Your weight, debt and clutter may be connected


Hoarding, overeating and financial troubles may all be related via subtle emotional factors
Hoarding, overeating and financial troubles may all be related via subtle emotional factors

What is a debt-addled, fat-embattled person to do? Try losing the clutter.

While research has yet to prove the mechanics or sort out which is the cause and which is effect, data from several studies show a correlation between finances and weight, or clutter and weight, and experts point to plenty of anecdotal evidence of people who struggle with two or more of the problems at the same time.

It only makes sense that clutter can impact your finances, perhaps in the form of late fees for bills you couldn't find and pay on time, or because you lost track of an online purchase you had planned to return. But deeper issues may be at play as well.

Any number of variables can contribute to a person's poor financial situation, excess weight or piles of junk, notes psychologist and financial therapist Maggie Baker of Wynnewood, Pennsylvania.

"Having any one of these three things certainly demonstrates that there's something out of control," she says. "When people have any aspect of their lives that's out of control, it usually brings with it a certain shame or embarrassment" that's demoralizing and corrodes self-esteem, says Baker, who is also author of "Crazy About Money: How Emotions Confuse Our Money Choices and What To Do About It."

Impulsive people can have a hard time organizing and following through with tasks to manage their money, diet and housekeeping, according to Baker. "They can end up with a lot of clutter, debt and be overweight because they don't have the patience or perseverance to put their long-term goal in action," she says.

They can end up with a lot of clutter, debt and be overweight because they don't have the patience or perseverance to put their long-term goal in action.

-- Maggie Baker
Financial therapist, author

"In order to be good with money, in order to keep an organized household, in order to keep your body in good shape, it takes a certain amount of awareness first, and then strategy second, and then vigilance third, to maintain it," Baker says. "You have to be good at being able to problem solve, strategize, and you have to care enough about yourself to put in the extra effort."

A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America in 2011 after researchers followed 1,000 children from birth to age 32, showed that boys and girls with lower self-control "had worse health, less wealth and more crime as adults than those with more self-control."

When it came to money management, the researchers wrote: "At the age of 32 years, children with poor self-control were less financially planful. Compared with other 32-year-olds, they were less likely to save and had acquired fewer financial building blocks for the future," such as home ownership, investment funds and retirement plans.

"Children with poor self-control were also struggling financially in adulthood. They reported more money-management difficulties and had accumulated more credit problems. Poor self-control in childhood was a stronger predictor of these financial difficulties than study members' social class origins and IQ," the researchers said.

Of course, other circumstances can influence weight, wealth or clutter. For example, "I think a lot of people who are poor end up with bad diets not because they want to but because they just don't have the money for another option," says Baker.

Clutter and stress
Television personality and organization expert Peter Walsh sees links between the three problems. In his book "Lose the Clutter, Lose the Weight," he cites a family he worked with in which the father often traveled for work and overloaded his children with toys to ease his guilt over it.

"When I started with the family, all their credit cards were maxed out and the huge plastic containers of untouched toys that filled their garage had long ago begun to spill out into their yard," Walsh wrote in the book.

Walsh and others note that clutter can raise stress levels, which in turn affects other aspects of our lives. A 2008 study in the journal Psychiatry Research that looked at hoarders and others who reported that they had a family member who hoarded found that hoarders were nearly three times as likely to be overweight as were family members of hoarders.

Similarly, Jay Zagorsky, an economist and research scientist at The Ohio State University, found a correlation between weight and wealth in a 2005 study -- part of an ongoing series of socioeconomic surveys that Ohio State and the U.S. Department of Labor have conducted with a group of younger baby boomers for decades.

Looking to see whether there was a financial penalty for obesity, researchers asked participants about their Body Mass Index (a key obesity measure) and finances. They found that people who lose a small amount of weight don't see much change in net worth, but those who lose a large amount of weight "have a dramatically improved financial position, with whites showing larger changes than blacks."

It's clear that people with much higher BMI have lower income and wealth, but this is a chicken-and-egg problem.

-- Jay Zagorsky
Economist, The Ohio State University

Zagorsky and his colleagues also found a large negative association between BMI and a white woman's net worth -- the higher the BMI, the lower her net worth. The association was less pronounced for black women and white men, and didn't appear to exist at all for black men, the study said. "While these relationships cannot be proven as causal, they suggest that white women pay the heaviest financial penalty for being overweight, while black males experience no penalty at all," the authors concluded.

While white women are hurt the most financially by being overweight, white men benefit the most from losing weight. White men who dropped their BMI by 10 points saw their wealth increase by $12,720, while white women experienced an $11,880 increase and black women's wealth increased by $4,480.

The data, however, can't discern whether obesity affects wealth, or vice versa, although one data point suggests weight may influence wealth. Study participants who increased their wealth through inheritance made no big change in BMI scores afterward.

"It's clear that people with much higher BMI have lower income and wealth, but this is a chicken-and-egg problem," Zagorsky tells via email. One possible explanation is that overweight and obese people are discriminated against in the workplace, or limited in their ability to perform certain jobs, he said.

As for possible emotional reasons underlying weight and wealth connections, Zagorsky, while noting he's not a psychologist, suggested that people who lose a lot of excess pounds make "wholesale changes in their lives."

There could be another factor not included in the data, he said. Something such as depression may be occurring that causes someone to lose control over their weight, wealth and clutter, and when they get a handle on it, all three improve. "There are some big advantages to getting your life in control," Zagorsky says.

Tackling the problems
Walsh's suggestions include lining up support, whether from a mentor, friends, support group or Facebook page, to listen to your successes and frustrations and, if needed, offer advice. It's especially important to gather support from others living in your home, he says.

Walsh notes that having a messy, cluttered desk makes it difficult to manage finances. He encourages people to get their paperwork in order and face the bills they've been avoiding to help reduce financial stress. Money troubles can spring from a variety of sources, he writes, "but if some of your financial stress has grown out of your disorganized financial records and processes, you can most definitely do something about it now."

See related: How trauma leads to destructive financial choices, Does more 'stuff' really make you happy?, How paying with plastic can make you fat

Published: January 5, 2016

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