Budget and diet: Two of the most cringe-worthy words ever spoken. Neither one sounds fun or exciting. Both evoke a sense of restriction and rules. And yet, once you can master both, life becomes much more fun and exciting.
Keep in mind, budgeting and dieting are both tools. I liken it to operating a tractor: I have no clue how to operate one. But, I know with time, energy and effort, I could certainly learn how to do it. The key here is putting in the energy and effort. You can read all you want about meal plans and budget spreadsheets, but until you truly adhere to the commitments they require, you haven’t learned how to do it.
While I didn’t know it at the time, using awareness to uncover habits paid off ten-fold. Ever told yourself you’re going sugar-free only to find yourself in the DQ drive-thru a few hours later? Have you promised yourself you’ll save money by packing meals and yet still say “yes” when a coworker asks if you want to grab lunch? If you cannot recall making those decisions or if they feel as if someone else made them for you, your brain is hard at work striving for efficiency. It takes time to slow down and dig into what’s driving your choices.
While I reached my financial goals far before I reached my health goals, it’s because of the former that I was able to complete the latter. I intentionally set out to uncover the subconscious thoughts that drove my feelings and actions. Here’s what I learned:
First off, give yourself some credit for the fact that every time you leave your house, you’re inundated with advertisements, Instagram posts, radio ads, magazines, “BIG SALE” posters, bakery items at checkout lanes and happy hour specials. Each of these is directly targeted to hit your senses in a way that makes you want to eat or buy… or in many cases, both. Product placement and advertisements play to our senses — specifically the ones that we think will make us feel good.
According to Kelly McGonigal in her book the Willpower Instinct, dopamine is a motivator to get us out seeking rewards. A sugary latte or new set of sneakers will do it for me. But, dopamine only makes us pursue happiness — it doesn’t actually make us happy. That’s why we feel guilty after eating dessert or experience buyer’s remorse after an impulse purchase. We’re surrounded by prompts that make us think we will be happier if we eat this or buy that. Turns out, that’s not the case but unfortunately, our dopamine laden brain doesn’t always follow suit.
Sometimes simply acknowledging that stores are driven to sell is enough to open our eyes to the hidden ways we’re enticed into choices we don’t necessarily want to oblige. Again, this is cause for each of us to cut ourselves slack. It’s not easy to make healthy or responsible choices because the world is telling us otherwise.
You either spent the money or you saved it. You either charged the credit card or paid with cash. You either ate the burger or you didn’t. You either completed the workout or you didn’t.
To no avail, the second we don’t see the desired result, we find ourselves jumping from one meal plan to the next. When the scale doesn’t move or the monthly interest charges aren’t decreasing, we think the next thing will certainly make us feel better. But, if we can quiet the drama of all of the options available to us and just stick to a singular plan, it leaves us with only two options: Do it. Or Don’t.
What’s important to take from this is the overlying principle that quitting slows you down. Small choices matter. If you don’t make a commitment to do the hard thing, you’re ingraining the bad habit even deeper.
Measure measure measure
I have recorded my weight almost every day for the last 3 years. I have a food log for almost every day of the last 4 years. I keep a check register and have updated it daily since 2012. I keep a personal net worth sheet and update it every quarter.
To some, this may seem over the top or excessive. I get it. It’s not for everyone. But for those who may find it daunting, I’d challenge them to try tracking one measure every day for a single month just to see what happens.
Tracking the data was a way to make sure I continually returned my focus to my goals. Each time I ate, I knew I would have to write it down which allowed me to reflect on whether or not I honored my meal plan. Recording my weight is a subtle reminder each morning that my purpose in life is not to consume food, it’s to be the best version of myself. Every time I swiped a credit card and marked the transaction, I could tell when I was getting close to the end of the paycheck. These three pieces of data are exceptionally valuable — so I choose to respect them every day.
A goal is a desired result. An ambition. To some, a wish. No one notices the first five pounds you lose. Trust me — I’ve lost and gained those same five pounds enough to know. No one sees your credit card balance decrease or your retirement savings grow. Keeping the data is your own little pat on the back that says, “you’re headed in the right direction.” It’s a recollection of the journey. This shit isn’t easy so it’s crucial to take the wins wherever you can find them.
