3 Ways In Which Saving Money Can Help You Lose Weight

Succeeding in one difficult activity can help you succeed in others

Posted Sep 15, 2015

In our day-to-day lives, we face many difficult challenges. We struggle to eat nutritious food, avoid unhealthy temptations, and to exercise regularly. Many of us live paycheck-to-paycheck and even when we want to, we are not able to put away money for a rainy day or save enough for retirement. Still we keep buying new things we don’t really need and fail to properly enjoy what we do possess.  We often procrastinate and put off activities that are good for us such as learning new skills or improving our current skills.  When we fail to perform these difficult activities, it not only hurts us personally, but it has negative consequences for our families, communities, the economy, and the environment.

These activities all have two things in common: they are difficult, and to succeed, they require us to exercise self-restraint regularly.

Few of us are consistently good at self-restraint in every difficult activity

There are many psychology theories about how self-control works. The most influential theory is that a person’s self-control is a resource that can be used for any task where it is needed. But this resource is limited. When a person exercises restraint, the self-control resource is spent. Less of it is available the next time self-restraint is called for. Replenishment takes time, so that by the end of the day, we are running on empty. This resource theory of self-control has been tested over and over again by hundreds of studies over the past decade. So psychologists are quite confident that it is valid.

When considering a person’s success in self-restraint in activities involving food and finances (the 2 big Fs for many of us), this self-control theory suggests two things. One is that people should not be able to restrain themselves in different difficult activities simultaneously. Success in one activity—saying 'no' to a dessert at lunch—should lower chances of success in another activity, such as controlling one’s urge to impulsively buy something later in the day. The second implication is that, at least in the short term, there is little we can do about this. Over the longer term, we could keep practicing self-restraint and increase the size of our 'self-control reserve.' But this won’t help just now.

There is also other evidence which supports the idea that people can be good at self-restraint in one activity but not at another. In a recent paper, my co-authors, Kelly Haws and Scott Davis, and I examined how self-control in spending money and self-control in eating were related to each other. As the figure below shows, we found that close to 40% of the participants in our studies were good at one type of self-control but they were bad at the other.

Haws, Davis and Dholakia
Source: Haws, Davis and Dholakia

Many more of us are consistently good at one activity requiring self-restraint

The flipside of the graph is that when we considered successful self-restraint in just one activity (either food or spending), over 70% of study participants were consistently successful.  While news media understandably focus on the negatives, statistics from many reputable sources support this idea. Most Americans are good at restraining themselves in one, but not both, food and finances.

Temptation by Inga Vitola Flickr Licensed under CC BY 2.0
Source: Temptation by Inga Vitola Flickr Licensed under CC BY 2.0

Take the case of finances. While many stories portray worry about the dire circumstances of Americans’ savings, large surveys show that more than half of all Americans feel confident about their prospects for a comfortable retirement. What is more, about 10 million American households have at least a million dollars in assets for saving and investment. It is clear that many Americans are amazingly good at saving money consistently.

The same is true of food. While news stories focus on the high rates of overweight and obese Americans, no one mentions the fact that over 30% of Americans have healthy weight. To add to this number, recent research suggests many people that are categorized as obese or overweight with the Body Mass Index measure may actually have a healthy body weight using other criteria, such as body fat. The bottom line: a significant number of Americans (though not a majority) are able to maintain a consistently healthy body weight.

How can you translate success in one difficult activity into success in another?

If you are like most people, you are good at one particular difficult activity requiring self-restraint but bad at others. How can you use your success in one difficult activity to improve in other difficult activities? Social psychology research on self-control and habits suggests some effective ways. Here are three specific ideas for expanding your success:

  • Form and maintain synergistic habits. Many habits promote moderation and in food and finances, moderation equates to restraint. Other habits concurrently benefit food and finances. For instance, consider the habit of cooking from scratch and eating most meals at home. Such a habit not only encourages the person to eat healthier food but it also lowers spending. In one fell swoop, success in both food and finances is achieved! Not only that, finding and experimenting with recipes may encourage new skill building and eating at home has been shown to promote family interactions and social support. It is important to form and maintain such synergistic habits that contribute to positive outcomes in multiple domains and have few downsides. 
  • Transfer skills that help you succeed. Many behaviors that are effective in one domain will work just as well (or even better) in the service of another difficult task. Let’s say you are good with saving money and one way you accomplish this is by religiously maintaining a monthly budget. Budgeting requires thinking about different spending categories (housing, food, transportation, etc.) followed by allocating reasonable amounts of income to each one and then monitoring spending activity throughout the month. These same processes of categorization, allocation, and monitoring are effective where managing body weight is concerned. For example, Weight Watchers, among the most popular and successful weight management plans in America, uses a budgeting approach. It assigns a specific number of points to every food item. Each person is given a daily allocation of points for use any way they see fit. If you are good with a financial budget, chances are that you will find it easier to use and adapt to a calorie budget, and vice versa.
  • Automate virtuous behavior. For some activities, no matter how hard you try, it is very hard to exercise restraint. This is particularly true in the domain of personal finances where many people form resolutions to save regularly every New Year, but fail to keep the resolution for even a couple of months. What to do? If habits won’t work, and there are no obvious skills that can be transferred from other domains, try automating your behavior and passing on its control to technology. To save regularly, for instance, all you have to do is sign up for an automatic deduction from your paycheck into your savings or retirement account. That way, the money is gone (for your future well-being) before you have a chance to get your hands on it. This approach also works nicely in other domains. Procrastinators can install software on their computers which prevents incessant email checking or web-surfing and those on a diet can install a lock on their refrigerator that will lock them out until pre-specified meal-times. 

Most of us struggle with success in some domain or other in our lives. Some of us may be excellent savers but struggle with maintaining our weight. Others may be in great shape physically but live with the stress of having no savings. Still others are chronic procrastinators. It is time to think about the places in our lives where we are successful and use the methods that make us successful there to our advantage in other life domains.

I teach core marketing and pricing to MBA students at Rice University . You can find and download a lot of my academic and some of my practitioner-oriented writing at SSRN. If you can’t find something old I have written, shoot me an email and I will send it to you. Some of my writing for managers and business people can be found at HBR.org and I also write a relatively new blog called “The Science behind Behavior” on Psychology Today.

You can connect with me on LinkedIn or Facebook, or you can send me an email. All questions, comments, thoughts, and ideas for future blog pieces or academic research projects are welcome.