Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Finance, Food, and the Role of Personal Responsibility: A Question for Readers

I’d like to depart from the usual Wednesday-type articles today to pose a question to everybody out there: when it comes to diet and finance, how much do you think personal responsibility factors in?

I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, but it really picked up steam after dinner with my sister L. We struck up a conversation about money and food, since we’ve both been in debt and slightly overweight. I asked L if she thought there was a connection between the two. She answered with preternatural wisdom:

“When you’re resigned to the fact that you’re going to owe money, it doesn’t matter how much. When you’re resigned to the fact you’re going to gain weight – same thing.”

She’s right, too. When a situation becomes inescapable and oppressive, it often doesn’t matter how much more is piled on. To borrow a psychiatric term, we usually have to hit bottom before we actively decide to change. But how does this happen in the first place? Is it societal pressures? Or our own lack of awareness?

To read Maxed Out, James D. Scurlock’s treatise on the predatory credit industry, you’d think that we’re all being victimized, and debt is as culturally ingrained as closing our mouths when we chew. Undoubtedly, there’s some truth to this. Banks, credit card, and loan/mortgage companies make it their goal in life to profit from us as much as possible, whether or not we can actually afford it. They target us with advertising from birth, and all too often, exploit the uneducated and poor to bulk up their bottom lines. What’s more, the business of money is difficult to navigate, and it’s only getting harder. It’s easy to see why anyone could give up – why anyone just wouldn’t want to know – and I think the same principles apply to food marketing and weight.

On the flip side, many (if not most) finance and food blogs claim that personal responsibility is all you need to get by. Taking control and informing yourself will overcome negative cultural influences, a.k.a. those industries which profit from your increasing debt/waistline. In terms of programs that promote this concept, none are brought up more than Weight Watchers and Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University.

If the internet is to be believed, Dave Ramsey is second only to FDR in rescuing Americans from financial ruin, while Weight Watchers has turned a nation of 500-pound Krispy Kreme devotees into an army of lean, fit triathletes. (Slight exaggerations both, but you get the picture.) I believe this is because they do the following:
  • Emphasize permanent lifestyle and behavioral change over temporary band-aids and quick-fix scams.
  • Give people the information and tools to make changes.
  • Ask people to take responsibility for their actions.
Admittedly, both Dave and WW have worked for me. And that colors my opinion.

I think weight and money have everything to do with personal responsibility. I think being unaware of what went into my mouth and came out of my wallet held me back in lots of ways. I think I can’t blame profit-driven industries for anything when I willingly bought into what they were selling me, without looking any deeper.

Of course, this doesn’t apply to everyone. I’m a middle-class, semi-educated white girl with no kids and no mortgage. My realm of experience is incredibly limited, which is why I’m VERY interested in opinions from readers. Assuming that weight and money are tied together...
  • How much does personal responsibility factor in?
  • How much do outside/industry pressures factor in?
  • Do you have a good story?
  • What are the solutions to either problem (obesity and/or debt)?
Comments are wide open, and I’d love to get a discussion going. Thanks for reading.

(Photos courtesy of,, and jupiter images.)

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beanalby said...

> I think being unaware of what went
> into my mouth and came out of my
> wallet held me back in lots of ways.

That's exactly what was causing problems with weight for my wife and I. All we did was start counting calories - keeping track of every bite that went in to our mouths. We discovered we were eating healthy, just WAY too much.

Cutting down on our portions let us lose a combined 90 lbs.

Jaime said...

One thing that interests me, as a sort of side-issue, is the pleasure from the illicit indulgence - the binge, the splurge, the "Oh, I shouldn't, but it feels so good." Whether it's a piece of chocolate cake or a pair of earrings (or *buying* a piece of chocolate cake, for, like, $4), breaking perceived rules feels like this self-empowering rebellion. Indulgence. "I deserve it." And in both cases it hurts more than it helps. It can just be hard to remember that in the moment.

