If you watch the news or read many magazines or newspapers, you’ve probably heard about “lifestyle diseases.” These are diseases and ailments that we get because our lifestyle and/or environment are unhealthy. Some examples:
- Diseases associated with smoking such as lung cancer, asthma or emphysema
- Drug abuse
- Some forms of cancer related to diet, sun exposure, or other lifestyle factors
- High blood pressure
- Heart disease
As with any medical problem, the cause is not always only your lifestyle or environment, but for certain diseases lifestyle has been proven to be a big contributing factor. And in cases where your lifestyle is the cause, correcting the lifestyle can cure, or at least improve, your condition. This means that a lot of your health is under your control. So what does this have to do with personal finance? A lot.
Lifestyle diseases are expensive to come down with and to live with. They have a lot of costs that more people don’t even think about. Not only do you have to pay the increased health care and pharmaceutical costs, there are often other costs associated with having a lifestyle that is out of whack and leading to disease. Here are some examples of the hidden costs of lifestyle diseases.
- Once you are diagnosed with a lifestyle disease, health and life insurance become very expensive (if not impossible) to acquire. Without health insurance, your financial troubles will mount very quickly as your disease progresses.
- If you are obese, you face many hidden costs. You probably pay more for food. Plus-size clothing is often more expensive than standard sizes. Travel costs are higher if you have to buy two seats. Your fuel costs are higher because your car has to work harder to haul the weight. And your car will likely need more repairs because the engine and suspension are always under strain.
- If you smoke, you have to pay for the cigarettes (and the insane taxes associated with them). You might have to pay for special clothing or upholstery cleaning to remove the smell. Unless you like yellow tinted walls, you probably paint more often.
- If you drink, liquor itself is expensive. Drink so much that you miss work, you don’t get paid. Drink even more and you’ll get fired because you miss work too often. Drink and drive and kill someone and the lawsuits will bury you. Same with drugs.
- If you are constantly under stress, not only are you flirting with a heart attack, stroke or depression, you’re probably also eating out more and shopping more to cope with your stress. Retail therapy is expensive.
- Colon cancer and heart disease are often found in people who eat a lot of fatty, high calorie, and over processed foods. And these foods are more expensive than their fresher, less process counterparts.
- Any lifestyle disease can cost you in terms of productivity and time. You have less energy and ability to get things done and you may miss work more often, leading to missed paychecks or missed income opportunities.
And the even worse news is that one lifestyle disease easily leads to another. Once you have one, you’re well on the road to having more. You’re obese so you get depressed. You get depressed and your risk of heart disease goes up. You’re stressed out so you smoke or drink to calm yourself. You’re stressed out so you eat out a lot to save time. Then before you know it you’re obese from all the calories. Then you’re headed for a heart attack. It can become a never ending cycle of disease and expenses.
Once you have a lifestyle disease, you spend more and more to make yourself feel better, too. Self-medication can be just as expensive as medical costs. You may engage in a lot of retail therapy, pay for experimental treatments, try special gizmos and gadgets designed to alleviate the condition, and so on. The more lifestyle diseases you come down with, the more expenses you incur. Even if you have great insurance that pays for all of your health care, the associated hidden costs can drain your finances. You can go bankrupt paying for diseases that were preventable. Most people just shrug and say, “Well, that’s just what it costs to live,” and don’t make the association between their poor finances and the lifestyle diseases that are plaguing them.
So what’s the answer? Make the connection between your lifestyle disease and your financial problems. Prevent the disease (or reverse the course) and save yourself the extra costs. Obviously if it were so easy to lose weight, stop smoking or drinking, relives stress and be healthy, I wouldn’t even have to write this piece. We’d all be super healthy. But sometimes a financial motivation is a more powerful force for change than anything else. I know a woman who wanted to lose weight in the worst way. She was about 200 pounds overweight and miserable. She was tired all the time, got sick easily, had high blood pressure and her joints hurt. She’d tried every diet known to man and had failed at them all. She was about to give in and pay (by raiding her 401K) for gastric bypass surgery. While the surgery might have cured her problem, it would have left her at forty-nine years old with nothing saved for retirement. She asked me what she should do. She didn’t want to be broke, but she didn’t want to be fat anymore, either.
I asked her how much her lifestyle was costing her. She looked at me like I was nuts and then handed me a stack of medical bills. I told her that was certainly a lot of money, but what about other costs? I got her thinking about her food bills, her clothing costs, retail therapy (money spent avoiding the truth), her travel costs, and other more intangible costs such as lost productivity (she was self-employed, so every minute away from her business was lost income). She thought about it for a week and then came back to me with a number. Based on her own estimate, being obese was costing her (not counting medical care) about $20,000 per year in other costs. Add in health care, co-pays, diet aids, unused gym memberships, and medication for the associated joint pain, fatigue, and high cholesterol and the total ballooned to about $40,000 per year. Not coincidentally, she had about $45,000 in debt. Hmmm.
She got mad. And then she got furious. For a couple of weeks she wasn’t without her calculator and notepad. She tallied everything she spent on her “condition” and then planned ways to stop. She purged her pantry and bought only healthy, less processed foods. She ate at home almost every meal. She cancelled the gym she wasn’t using and started walking outside. She got smaller every time I saw her. She was never without her notepad and calculator, constantly tabulating the costs of her condition and the savings she was reaping as her condition improved. As she lost weight, she plowed her savings into various investment vehicles.
I asked her what happened. What was finally the last straw? She said, “I can’t believe how much money I was just wasting. And I was wasting it on something I could prevent. I didn’t have to lose all the money I did. I could have lost weight sooner and saved myself a ton of money. I assumed that life was just expensive, but I was making it expensive.”
Today (about two years later) she’s a healthy weight and out of debt. It wasn’t easy, but the financial losses were the motivating factor she needed to improve her lifestyle and cure her “disease.” Calculating the financial damage of your lifestyle disease might be the kick in the pants you need to quit smoking, stop drinking, lose weight, manage your stress, and start taking better care of yourself.