When I was 29, I knew I had to change. There was something about being on the cusp of 30 that inspired me to think that if I didn’t get in shape now, I never would.
As a child, I had never particularly enjoyed sport. I dabbled with ice hockey, having spent a couple of years in Canada at an early age when we would listen to the local radio station giving updates on the thickness of the ice on local “ponds” (we’d call them lakes in the UK!).
Team sports at school didn’t interest me and I think that’s where many people give up. Either they stop playing team sports when they start work or, like me, they’re never interested in the first place. Not only that, but school life is often separated into a social hierarchy — the “in” crowd, who tend to be good-looking and good at sport. Needless to say, I wasn’t a member.
Schools don’t generally teach individual sports, like gymnastics or weight-lifting. It’s all football, hockey, cricket, rugby. Sure, there’s cross country running, but I hated that. (Ironically, it’s now something I enjoy!)
University brought easy access to a gym, but I didn’t know what I was doing and nothing really came of it. I was more interested in partying and playing computer games.
University also brought financial “independence” of a sort. I finally had to manage my own money, albeit in the form of a student loan. I was fortunate that I didn’t have to work during term time, but would get summer jobs to try and repair the damage done to my bank account during term time.
My problem was that I would spend every penny. And more.
Every year would bring a new hunt to find a bank offering a bigger overdraft.
Of course, my habits didn’t really change when I entered the world of work. I was so used to spending everything I earned that it seemed anathema to save. The only thing I had done was sign up to the company pension scheme. My bank account was still a black hole from which nothing could grow.
I had a lucky escape from this — a catalyst that triggered the energy required to get over the inertia of saving nothing. I inherited a sum of money. Not a life-changing amount in the traditional sense, but it was life-changing for me. Enough to clear my overdraft and finally put me into positive figures.
And so it was with these two events — finally being clear of debt and just before my 30th birthday that I threw myself into learning and putting into action a plan to become finance and fitness savvy.
Here is what I have learned. I hope some of this sparks something in you or provides some practical advice on how to get started.
Pay yourself first.
Set yourself a portion of your income that goes straight into paying off your debt (excluding mortgage debt, which is very different to overdrafts, loans and credit cards) or building up your savings. Depending on your current financial situation and your attitude towards life (living for the now vs. saving for the future), this will vary enormously. But whatever amount you choose, set it in stone and have a standing order into a savings or investment account or the credit card that needs cleared.
The more you earn, the more you should save.
If you get a payrise, or start earning more (or spending less), give yourself a raise! We all know that money doesn’t buy happiness, but getting control on your spending and saving brings peace of mind. Some suggestions of how much to save relative your annnual income could be:
<£20k = Try to save 15% of your take-home
£20k — £30k = 20%
£30k — £100k = 25%
£100k — £200k = 30%
I won’t bother going further — you get the idea and I hope that nobody on higher salaries needs financial advice from some random guy on Medium!
Spend no more than 25% of your income on putting a roof over your head…
This won’t be possible for everyone, but if you’re spending more than a quarter of your household income on rent or housing costs (that includes taxes and maintenance), you should consider downsizing or changing your living arrangements if you want to become financially better off (i.e. retire early or have the freedom to get a lower paid or less stressful job).
I truly sympathise with anyone on lower incomes for which this is simply not possible, but there are many people who choose to put themselves in the financial trap of buying a house that is too big or in an upmarket location and requires a high-flying job that they hate just to pay the mortgage.
…and make sure it never amounts to more than 20% of your net worth.
If you’re fortunate enough to own, or at least partially own, property, it should ideally never make up more than 1/5 of all your savings / pension / investments. This goes doubly if the property you own is also your home! Too many people end up property-rich but money-poor. If you follow the first two rules, you should try to end up owning more investments than whatever is tied up in your home.
Spend no more than 1/40th (2.5%!) of your accumulated wealth (net worth) on a car and the same on stuff. 95% of your wealth should be in assests, not liabilities.
In general, people spend way too much on their cars. Much like houses, it’s very easy to want the biggest and best, or in the case of a car, the newest.
Don’t judge your vehicular budget on your monthly earnings. A car, unlike a house, is a massive liability. It’s common knowledge that a brand new car loses ~10% of its value the instant it’s driven from the showroom. Annually, cars lose ~20% of their value.
If you have a large income, there is nothing wrong in hire-purchase schemes (it makes more sense to rent depreciating assets than owning them), but very few people could afford to lease a car if they’re already following the previous rules.