Michelle said...

I'm certain industry influences factor into the situation. However, everyone has a limited amount of resources...If you take personal responsibility for your situation, and direct your time and effort toward loosing weight or learning to manage your finances, you'll be much more successful that if you spent that time and effort complaining about predatory lending or the advertising of unhealthy foods.

Kris said...

Beanalby, that's fantastic. Congratulations to both you and your wife. I know it's hard to do.

Jaime, great point. I's of the opinion that the occasional indulgence is both necessary and healthy. I feel like when those become constant habits, that things get dangerous.

Michelle, I think you just said in two sentences what I tried to spit out in 47. Well done.

Scott said...

In both cases, most people want a quick fix and fail to appreciate the incremental nature of debt and weight. One latte isn't going to kill you, but 2 a day five days a week will account for about a pound a week and about $800 in a year.

Allison Cabral said...

First off, I love your Gnocchi recipe!!! Now about the weight/debt issue...

Personal Responsibility is a HUGE factor. Our society loves to blame others and play "victim". Breaking the cycle is about stepping up and creating a vision for what you want.

The media/industry pressures factor in when people are "asleep" and not making conscious decisions. These companies prey on people who do not make conscious decisions. If you want to "wake up" I highly suggest reading "A New Earth" by Eckart Tolle and signing up for Oprah's webcast every Monday night.

I work with clients every day in helping them overcome weight issues and 100% of the time I have found a DIRECT correlation between their debt and weight!! As a life coach, I recommend they cut the excess out everywhere in their life. They also have clutter and stuff issues. Once they clear up the core issues in their life, the weight drops off!
It is about small baby steps and a vision of what you want, not focusing on what you don't want.
Allison Cabral

Julia said...

To Jaime: I'm a huge fan of rewarding myself for goals met, and that's my indulgence. But it comes with two rules--1. That I wait until the goal is met and 2. That I wait at least a week or two after first seeing my "want" to make sure I still want it. That's how I combat impulse buying...and it works. I bought a pair of $209 jeans for reaching a year-long goal. I waited two weeks from when I first tried them on until I bought them. I absolutely love them and wouldn't trade them for the world. You can bet I wear the heck out of them and wash them with care, too!
Happy eating and shopping.

Hops said...

Love this. Love your brain and the thoughts that come out of it.

My opinion, though largely unformed and malleable, is that family is the greatest influence on spending/eating. It's inevitable that we absorb our parents' habits.

Jessica said...

For every problem, issue, over-indulgence, etc, there is a very personal cause. It is difficult to make generalizations or assumptions about what motivates and drives people, particularly with such personal issues, such as weight and debt. That being said, many people find themselves with debt they can't afford, not because of over-spending, but because of unfair practices by lending companies.

The sub prime mortgage crisis is the most obvious example - reverse mortgages, lenders using manipulation and even fraud to approve people for loans they can't afford.

Here's an even simpler example, that could happen to anyone:

You have had your credit card for ten years. It has a 15% APR, and a $5,000 limit (these numbers were randomly chosen for example purposes only - I'm no economist!) - not great, but reasonable. You keep a rolling balance between $1,000 and $2,000, but always pay more $20 - $30 more than the minimum due in advance of the due date. One month you are late paying your electric bill - not your credit card bill, you pay that on time - let's say you forgot to put the check to the electric company in the mail. Your credit card immediately shoots to 34.99% APR! What - Why? Because credit card companies will do anything to get more money out of you and the lack of regulation and consumer protection makes it completely legal!

So, with this new APR, you pay the same amount on your card every month that you used to, but the balance never seems to get any lower. This is completely unfair, but you can't take legal action because your credit card agreement includes a Mandatory Binding Arbitration clause, which states that any dispute must be handled by an arbitrator chosen by the credit card company - no day in court for you!

