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An Examination of Will Power: Money vs. Health

   Posted On: January 20, 2017  |    Posted In: Millennials  |     Posted by: Broke Millennial®

Sitting in my comfy desk chair with my feet firmly planted on the floor, hands clasped in my lap, a disembodied voice with an affected British accent tells me to do a scan of my body from head-to-toe. “Now note any places of discomfort or tension,” the voice coaches. Suppressing an internal eye roll because I genuinely want to give meditation a fair shake, I begin the process of mentally scanning my body. It stops at my waistline. Want to talk about discomfort. The intense awareness that a distinct roll of body fat appears when I’m in a seated position has been a cause of discomfort, tension and concern for nearly a year now. Then a transcendent moment of realization occurs to the brain I’m attempting to quiet down. This discomfort, tension and concern is how so many people feel when forced to face their financial lives.

Perhaps meditation is working for me after all.

It’s annoyingly common to draw a correlation between financial and physical fitness. Studies aplenty claim that those who have the foresight to contribute to a 401(k) are more likely to be conscientious about their physical health as well. In theory it makes a lot of sense. You’re trying to set yourself up to be financially stable in the future, so logic follows you’d nourish your body with healthy food, eat minimal junk and stick to an exercise routine – because that’s what will set you up to make it to your twilight years.

I’m calling bull shit.

Will power is not created equally. Just because someone is in excellent financial health – it doesn’t mean that same motivation to save, invest, and analyze spending patterns correlates to his or her physical life. The reverse is certainly true as well. A tight bodied individual who refuses to consume carbs, sugar and most dairy products does not always correlate to healthy financial mind.

I get that there are commonalities between being physically and financially fit. Both require sacrifice. Both take time to see results. Both set you up for a more comfortable future. However, as someone who is an innate saver and financially comfortable, but has spent more of my life stressing about what my body looks like than not, I can tell you it’s not the same will power.

Rant aside – this thought during a meditation practice did evoke another feeling. Empathy. Many of us who are financially fit look down from our fatted bank accounts upon the helpless plebs who are giving into rampant consumerism and we scoff. Don’t they realize just how easy it is to get their financial lives together? All it takes is to have the mental fortitude to dismiss the well-crafted, targeted ads engineered to get into your psyche and make you feel less than if you don’t own this car, or that outfit, or this kitchen appliance, or that piece of jewelry. Just ignore the societal pressures around you to indulge in earthly pleasures and instead put that money into an account that you theoretically won’t be able to access until you’re 59 ½. I mean, come on now. It’s so easy.

To some of us, that is actually easy. But it’s not easy to keep from buying a pint of Häagen-Dazs, or cut out pasta and bread, or avoid whole milk lattes, or motivate yourself to go running. I know the cross-fitting, yoga-doing, vegan-and-juicing-obsessed look at my 30-pounds-too-heavy-for-my-height body and think, “Ugh, how can you not just get it together enough to exercise and stop consuming sugar?” I know they do this because I’m guilty of thinking the same way about people consistently making seemingly ridiculous financial decisions. This is why empathy for the situation is important.

Perhaps will power is finite. There’s a limited amount our brain is willing to dole out and we’re choosing, consciously or not, where to be in control. For me, it’s my financial life first and foremost (just because it consumes so much of my attention). Nurturing relationships second. My emotions third. My body fourth.

Or, maybe it’s more like the four burners theory. One burner is your friends, one is your family, one is your health and one is work. You can’t be successful and have all four running. You have to cut one off to be successful and two off to be very successful. You could argue that success is relative, but you must admit you can’t constantly and consistently give your all to four areas of your life. Even those with the best of time management skills would struggle.

I’ve tried and failed to reboot my physical health many times over the course of more than a decade. Regular exercise, fad diets, cutting out certain foods. It goes well for a bit and then eventually the dreaded weight comes back on. It’s particularly exhausting to be part of an immediate and extended family of fit people. The type of fit where family bonding on a beach vacation isn’t laying out tanning, it’s running the sand dunes together. And yet, during all this time my financial life continues to be healthy. No yo-yo dieting or unaffordable splurging. No “maybe next month I’ll get serious and start fixing my money.” I’d love to be able to apply my financial will power to my physical health.