These are the tools that worked for me. There are plenty to choose from:
- Steps walked
- Workouts competed
- Changes in pant size
- Interest charges saved by paying down principal
- Money saved with coupons
Finally, measuring statistics ensures that you cannot hide from the problem. It truly brings the problem to light… and I mean, a center stage spotlight kind of light. You cannot argue the facts. By boiling your goal down to its most simple form, you can see it for what it is. You can remove your emotions, blame and frustration. You realize that you either did.. Or you didn’t.
It’s important to note when you fall off track
Over the course of both my savings goals and health goals, I noticed food binges and spending sprees tended to happen around similar times. Eating and/or purchasing something was my way of stifling underlying stress.
More so, I would pick up seemingly “healthy” foods from quick-serve restaurants and used my busy schedule to justify it. Ordering a salad from Panera does not save time and it certainly doesn’t save money. It’s just as quick to stop into a grocery store and pick up a large container of salad with some pre-cooked protein. You receive far more quantity of food that can be used for leftovers for at least another two meals. This habit was triggering my overeating and overspending in one fell swoop — it’s no wonder it typically happened when my schedule was packed.
Another alerting habit, though it appears typical on the surface, was purchasing new outfits for seemingly average events. In my twenties, I enjoyed checking out new bars and throwing back a few drinks with good company. While it’s normal to pick up new duds for a special work event or holiday party, there is not a need for another pair of blue jeans that no one will notice in a dark hipster bar. My insecurity reigned supreme and the excitement of a new outfit compensated for the drudgery of my self-esteem. Screw my budget — I was single and clearly believed my existing blue jeans were to blame.
What was going on? I was searching for external rewards to fix internal problems.
Now, I am much more cognizant of these habits and instead of falling into them, I take it as a sign it’s time to check in with myself. My first cue is that I miss inputting expenses into my check register. My next alert is a missed weigh-in. And my last SOS is when I fail to log my food.
This is the magic of choosing habits and making them stick. Habits help us acknowledge when something is “off,” even when that something is not physically tangible or evident to others. Habits create routines that serve as a baseline. Any deviation from the baseline becomes a cue to pay attention.
Playing the long game ended up being more fun
I love posting side by side before and after pictures on Instagram. It is the best way to show what physically changed for me. Selfishly, these posts also tend to gain the most traffic over other photos which reinforces a positive reinforcement loop for me. It comes with praise and recognition. I’m not bragging — I’m just telling you… it feels good.
The same goes for the trips my husband and I take. I love posting our adventures and the sometimes rare places we’ve had the opportunity to see. It feels good to be asked, “Where are you going next?” because it shows that traveling is expected of us.
In both of these cases, we played the long game. Rather than succumbing to every impulse purchase and caving to sugary office treats, I keep the end goal in mind. And it is hard. But, on the flip side, the final payout of feeling confident enough to have my picture taken in a bathing suit on an island in the Philippines (two things I formerly wouldn’t have believed could happen for me) is far more fun than reading a gossip magazine while snacking on caramel popcorn. While conquering each individual moment of temptation sucked, the final product was pretty freakin’ awesome.
This is where the concept of living as if you’ve already achieved the goal truly came into play. Rather than assuming I would be a whole new, better, improved person once I reached my goals, I practiced being that person in the state I was already in. That seemed to make all the difference: I wasn’t relying on fighting old habits in order to get to my goal. I was searching for new habits in order to become the new person I wanted to be.
My budget and my meal plan was preplanned
I’ll need to do a better post about this in full detail. But for now, I’ll summarize how I managed my intake and expenditures.
I managed it.
Each day, I picked exactly what I would eat the following day. Each paycheck, I picked allocated exactly how I would spend each dollar. I used a multitude of apps and journals before I came up with what work best for me. But, like I mentioned above, you must measure.
It’s also shown through a phenomenon called “encoding” that when you write something down, you have a much higher chance of following through. By writing down what I would eat and how I would spend my money, I sent subliminal messages to my mind that said, “this is how we’re going to do this.”
More so, it created a simple plan for me to follow. I never had to worry about having money for living expenses and fun expenses. I never had to feel like every dessert was off-limits. Everything was pre-planned and therefore, I was the one in control.
Everything went back to basics
This one is simple… because, these changes made life more simple.
