Think you’ve got to spend an arm and a leg to improve the health of your body and mind? Think again. A focus on enhancing wellness could actually be healthy for your bank account, too. The notion that eating foods that are good for you must be bad for your budget and that junk food is cheaper? Don’t buy that. Here are 10 ways you can be healthier and spend less.
1. Before getting behind the cart: Plan your grocery run.
Prepare your list to correspond with the meals you will make. “I can’t emphasize this enough,” says Leah Sarris, executive chef and program director for the Goldring Center for Culinary Medicine at Tulane University School of Medicine in New Orleans. The pioneering program prepares physicians to advise patients on cooking and food choices. “I honestly feel like the idea that eating healthy is expensive is not true,” Sarris says. “Actually it can save people a lot of money. It comes down to the choices people make.” Researching healthful options makes it less likely you’ll grab convenience foods and limits overpurchasing and food waste, both of which can reduce your grocery bill.
2. Drink water.
Skip sugary beverages – or any drink besides the clear stuff, Sarris says. This goes for everything from soda to juice, which even in its purest form can concentrate sugar at levels that make drinking too much a potential health hazard, including contributing to obesity. Water beats your morning $4 latte by, well, $4; and while some black coffee might be OK, even conferring health benefits, sweeteners and other add-ins can dilute any potential wellness boost. Opt for filtered water, which will save you money for other healthful consumables. “’Do I buy the soda or do I buy the broccoli?’ That’s a choice you make,” Sarris says.
3. Eat less meat.
The cost to raise cattle and pigs isn’t cheap, and that’s something the consumer ends up eating. Apart from that, to improve heart health, experts now urge a greener meal plan, which can save you green, too. “I find meat tends to be … where the big cost comes from at the grocery store,” Sarris says. “So by making meat less of the center of attention and focus in our meals, we can save a lot of money.” She suggests eating more plant-based proteins, including legumes such as peanuts, nuts, grains and seeds. Incorporate smaller amounts of chopped meat in a salad or hot dish to make it go further.
4. Work out outside the gym.
Nothing wrong with dropping serious coin on a fitness club you love, but to keep moving on a budget, take heed: “Be thinking outside the gym for ways to be physically active,” says Harold Kohl, a physical activity researcher at The University of Texas Health Science Center–Houston School of Public Health. Formerly with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Kohl helped write the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. These recommend at least 150 minutes of weekly physical activity for adults and 60 minutes per day for kids. Do aerobic exercises such as walking, running and cycling outside. And Dr. James Curran, dean of the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University in Atlanta, notes you can do push-ups, sit-ups and CrossFit exercises at home.
5. Opt for an active commute.
Cycle to work or walk to your job if it’s close enough. Save on gas, while bookending your workday with integrated activity. “When people think about increasing their fitness levels, some of the barriers are time and cost,” says Mark Pereira, associate professor of epidemiology and community health in the School of Public Health at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. He says incorporating activity into the commute helps address both issues. Pereira and Kohl add that taking public transportation – walking to and from the train station or bus stops – can confer health benefits, too.
6. Kick the habit.
Curran says quitting smoking – the most common cause of lung cancer, the chief cancer killer in the U.S. – is a top priority given the habit’s detrimental drag on public health. He also notes the immediate savings on cigarettes, which run nearly $6 per pack, on average, nationally. Those who successfully cease fire may forgo much of the health care costs associated with treating smoking-related health issues like cancer, in addition to living longer. Similarly, public health experts say curbing alcohol abuse and other substance abuse presents another simple – if not easy – way to save lives and money.
7. Breast-feed your baby.
Though hyper-specific to life circumstance, the question of whether to breast-feed or formula feed is put to the mothers of roughly 4 million babies born each year in the U.S. Factors ranging from personal preference to health limitations may preclude some from breast-feeding. Still, for those who can, health organizations typically recommend doing so, noting benefits not only to baby, from reduced incidence of obesity to a lower risk of asthma later, but also to mom, since breast-feeding can burn calories that shed pregnancy weight and decrease the risk of ovarian and breast cancer. While formula can cost up to around $2,000 per year, breast milk is free, though there are costs associated with breast-feeding.
8. Go on active dates.
Whether you’re rekindling the fire or going on a first date, this may be a way to spice things up, improve your health and save money. “Everybody can be more active,” Curran says, and having an active date doesn’t mean either party needs to be in endurance shape. Simply staying on the move together, whether on a walk, hike or canoe outing, can provide an inexpensive, healthy departure from the standard dinner-and-a-movie date. What’s more, research shows relationships, such as with a friend or a significant other, can influence a person’s health and wellness decisions. So, if things work out, you could be saving each other literal heartache and money on health bills later.
9. Follow the doctor’s orders.
It might seem like not filling a prescription or canceling a doctor’s visit, despite a lingering health concern, could save you money. And, in the short run, it may. But generally speaking, health experts say, following through on needed care, including preventive, can save you money compared with larger expenses like hospital visits down the road. So make sure to discuss with your doctor whether recommended treatment is needed, shop around for prescriptions, look for billing errors and mind other P’s and Q’s to save money on care. But don’t avoid it. While there’s no guarantee it will be less costly – certainly managing a chronic condition can sometimes be expensive – it’s probably worth taking the financial risk upfront on this one.
10. Mind your mental health.
Often neglected, psychological issues can cost a person dearly, torpedoing quality of life and affecting finances as well; these issues can make it more difficult for a person to work, raise the risk of suffering from chronic health conditions and increase susceptibility to substance abuse. “Mental health and happiness is important,” Curran says, even though, he adds, it’s easy to pretend it doesn’t have an effect. “People who are seriously mentally ill live about 8 to 10 years less than people who aren’t.” Insurance coverage for mental health still tends to lag behind coverage for physical issues, making it more difficult for some to get counseling or other treatment. But experts say even so, it’s crucial to seek help, as the cost of not doing so can be far greater.
Susan Levin, M.S., R.D., C.S.S.D., is the director of nutrition education for the nonprofit Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and Barnard Medical Center. Whether she’s overseeing clinical research studies or providing background for the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, Ms. Levin enjoys helping people of all ages put the latest nutrition research into everyday practice. She earned her bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communications from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a master’s degree in nutrition from Bastyr University in Seattle, and is accredited in sports dietetics from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Learn more about Ms. Levin’s research at BarnardMedical.org and follow her @LuckySlevinRD.