Perhaps someday I’ll figure out how to tap into that will power and apply it to my body, without damaging my savings account of course.

That picture isn’t me! New readers may not know that. Image from

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43 responses to “An Examination of Will Power: Money vs. Health

  1. So it all comes down to willpower huh? I mean it ain’t easy really, to save that money and only touch it when you are 59 1/2 . But let me ask one question though..if you were to save money in such a way that you can’t touch it until you are too old, how do you deal with emergencies.
    Emergencies influence the willpower you know.

    1. There are more factors at play than will power, but that’s the one people often come back to in conversations or when passing judgement on others. And certainly there need to be other savings (emergency, short-,medium-, and long-term) goals other than retirement planning. Retirement (similar to will power) is what gets harped on a lot, so just the example I elected to pick. Emergencies influencing the will power is an interesting way to view it though.

  2. I tell you, I can’t get a hold of either one…finances or health. Even though I have plenty of emails and read plenty of finance and health blogs/tips/emails. I am glad you’re able to control one area.

    It is so exhausting the pressures that one puts on oneself, though. Either financially or health-wise. 🙂 Either way, you’re doing great in one area. I’d consider both, by your pics it looks like you’re doing well healthwise. 🙂

    1. I am trying to handle both, but getting a grit on just one is hard by itself. I feel you your concerns Michelle. I read so many health and personal finance material. It is not like I don’t know what to do, but easier said than done.
      I just discovered this blog by way of the book. I am responding a year later, but hopefully you have been able to work on either health or finance or possibly both. I know we can do it! 🙂

  3. You’re right. I am fortunate to have one under control, and there’s also a decent amount of privilege that enabled me to get there early in life. And it is so exhausting the amount of pressure we put on ourselves to strive for perfection. It’s one reason I like the four burner theory.

    And that picture isn’t me! I certainly wouldn’t be ranting if it were. The pictures I do put out there of myself are careful cropped and I dress very specifically to hide areas of concern. I do know that I don’t look as unhealthy as I feel.

  4. I was having this exact conversation with my new therapist a few days ago. After years of Weight Watchers, boot camps, Tim Ferriss’ Four Hour Body, etc., I’m finally trying to address the underlying cause of my chronic overeating. I’ve been tracking what I’m eating (no calories, just the foods) with this free app called Recovery Record. It’s also allowing me to log the feelings and level of awareness associated with each meal. It’s only been a few weeks, but it’s pretty eye-opening. I wonder if there’s a similar tool to track spending?

    1. Emotion is so tied into both eating and money. It’s amazing that you (in a general population sense) can get one under control but have something that’s bugging you to cause chronic eating. I’m certainly checking out Recovery Record!

  5. Woo. Girl, nail on the head. I love it. The burners/quadrants of “life” are all important. One wouldn’t want to turn off or disregard any of them. But what goes by the wayside when you’re hustling? It’s a good topic to discuss and be self-aware. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thanks for commenting. I know work is a burner that’s often burning a bit too strong for me and causing me to focus less on relationships and health. Always striving for better though!

  6. Money and health definitely have a lot of similarities but the will power for the two seem totally different. When it comes to money, I am very disciplined but not when it comes to eating and exercising. I think we’re all just wired differently. Frugality, saving and investing were ingrained in my head from my parents perhaps. One comes easy to me while the other doesn’t. I would also love to be able to transfer my will power when it comes to money and apply it to health. Let me know when you figure out the secret!

    1. Another thing I wanted to add…I think just as with no spending challenges and other ways to curb spending that don’t work, fad diets and other similar methods won’t work either. As with both money and health, somehow we have to build good healthy habits (both in finances and in health) where we changed our lifestyle and mindset where we don’t have to even think about “cutting back.” It’s hard though. When I don’t buy the latest tech gadget I do not feel deprived…can’t say the same if I see a bag of chips. =)

      1. The fad things certainly don’t last. The whole question interesting to me because my parents were both financially and physically healthy and instilled the proper behaviors for both, but I only have good control over one. Funny how that happens!