One month your dog gets sick, and you have a huge vet bill to take care of, so you pay the minimum balance on your card for a couple months in order to try to make up for the huge drain on your checking account. Because of this new APR you can't seem to get lowered (no matter how much you complain) your minimum payment barely covers your accrued interest. You miss the payment cut off time by twenty minutes (because the credit card company keeps changing the due date on you - also completely legal), and the next thing you know, you've raked up a $39 late fee, which throws you over your limit, and hits you with another $39 fee...

I know this may seem excessive, but my point is that this random series of events could happen to anyone, no matter how much money you have or how much "self-control" you have. Of course, the effects are that much more devastating and harder to get out of if you don't have a lot of wiggle room in your budget to start with. And i know some of you would say that you should pay off your card every month, and never hold a balance - but what if you are trying to build your credit to buy a home? Paying those balances in full will keep your credit score low, which means you are more likely to be forced into a sub-prime mortgage. Basically - you can't win.

The call for legislative reform is not about ignoring personal responsibility and it's not justifying blatant over-indulgence - it's simply about holding the banking industry to the same standards with the same protections that American consumers would expect from any business industry and in any binding contract.

I am not a "victim" - I am someone who does not appreciate my government allowing banks to lie, cheat and steal. They don't let ME do that in order to make a living - I have to work hard for my money - why does MBNA get to?

Carol M said...

I just signed up for Dave Ramsey's FPU, and find your analogy between him and Weight Watchers to be very accurate. Hopefully when I graduate I'll be in better financial AND physical shape!

ameliat said...

The most important thing you touched on (and I agree with) is that personal responsibility is the only piece of the equation I can control. Yes, there is a whole marketing industry out there with the express goal of trying to get me to part with my cash and eat their processed food products. But it’s up to me to educate myself and do something about it, at least for myself. Maybe further down the line I’ll become more political and want to fight to “change things” out there in the world but for right now, I must limit my scope to what I can reasonably control – my own behavior and choices.

It took a lot for me to get to the point where I understood this. Like many, I’ve spent a large majority of my life “battling my weight” and worrying about finances. I have tried many diets and spent a lot of time with my head in the sand about the true state of my finances. Although I’m still a work in progress, I now realize that neither issue should be a battle nor a worry at all – my real goal is to do a better job of taking care of myself. This includes my body (eating less calories than I burn so I can lose weight) and my finances (living below my means and saving for the future).

I have done a much better job in terms of finances – I am on my way to debt elimination (on track to be finished paying off debt within a year). Finding the balance with my weight has been trickier mostly because I am much more emotional (read: less rational) about my eating than my spending. But the tools are amazingly similar. To keep a handle on my spending, I use a little wallet register to track what I buy. To keep a handle on my calorie intake I use a food journal (WW Quick Tracker – yes, I’ve drank the WW Kool-Aid, too). The former is WAY easier for me to stick with than the latter, although I’ve made some strides. I’m 12 lbs down so far this year. I think really making the connection of how similar the two processes are has helped tremendously. I’d been meticulous with my money tracker for years before a WW friend pointed it out when she was out with me. Duh, it’s the same thing! Why was I fighting “having” to monitor my calories like that when I was completely thrilled with the results of using the technique in my financial life?

I’ve talked a little about what’s worked for me – readjusting my attitude towards personal growth and making peace with my need to keep track of money and food/activity. So I’ve found that dealing with obesity IS similar to dealing with debt. But there is no grand solution. No one way will work for every person. That’s why I love this blog and others like it – it gives a great perspective that I can read and digest and decide what applies to my own life. I may not love every single recipe and/or piece of advice I read but every weight or finance related post I read gives me food for thought (I just HAD to say it). Then it’s up to ME to synthesize it all into my own personal game plan/philosophy.

Dana Seilhan said...