For most of us, buying a second-hand car based on our net worth makes more financial sense. Again, this is a very challenging rule that is almost impossible to abide by when first starting out (and I’m still breaking it now!), but you should try to spend less than 2.5% of your net worth on a car. This means that if you have £10k as a deposit in your house, £20k in savings and £20k in a pension, your net worth (assuming no debt) is £50k.
2.5% of this £1,250.
Now you can see how tough this rule is. Only you can decide how closely to follow it, but what’s the point in having goals if they’re easy?
The same goes for stuff. TVs, computers, clothes, gadgets. Beyond a certain level of comfort, we don’t need it. The more money you can divert into savings and investments, the more freedom you’re buying. It’s probably important to stress that there is nothing wrong with stuff. It makes our lives easier or more enjoyable. But too much of anything can be bad.
Don’t just save. Invest.
Once you’re debt-free and have started building a few months’ living expenses in a bank account, you should start to diversify. There are five main assets that tend to store or increase in value over time:
For most people, cash and property is as far as they get, although they probably have shares and bonds in a pension scheme, and perhaps even some precious metals.
You shouldn’t have too much of any one of these (e.g. see previous rule), but you should have a little of everything. How much you choose to invest in each is up to you. There is no magic combination that consistently wins. Each has their time in the sun, so to speak, so best make sure you’re always exposed to the sunshine somehow. Spreading your investments in this way is also an insurance policy. It would be (almost) impossible to lose everything if you own at least some of each of these things.
Owning shares, bonds and gold can be done more easily than you may think — much like online banking — by using a broker. Gold can also be bought as coins (small denominations in your country’s specific format are best — sovereigns in the UK, eagles in the US, the maple leaf in Canada) and kept either in a deposit box with the bank or gold vendor. It’s probably best kept hidden in a location that you have access to at any time, however. Whilst this might sound paranoid, part of gold’s function is an insurance policy. If you can’t hold it, you don’t own it as the saying goes…
For more detailed information on finding a broker and picking which investments to buy (I’d advise a global stock market index, as well as a global bond index, rather than those of your country of residence), check out the awesome guides on Monevator, specifically:
If you’re outside the UK, you can definitely find similar blogs for financial advice / independence.
Start a business or get a side hustle.
OK, so this one’s probably harder than the others. I admit that I myself don’t have much going on here — mostly because I’m in the position that I’m not terribly motivated by money and I’m in a job that I enjoy with very little stress and that pays me enough to enjoy the ability to save for the future and enjoy the present.
There’s plenty more advice out there on this topic, so I’m not going to provide anything other than a recommendation of investigating it. Especially if you need more money or you want to try something new.
Fitness & Diet
There are so many diets these days. It’s no wonder people are confused or doing the wrong things. It’s so easy to miss the wood for the trees and get sidetracked into worrying about the rules or the specifics of a diet. As if there’s a magic pill or a magic food you should or shouldn’t eat.
Well, there is. It’s just Food — not food, or “food”.
The rule, if you could call it that, is to prioritise naturally-occurring Food as possible and minimise processed, artificial “food”. Whatever you prefer — vegetarian, vegan, paleo, carnivore — it all works as long as what you’re eating doesn’t come from a factory.
My own, personal experience as an omnivore is that prioritising protein, in the form of salmon, duck and beef (we have good quality beef in the UK that tends not to be factory-farmed) and salad or vegetables has allowed me to effortlessly stay at a decent level of fatness. Sure, I’d love to be leaner and still cycle through stages of bulking (building muscle) and cutting (losing fat) occassionally, especially if I’m working towards a powerlifting competition, but discovering the simple act of minimising processed foods was easy and eliminated all hunger and cravings.
Again, for me personally, I’ve found that keeping my carbohydrate intake low(er) helps too. Any carbohydrates I do eat tend to be very low in sugar and high(er) in fibre.
I still treat myself from time to time, but I don’t feel guilty for it and I view the occassional pizza, ice cream or whatever as exactly that — a treat.
Experiment. Find what works for you.
I strongly encourage trying some specific things:
- Play with meal frequency. I’ve tried them all (I think). From the bodybuilder routine of 6 equally spaced meals (I was always hungry and never satisfied), to the standard breakfast-lunch-dinner thing, to finally settling on the other extreme — intermittent fasting. Over the years, the fast has become longer and I now I only eat between about 7pm and 10pm. It works for me and I’ve never enjoyed food as much as I do now. Not because I’m hungry — actually, it’s the opposite! My hunger is very different now to when I was eating more often. It’s subtle. Manageable. It also fits around my life. If you do decide to skip a meal, you’ll almost certainly find it takes a while (a few weeks) to adapt. It took me ~6 weeks for the hunger pangs to subside, but I did suddenly just stop eating breakfast and lunch (as far as I recall). Probably best to do it gradually, like making one meal smaller and another larger. You can probably find what frequency and time of day works best for you. There is no magic, except what works for you.