  7. You’re 100% correct that willpower differs from health to money. They are however false equivalencies, studies have proven that willpower is finite and can be maxed out but with money there are dozens of concepts that can be put on autopilot, no longer requiring your time and attention.

    Things like 401(k) contributions and apps like Digit and Acorns can literally build your financial freedom without you paying attention to it.

    Health and dieting is not the same. It is a constant active process each and everyday where nothing can automated.

    1. Excellent way to explain it. Staying passive is pretty impossible with health and dieting. I guess you could remove all the sugar and such from your immediate environment, but it’s certainly not the same as an auto-contribution to a 401(k) or savings account!

  8. I totally agree. They are two completely separate types of willpower. I think the financial stuff is easy because it’s on autopilot for the most part. I don’t even think about it. It just happens.

    Whereas with exercise, I have to pry my body out of my nice warm comfy bed, go out in the cold (oftentimes), sweat, and put forth a LOT of effort that leaves me tired and sore. It’s so easy to say, I’ll do it tomorrow.

    I’ve got a lock on the food thing now, as I’m gluten-intolerant so I can’t eat a lot of unhealthy things that would otherwise tempt me into bad decisions. It’s a lot easier to say no to retirement cake when it makes you sick.

    I wish you all the best luck!

    1. “I’ll start tomorrow” is my biggest enemy for sure!

      Gluten-intolerant must be so frustrating as it became “trendy”. Good for more accessibility I guess, but I’d imagine it gets annoying to hear people say they’re gluten free when it’s a diet fad.


    Since graduating law school, passing the bar exam, and landing a job, I’ve been slowly getting my financial life in order (almost have the credit card paid off and it’s amazingggg), BUT it’s taken a lot of hard work to get here.

    The 30+ lbs. I gained during the bar exam process? Not so much. In fact, I still can’t get back into my suits for work.

    I think the 4 burners idea is a good one, but I also think these are different kinds of willpower. I’ve never suffered from a need to buy something…except with food. I have strong cravings all the time, and if those were for shoes instead of French fries, I might have a real financial problem.

    We’ll get there someday! Progress not perfection is my mantra with health lately.

    1. Getting almost all your credit card debt paid off is amazing! I empathize about weight gain and the cravings. I gained quite a bit while writing the book.

  10. I never drew the parallel until reading this post. I’m always quick to suggest financial fixes without realizing how hard that could be perceived for someone. Getting strong is a big goal of mine in 2017 but it’s been a goal I haven’t achieved many years in a row. I’m exhausted and don’t make it a priority compared to blogging, financial stuff, school and family. Good luck with your own quest this year.

    1. I’m quick to suggest the fixes too! This realization gave me much more empathy about how those fixes aren’t just so simple to all.

  11. It’s sad to see that we put so much pressure on ourselves to succeed at everything, but I’m glad to see that you are still pushing forward. Haven’t heard of the four burners theory, but it totally makes sense! Thanks for sharing, and good luck in both your financial AND physical life.

  12. I don’t think they go hand in hand. I know many fit people terrible with money and the vice versa. Personally for me, my two biggest hobbies are working out and my personal finances. I think it easily could of been something else instead of both of those. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that you can get results from research of personal finances and working out, whereas researching won’t necessarily make me a better guitar player. But who knows.

    1. Interesting thought that research and yield results more easily in these two fields but not as much in artistic endeavors.

  13. Really well said. I’m a very concrete thinker and sometimes need this reminder that all people are different-and think differently than I do! Some things are easy for some hard for others and vice versa. Thanks for making me think today.

    1. You’re welcome! Putting ourselves in a position to think from another person’s perspective is such a challenge, but certainly one that helps bridge the gaps.

  14. Girl this is so true. I have a cousin who is ms. body builder super fit, and she is 36, with a 9 year old son, and still both of them live with her mom and she can’t afford to give a dime in support to the grandma as she spends all her money frivolously. She is enabled, of course, but still, she is horrible with money.

    I think it’s hard to have it all. Look at celebrities like Oprah, who have battled weight problems their whole life! Lady could afford to have a permanent healthy chef do calorie limited meals for every meal and she still has weight issues. It’s more complicated than most people are willing to accept.