Less our mortgage, we do not have any debt. This makes paying bills and managing money very easy. We don’t have to track many expenses, we aren’t paying interest on anything and we know exactly what we can (and cannot) afford. If we can’t pay for it with cash and it’s not an emergency, we don’t buy it.
In the case of food, I don’t buy processed foods. For the most part, everything we consume has had a living life. If it comes out of a box, we typically don’t need it. We don’t have a large pantry because we don’t need one. An added benefit is that by using true ingredients instead of pre made sauces and salty spice blends, our food tastes much better.
We keep things basic. We don’t need much. And because of that, I have less stress and am able to fully enjoy whatever it is I’m experiencing each day.
You’re going to have to tell yourself no
Circling back to Kelly McGonigal’s explanation of dopamine in our quest for reward, it’s important to note that our urges to eat or spend are exceptionally strong because of what we believe we will feel after the meal or purchase is complete. Tell me truly — how many times have you consumed an unplanned treat without feeling guilty? Did that new shirt truly change your life?
“Because the pursuit of reward is dopamine’s main goal, it is never going to give you a ‘stop’ signal — even when the experience does not live up to the promise.”
Youch. That’s a hard truth pill to swallow.
So what does this mean? It’s simple: you’re going to have to tell yourself no… a lot.
Saying no is not a “bad” thing. As I mentioned before, these are tools that can be learned, used and repurposed. This is the point where you can consciously choose thoughts that serve you and repurpose your dopamine stores for rewards that benefit you. This is where practicing modeling regularly shifts your direction into a place you actually want to go.
Finally, learning to say no to myself was the most loving form of self-care I ever learned. You’re going to have to trust me on this one. There is a knowledge I have with myself that by looking out for my best intentions (though it’s difficult) has made me a stronger person.
I learned to stop wanting things that don’t benefit me
If I could give you the option of never wanting sweets again and therefore never eating sweets again, would you take it? Some people will answer with a resounding yes but the majority of people will stop and think about it. Giving up something we love, especially if it’s something that isn’t good for us, is a process of untangling why we want it. It’s not easy.
This is also a process that can be learned. While I don’t mind the occasional cheat meal, I no longer want pasta or flour tortillas in the way I once did. I truly prefer spaghetti sauce on zucchini noodles and wrapping my taco meat in butter lettuce. The flavors of the sauce and chicken are so wonderful that it doesn’t matter what medium it comes on.
The same thing happened with shopping for clothes. Any social occasion, big or small, became grounds for me to go buy a new outfit. Listen, there is no reason why I needed more than 10 pairs of jeans when there are only 7 days in the week and I had to wear business slacks on at least 5 of them. New blue jeans didn’t solve a single problem. Once I realized that, I no longer wanted to buy them.
You can learn to “unwant” your vices. This process is the start of living intentionally — and it is awesome.
Hitting your final goals makes you move from living from scarcity to abundance
This is by far my favorite benefit of meeting both of my goals.
You no longer look at objects as things you can’t have — they’re things you know you can save for. You don’t look at clothes as things you need to wait until you lose weight to fit into — they’re simply clothes that compliment your body or don’t. You don’t look at food as something that will make you happier — food is just food. You don’t live in fear that you won’t have enough money to cover your basics — you learn to love the things you already have and keep expenses in check.
“Easy for you to say — you already achieved those goals.”
But that’s just the point — at one point I didn’t have these things. The process of moving from not enough into self-sufficiency has made the success all the more sweeter. The challenge of fighting temptation daily makes me so thankful for each planned dessert I can now enjoy guilt-free. When you stop treating everything as if it’s the last time you’re ever going to enjoy it, you can actually enjoy it!
When you shift your mindset from “there is not enough” and truly operate from the standpoint that there is always enough, you begin to think and act from a more positive place. It changes your dialogue from complaining and venting into creating and celebrating. You learn to trust yourself to find and obtain what you need.
Any of this sound like something you want to explore?
All of these items take time and guidance to implement. They’re skills you can learn and reuse. If you’re interested in one-on-one coaching, move on over to the “ contact me” page!
McGonigal, Kelly. The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It. Avery, 2012, pp. 125–129.
Originally published at https://annajavellana.com on February 12, 2020.