary focus to health and weight once my financial goals are met. For me it isn’t about money (gym membership, etc,) so much as is about mental energy. That gazelle-like focus we read about all the time can only be on one thing at a time. I’m not neglecting my health, but it is on the back burner for now.

  14. A human being can get used to just about anything. Over the last year and a half I’ve lost about 35 pounds. This is on top of significant debt reduction.

    The solution is extremely hard physical labor. Gardens and yards are good for this. So is moving and furniture building. Hard work is more difficult if there’s a television in the house though.

  15. Good correlation and is true, because usually people who gain weight tend to be more unorganized with finances and spend more on food, increasing debt.

  16. I think it’s so hard to diet and be frugal at the same time because both require self denial. Most of us can manage that in one area of life, but two or more is more denial than most of us can handle.

    Having been on diets in the past, I find that they only work during relatively low stress periods when you can clear the decks of other issues and focus on losing weight. Maybe because there’s a physical component to weight loss as well as the emotional, it does seem to be more radical in scope.

    I do believe however that you can add debt reduction to the mix afer a few weeks when your mind and body have acclimated to the diet. In fact the victory over your weight that you achieve from dieting might actually serve as a model for debt reduction at that point, since you’ll realize that you CAN control your bad habits.

  17. Jason, I can really associate with this post – I’m working on both these goals right now, too.

    One of the things I’ve learned over the last year, partly from reading the Zen Habits blog, is that taking several very small steps, one at a time, can lead me to greater growth/loss/change etc. than trying for the big change all at once. The key is to consistently make those small changes.

    For example, I used to get up at 6:30am. I set my alarm 1 minute earlier each day, and 2 months later I now get up at 5:30am without any pain or stress from the change. Now I have an hour a day in which to wake up, have a cup of tea, and exercise.

    Adding whole grains, switching to fruits and then veges for snacks, adding a big salad at dinner then making the salad the primary part of dinner, switching to diet cola then reducing the number of colas I drank by 1 each week, reducing the portions of treats by 1/2 (and then further, as I discovered the amounts that really tasted good), and so on all became small steps that were taken one by one and thus pretty easy to accomplish. Again, the key has been to keep taking the steps and not stop and rest – keep my mind on the goal.

    Writing up the small steps can be really fun, too.

    In response to Kevin’s comment, I’d say one subtle but very powerful change that can make a huge difference in both goals is to focus on the positive rather than the ‘denial/lack/scarcity/loss’ version of each goal. It’s a subtle difference between “I’m working on reducing my debts” and “I’m working to become debt-free” but really powerful.

    Finally, one last thought (sorry about the rambling here). One tool I use in my fitness goals is the weight tracker at Hacker’s Diet (https://www.fourmilab.ch/cgi-bin/HackDiet). I put my weight in each day (yep, every day!) and it graphs my weight loss using a weighted-average formula to show a much closer approximation of my true weight than the up-and-down of the scale. There’s an accompanying book on the program (http://www.fourmilab.ch/hackdiet) but it’s not necessary to read if you just want to track your weight.


  18. I used to be obese, and I used also to be a compulsive shopper. At 27 I decided to lose the weight, but then I developed this compulsive behavior towards buying clothes, shoes, bags and things like that. Two years ago I decided to put my life under control, I went to a therapist and found out that I had a “limits” situation : I was having problem trying to stop certain behaviors like eating or shopping.
    I decided to put my finances under control and I quit “cold turkey” , I did not buy clothes or shoes for more than a year, I paid off my credit card and now I am working on paying off my mortgage in 10 years instead of 20. ¿What about my weight? I recently lost 9 pounds without a lot of effort ( I did not go to the gym )
    Losing weight is not a matter of paying for better foods or for a gym, is a matter of self control, at least that is my experience.
    I started to write about my experience in a blog, now I am getting published on a national circulation magazine. Life is better than ever.

    Grettings from Mexico

  19. I work on both of these issues just a little at a time. I found the same thing, very difficult to do both at once – feeling deprived is a pitfall! For the food, I gradually got into seeing it as a fun challenge – what new veggies can I introduce into my diet? Try it out with the family members? Also, because I love good food, it helped with cutting down on eating out. Aiming for affordable and delicious. My repertoire has expanded.

    If you eat out once a week, and still need to economize, you could try going down to once every two weeks. Or once every ten days.

  20. Funny you should post this just as I’m trying to get my life together in more ways than one: weight/fitness and finances being 2 of them. After making an effort on the finances side, I was just debating whether joining a gym, while very tempting, made any sense in my case. After reading you post and the comments, I’m reminded that I need to balance those two areas of my life not put them in constant tension with one another…

    So I’m lacing up my walking shoes this evening and taking the dogs for a walk instead of adding one more “thing” to do to my day, not to mention one more bill to pay. Thanks!

  21. Hey there,

    I liked this post, and bookmarked it here at work.

    to the author: What are some good late-night snack reccomendations that are high in protein and under 200 calories.

    THIS IS MY BIGGEST PITFALL TO WEIGHT LOSS/MAINTENANCE! and I would really like to fix that

  22. On thing that helps with snacking is to only eat snacks at the kitchen table or dining table, rather than in front of the TV, computer, book, etc.

  23. In my experience there is a *very* strong correlation between people being in debt and being overweight. As you mentioned it is a question of habits, but it is also as a result of a faulty mindset. When people do not have a positive mindset, they tend to gravitate towards compulsive behaviours such as over spending and over eating. It’s interesting to see the correlation between other areas and finances too. A funny thing I’ve noticed is you can also usually get an instant picture of the state of someone’s finances by the simple expedient of looking at the inside of their house (regardless of size). If the inside of the house looks like a bomb has hit it, their finances are usually in comparable chaos too! 🙂