Personal responsibility IS important. But my question is, why does it have to be made so darned difficult by all these other influences existing? It's like when I tell my little girl's dad that I'm trying to lose weight again and he brings foods over he knows I shouldn't have. (It's not a "he didn't read my mind" thing, it's a "we have talked about this endlessly and he just completely disregarded my feelings" thing.) Or, because I have found that low-carbing works best for me, I get constant bombardment from the media and from well-meaning fellow dieters that what I'm doing is "dangerous", even though there is scads of scientific evidence to the contrary, some of which has even been published in JAMA! I'm tired of it being too easy to buy crap but not easy enough to buy healthy food. I'm tired of people not taking me seriously when I want to lose the weight. And I'm beyond tired of people not doing their own homework and therefore trying to influence me away from what works best and is healthiest for me.

I believe in working *with* tendencies, not *against* them. However, it seems most of the world does not agree with me--they'd rather have the pain and suffering, and inflict it on others. I don't understand this, and it is very discouraging.

Dana Seilhan said...

@Jessica: The problem here is that people are seeing credit cards as an easy way to get a loan and thereby establish a credit repayment history, but they couldn't be more wrong. There is a huge amount of difference between a line of credit and an out-and-out loan. A credit card only becomes a loan if you charge something on it. A regular loan has never been and will never be a line of credit; the lender has out and out given you the money and expects you to pay it back with interest.

This is where credit card users get tripped up. This is where *I* got tripped up. Now the light bulb has gone on in my head and I won't be making that mistake again.

So should you have a credit card? It really depends on your spending habits, but if you can remember that credit cards don't have to be used (often or at all) in order to benefit you, it helps. The credit card still improves your credit score even if you charge five bucks on it every six months and immediately pay that off. Why? Because it's increasing your debt/credit ratio. That's a major part of your credit score.

Leave the borrowing for something like a student loan, or borrow a thousand bucks from your bank and stick it in a savings account and then pay it off on time. The bank won't play games with you like the credit card company will. But treat a credit card with respect for the line of credit it is and view it more as testimony to potential lenders that you can handle having access to credit without going crazy all over it.

That's what I'm going to do. I won't even consider using a credit card for an emergency fund, either. That is like plastering a giant sign to my butt for the universe to read that says KICK ME.

Grumpy Misanthrope said...

I think weight and money have everything to do with personal responsibility.

Money yes...

Weight, not always.
Science shows that some people will always have a tendency to have more fat than others, unless they are on a starvation diet (which is patently unhealthy). Your responsibility as a person is not to worry about the weight number (regardless the preaching of ridiculous entities like Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig, and the morons in the federal government) but rather to get adequate exercise and good nutrition. If you are walking an hour a day or more, and eating a diet healthy food in proper proportions (usually between 1500 & 1800 calories for the "average" person) (instead of the processed "food"-like diet that most Americans subsist on), then your weight will tend to settle at what it will settle at. If it's more than you think you like, you have two choices...torture yourself into an eating disorder and distorted body image, or learn to accept yourself and be happy with who you are. Diet companies have a vested interest in wanting to you to hate yourself.

Grumpy Misanthrope said...

because I have found that low-carbing works best for me

The key is to not let your carbs get too low (yes, there is such a thing). Depending on activity level, a minimum level of carbs (about 20g) are needed for most people to have adequate energy supplies for daily activity. Check the Schwartzbien Principle out at the library. She discusses a "limited" carb diet that she uses to treat her diabetic patients. But she feels the ultra-low approach that Atkins takes is too extreme and doesn't provide enough instant energy to keep people adequately fueled in daily life.

E said...

I'm chiming in late on this, but my link between weight and finances is this simple: I've cut back on spending on extras to get control of my finances, so as a "cheap" reward/treat, I'll splurge on cookies/cake, etc. My budget can't absorb spending money on clothes (which is what I'd like to spend it on), but it can handle$5-10 here and there on a tasty treat. For me at least, it's a vicious cycle that started in grad school and since I'm still repaying said grad school, it's a cycle that won't end soon.