Why personal finance is like dieting: there are no shortcuts

Nick Foy, CFP®

Back at the 2008 Summer Olympic Games, Michael Phelps became known for more than just his historic gold medal accumulation: he also became known for his diet. During the training and the games, in order to keep up with the energy needed to perform at a world class level, he’d put down 12,000 calories a day.

Although he later admitted that the figure was somewhat exaggerated, the quantity of food he ate while training was still rather daunting:

Breakfast: Three fried-egg sandwiches with cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, fried onions and mayonnaise. Two cups of coffee. One five-egg omelette. One bowl of grain. Three slices of French toast topped. Three chocolate-chip pancakes.

Lunch: One pound of pasta. Two large ham and cheese sandwiches with mayonnaise on white bread, plus energy drinks.

Dinner: One pound of pasta, an entire pizza, and even more energy drinks.

Olympic level swimmers burn between 3,000 and 10,000 calories per day, so all that intake was put to good use.

Wouldn’t it be nice, though, to be able to eat whatever you want, not exercise, and still lose weight?

It reminds me of Dr. Nick on the Simpsons, trying to sell Marge on his fad diet:

Dr. Nick: With my diet you can eat all you want anytime you want.
Marge: And you’ll lose weight?
Dr. Nick: Ah, you might. It’s a free country!

The geniuses who market fad diets have a remarkably easy time convincing people that weight loss is simple and takes no discipline. Just cut out one or two food items and you’ll lose weight, earn more money, and get the girl of your dreams.

The truth is that losing weight shouldn’t (necessarily) be the goal, and it takes some discipline. The goal should be great health. Obtaining great health can be more difficult, but I’ll give you the tenants that have worked for me: Don’t eat like an idiot. Don’t drink too much. Get some exercise.

Pretty easy, right?

Easy to grasp, harder to apply.

Or, as the Nantan of F3 Nation says in a way that only he can, with some clarifying parentheses from me:

The Queen (your diet) is an integral Guardrail in the HIM’s (High Impact Man’s) pursuit of proper personal alignment. As with chess, if the Queen is taken off the board, it is not long before the King (exercise) finds himself checkmated. No matter how hard and consistently a man may exercise, if his diet is haphazard his Fitness kingdom will not long stand. The Queen cannot be ignored, even by the strongest of Kings.

Although Michael Phelps somewhat invalidates his argument, he’s the outlier.

Healthy personal finances are much like healthy living: There are no shortcuts. It takes discipline and, yes, even courage, to prioritize those things that will bring great health to your balance sheet and give you the freedom and flexibility to choose to do what you want when you want (which is ultimately the goal of everyone I’ve met).

The geniuses who market fad savings schemes are no different from those who market fad diets. “Quit buying Starbucks, and you’ll be rich!” In truth, building a great balance sheet takes tons of discipline over many decades

It’s (nearly) impossible to out-exercise a bad diet; it’s also (nearly) impossible for the ROI on your balance sheet to out-perform bad saving/spending habits. The difference between a 7% and 8% return on your investments is nothing compared to saving more money every year and making sure your allowing yourself the opportunity to beat inflation over the long-term.

Michael Phelps is equivalent to the modern day lottery winner. You’re probably not like either.

The rest of us should have a perspective of money that allows us the chance to build a healthy balance sheet and creates financial freedom and contentment. Taking shortcuts would be great, but 70% of lottery winners end up bankrupt anyway.

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