  15. I think you nailed it when you wrote “willpower is finite.” The more you focus on one area of your life, the less mental and emotional energy you have for others. It’s a balancing act I know I have to work on constantly.

    1. Mental and emotional energy is a big part of my struggle with physical health and I know plenty of folks feel the same way about money.

  16. Both finances and health are a matter of comfort and “rewarding” yourself. We reward ourselves with both food and consumer goods to make us feel better. Trying to fight that is a battle against human nature itself and it’s hard, but doable!

  17. I try to make my will power up high, even it times when it is impossible. It’s good to keep this, as it encourages me to carry on with all four areas of life.

  18. Can totally relate to this. My health is definitely the area I neglect in favor of those other areas. I’ve always thought it funny how I can have so much willpower when it comes to finance, but when it comes to my health, I can never seem to stick to a plan. The four burners theory helps a lot in figuring out how to better balance your priorities.

    1. I also like how it helps to understand that turning the burner down on one in the short-term doesn’t mean it has to stay that way forever.

  19. Hello Broke, it’s true that if you want to stay financial stable at your old age then you have to care for your fitness and health. It is really important to be healthy and attentive while working. Your blog is so informative regarding health and will power. Keep sharing this kind of post. Thanks!

  20. I also have a fairly easy time saving money, but avoiding junk food is a million times harder. For me, I think it’s an issue of seeing results. When I put money in my savings account or 401(k), I can see it (even though I can’t use it yet, I can still see it there). When I pay off debt, I see progress immediately.

    When it comes to eating healthy, I don’t see instant results. I don’t lose 5 pounds the second I decide not to eat a cookie. Eating it isn’t healthy, but it won’t necessarily affect my weight at all. Despite the cookie, my weight could stay the same or even go down.

    It’s not the same with money. If I spend $5, I spent $5. Period. If I put $1,000 toward my debt, my debt goes down $1,000 right away. I think being able to see a direct link between my spending habits and my financial situation is what keeps me motivated to save.

  21. As a bodybuilder whose blog used to be focused on building muscle rather than building a healthy retirement account ( turned into, I think I have a little bit to say regarding the correlation between physical fitness and financial planning — or, more generally, physical fitness and willpower.

    I think I understand what you’re saying when you call bullshit, even though you linked empirical research that proved the opposite. You believe that you’re the exception. While, on average, people who focus on their physical fitness tend to be better-off financially — and vice versa — you see those two areas drawing upon different sources of willpower.

    Honestly, I don’t think you even really believe that; and I think it’s part of the reason why you’re trying meditation. You’ve probably read all of the research linking meditation with willpower (from Baumeister and McGonigal, presumably) and you think it will help you stick to your fitness goals. If you make it a habit, it probably will.

    If you find meditation boring, though, understand: It’s not the real problem. You just don’t want to work out. Maybe you’ll never want to work out. Maybe the genetic basis that predisposes some people to more frequent (and more intense) exercise skipped over you. However, exercise is still based largely (70%) upon cultural factors.

    Read this article by the smartest guy I know — minus the double-spacing after periods. I don’t know what the fuck is up with that:

    The best thing you can probably do is hire someone to motivate and regulate your fitness goals, as you’ll read in that article. You could also just ask one of your family members to help you out, but I can guarantee they won’t push you as hard as a stranger will. There needs to be some emotional distance.

    Hope I helped.

  22. What a fabulous article, you have articulated so well something I’ve tried many times to distill into words. I’ll be referring to this one a lot in the future I’m sure. I love the four burner theory too, as someone who is very relationship/community oriented, but also a Type A workaholic, who writes about the intersection of healthy food and financial independence, it is so easy to become exhausted and burnt out. There’s a good reason why. To be well rounded, one needs to rotate the burners I think, rather than try to have all of them going full blast at the same time. Thanks for the perspective and spot-on writing.

  23. I can’t seem to get control of either. I also can’t decide which to focus on first, or if I should focus on both at the same time. I see connections between the two and sometimes feel if I could get one straight, the other would be easier to fix. Then I get frustrated and don’t act on either goal. Vicious cycle.

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