How financial well-being and physical health are linked

Conversely, anxiety about credit card bills can add to emotional stress, studies find

John Egan
Personal Finance Writer
Writes trendy stories about credit cards.

Here’s the skinny on the relationship between our health and our wealth

Our waists and our wallets can fluctuate wildly, and through thick and thin, your financial well-being, such as how much credit card debt you’re coping with, can affect your physical health.

“They definitely feed off each other and support each other,” says financial therapist Bari Tessler, author of “The Art of Money: A Life-Changing Guide to Financial Happiness.”

In fact, Evan Lavoie, a wealth adviser with Blue Sail Wealth Design in Irvine, California, believes “wealth care” is just as important as health care.

Surveys conducted in 2016 by the Gallup polling organization found that 69 percent of Americans who strongly agreed they had enough money to do everything they wanted to do reported having been healthy eaters. That dropped to 57 percent for people who strongly disagreed that they had enough money.

“It is possible that those with enough money to do everything they want to do may have more access to healthy food,” Gallup says. “But it is also possible that people who manage their money don’t have as much financial stress – stress that could result in unhealthy eating habits.”

As noted by Gallup, research shows long-term stress – including anxiety about money – can trigger a bump in stress hormones, prompting someone to overindulge in food, particularly the fatty and sugary types. That, in turn, can lead to health problems such as obesity.

Conversely, poor health can result in overspending as a form of financial “therapy” and that can contribute to money woes. Or poor health can cause someone to amass medical debt propped up by credit cards.

“The proliferation of credit cards might have accelerated the effect of the social and economic factors that cause obesity. It might have added fuel to the fire.”

Financial, physical and mental health are linked
Over the years, researchers have broadly connected financial, physical and mental health, and even have linked health issues to credit cards. Here are a few examples:

  • A study published in 2011 by researchers at Cornell University and the State University of New York suggested that paying by credit card increased the purchase – and presumably the consumption – of junk food, such as sugary soda, cookies, cheesecake and pie. The researchers concluded that the immediate “pain” of paying with cash instead of credit could cut down on impulsive and unhealthy grocery purchases.
  • A 2004 study by researchers at Arizona State University and the University of Utah associated financial stress with a rise in physical and mental stress for arthritis patients, but not more pain.

  • In a 2013 study by researchers from McGill and Northwestern universities, people age 24 to 32 with high levels of debt were more likely to have high blood pressure and self-reported physical and mental health difficulties than their counterparts who had lower levels of debt.

  • People who have trouble paying debt have worse psychological health than those who aren’t encountering such trouble, according to a United Kingdom study published in 2012.

Obesity rate, credit card use climbing in U.S.
Perhaps the most striking observation about the connection between credit cards and health came in the 2015 book “Why People (Don’t) Buy: The Go and Stop Signals.” The book was written by Amitav Chakravarti, a marketing professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science, and Manoj Thomas, a marketing professor at Cornell who co-authored the junk food/credit card study.

In their book, Chakravarti and Thomas highlighted the rise of credit card use and obesity in the U.S. The proportion of obese and overweight Americans climbed from 47 to 56 percent from 1970-74 to 1998-2000, the authors noted, while the proportion of Americans with credit cards jumped from 51 to 70 percent during the same timeframe.

The percentages of obese and overweight Americans and the percentage of Americans with credit cards have only increased since then.

The percentage of Americans over age 20 who are obese or overweight is 70.7 percent, according to 2013-2014 statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The proportion of Americans with at least one credit card was 70.3 percent percent, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston’s 2013 Surveys of Consumer Payments Choice, released in July 2015.

In light of the statistics in their book, Chakravarti and Thomas raised the possibility that the growing use of credit cards in the U.S. could have been a “catalyst” in the growth of obesity.

“The proliferation of credit cards might have accelerated the effect of the social and economic factors that cause obesity. It might have added fuel to the fire,” the authors wrote.

But Chakravarti and Thomas stopped short of pinning blame for rampant obesity in the U.S. on the surge in credit card use.

“Obesity is a complex social problem caused by the interactive effects of various factors, such as eating habits, changes in relative prices of unhealthy and healthy food items, and more sedentary lifestyles,” the professors wrote. “So it would be far-fetched to attribute the obesity crisis solely to any one factor.”

Chakravarti and Thomas suggested that the “scary correlation” between obesity and credit cards warrants further study.

Still, there’s no denying that some sort of correlation exists.

“Using a credit card isn’t bad, but overspending is. Having a scoop of ice cream isn’t bad, but overeating is,” says Ian Atkins, a financial analyst at FitSmallBusiness.com and a former financial planner.

“Why we associate credit cards and ice cream with unhealthy behavior is because they so easily enable unhealthy behavior. They’re readily available, the gratification is instant and the consequences, though serious, take time to really show up.”

“Using a credit card isn’t bad, but overspending is. Having a scoop of ice cream isn’t bad, but overeating is.”

How to fight unhealthy financial and eating habits
Experts say one way to overcome unhealthy habits tied to money – and, by extension, our bodies and minds – is to dig into your relationship with the almighty dollar.

Financial therapist Dr. Mary Gresham, a psychologist in Atlanta, recommends we be aware of our feelings related to money. What kind of relationship do you have with it? How does that relationship play out in your everyday life? What’s the foundation of this relationship?

The goal, Gresham says, is not to be completely comfortable with money.

“We don’t really want people not to have any anxiety about money,” Gresham says. “We want them to have just the right amount of anxiety about money. A little bit of worry can be your friend.” 

A “healthy and helpful amount” of discomfort with money prompts us to pay our bills on time, file our taxes every year and so forth, she says.

To stay on top of financial matters, Gresham suggests using a spreadsheet, a budgeting app or old-fashioned paper and pen to consistently calculate your net worth, income and expenses.

Tessler recommends going on “money dates” with yourself – maybe for 15 minutes a day, maybe for 30 minutes twice a week – to get a handle on your finances.

No matter how you track your money, Gresham says it’s critical to tend to your physical well-being before your fiscal health. Why?

“Your primary asset is your ability to earn money,” Gresham says.

In the end, preserving your physical and financial assets boils down to adopting a healthy approach to both.

“A healthier diet, whether it’s what’s on your plate or what’s in your wallet, will pay dividends,” Atkins says. “The sooner you begin and the longer you’re engaging in those healthy behaviors, the greater the returns will be.”

See related: Low body image linked to overspending and debt, 6 weight-loss strategies that can help you shed card debt, Your weight, debt and clutter may be connectedCharged Up! podcast: Affording healthy choices


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Updated: 11-20-2017