- Play with carbohydrates. My own experience is that my carbohydrate intake should be balanced with the amount I’m exercising, and generally kept low. It’s probably not a bad idea to limit carbohydrates to post-exercise, which I do naturally with my routine of work-gym-eat. If I’m specifically trying to lose fat, the carbohydrates are the first thing I’ll reduce. I also enjoy saving them up for weekends, tending to eat very few during the week and having a pizza and low-sugar cereal for dessert at the weekend. Everyone will be different here but it’s something you’ll have to figure out for yourself. If you eat breakfast, try eating a carbohydrate (but low sugar) breakfast for a few weeks and see how your hunger behaves. Then try a high fat / protein breakfast (eggs, bacon, whatever) for a few weeks and compare.
Find something you enjoy or set yourself goals.
The only guidance I have is to find an activity you enjoy. This could be team sports; walking; running; cycling; weight-lifting; yoga; kettlebells in your living room. Whatever. Just try and find something you enjoy.
For me, it was weight-lifting. I’m biased in my belief that resistance exercise (machines, bands, free weights, kettlebells) are the most time-efficient way to improve both your health and the way you look. But if you don’t enjoy that, that’s fine.
I discovered weight-lifting 9 years ago and was hooked immediately. What keeps me going are the following rules:
- Exercises I enjoy — Squats, deadlifts, benchpress, weighted pullups.
- The simplicity and routine of my workout. One day squats. One day bench. One day Deadlift. One day pullups. Repeat. Just like diets, there are loads of different routines out there. Just pick one and adapt it to suit. As long as you follow some of these guidelines, you’ll get results.
- The balance of the exercises. Every part of my body is getting a workout. There is an equal amount of push and pull.
- Progression. Each time I achieve my chosen number of reps, I add more weight.
- A notebook. Every workout gets logged. I know exactly how much I lifted last time, and how I felt. I know how much to put on the bar this time to keep pusing myself.
- Rest. As I’ve got stronger (and older), I’ve changed my routine. It’s now fairly frequent (I go almost every day), but the volume is very low. If I’m really tired one day, I’ll rest. You need to find the amount of exercise that you can handle, and rest when you’re tired.
You’ll have to find what works for you, but whatever it is, I encourage the following:
Progression is key.
If you’re not trying to get one more rep, one more kilogram, one more mile or one more step, you’re not improving.
Keep trying to beat your previous record. I’m not sure what to advise if your chosen activity is something like yoga or a team sport because my thing is numbers, and weight-lifting, perhaps more than many sports, is a game of numbers.
But whatever you choose, aim to keep getting better. This is where the notebook delivers. If you don’t know where you’ve been, how do you know where you’re going?
Abs are made in the kitchen, not the gym.
It’s a cliche, but if you’re looking to build muscle or lose fat, it’s the diet that determines the outcome. You don’t even have to do any exercise. If you eat right, your body shape will change. Exercise is strongly recommended however, but realise that cliches like “you can’t outrun a bad diet” exist because they’re true.
Don’t compare yourself to others.
As a weight-lifter, I know more than most about the painful reality that I will never look like Arnie, or whoever your “role-model” might be.
My gift is being small. If I wasn’t, I probably never would have been able to set local powerlifting records. This is partly through luck (there’s not many men under 59kg who can lift what I can) and partly through hard work and constantly pushing myself.
What I try very hard to do is not compare myself with others. Especially the images you see on popular bodybuilding websites or social media. We’re all told they are unrealistic — the men and women with professional shots taken when they could probably only maintain that level of leanness for a few days or weeks. Sure, not everyone is faking it by taking steroids or using photoshop, but you don’t know that. And in any case, you’re you and they’re someone else, with a different life and different genetics.
Stepping into a gym for the first time, when you’re not sure what you’re doing is scary. I’ve been there. But almost everyone in the gym I meet is lovely. We all know that you have to start somewhere — we all did. Don’t be afraid of the big guys (or girls) in the weights area. Chances are, they’re just as insecure as you — more so in some cases!
You’re in it for the long-haul.
With both diet and exercise, it’s going to take time. A whole lotta precious time.
You can do this. Just one day at a time, over the weeks, months and years.
You need to change things permanently. A diet is not something you do for a while, then go back to eating badly. Make it a commitment for the rest of your life.
Enjoy the journey.
The destination will take care of itself.