Some decisions are easy: Chocolate birthday cake? Yes. Cuddling newborn puppies? Of course. Swimming in shark-infested waters? Probably not. Others, though, are not quite as clear: Roth IRA or 401(k)? Buy or lease? Pay off debt or save for an emergency fund?
You might think trying to stay healthy is an easy decision that trumps all other options—until you’re faced with the choice of, say, spending money on an annual check-up or investing in a gym membership. In those moments, even the most health conscious among us can feel like a limited budget is causing a lose-lose situation.
In fact, nearly one-third of Americans say their financial situation has kept them from living a healthy lifestyle, according to the latest "Stress in America" survey from the American Psychological Association. What’s more, one in five say they've either considered skipping or have skipped a doctor's visit in the past year due to financial concerns.
And if we know one thing about the relationship between stress and health, it's that it's cyclical: Chronic finance anxieties can trigger your body to release more stress hormones that, over time, weaken your immune system, according to the American Psychological Association. That means more sick days from work or even more doctor’s visits, which—you guessed it—can feed into your financial stress. Wash. Rinse. Repeat. Millennials in particular who report extreme money stress are significantly more likely than their less-stressed peers to rate their health as fair or poor.
It's time to break the cycle of financial concerns turning into literal headaches. And it doesn't have to be complicated. Something as basic as setting budget priorities can serve as a booster shot to your physical well-being. Sounds too good to be true? According to a recent study from the Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis, people who contributed to a 401(k) were actually more likely to take steps to improve their health.
"There is a positive correlation between what you're doing to save money or control spending and your feeling about yourself and your feelings of competency and accomplishment," says Kerrie Thompson, a licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist in New York City.
In other words, when we set priorities or goals in one part of our life, they often have a domino effect on other aspects. You prioritize building an emergency fund over a luxurious vacation with your friends, and that feel-good sense of responsibility and lower stress can help you skip the comfort food. That’s a win-win for your money and your metabolism.
Thompson recommends working toward one to three goals at any given time—goals that fit the SMART methodology (SMART standing for specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-tabled).
"Limiting the number of priorities is useful, as well as just making sure that you're not biting off more than you can chew," she says. "So when it comes to priorities in your finances, for example, not everything can be a priority. You have to figure out what's going to give."
The best way to choose your priorities wisely? Reflect on what specific financial hurdles are causing you the most stress. If that $3,000 balance on your credit card is keeping you up at night then set a goal to pay it off in, say, a year's time. Figure out which spending habits need to be kicked to the curb in order to do so. Or, if fears of being laid-off from your new start-up job have you making unhealthy decisions, start putting away a little bit each month for an emergency fund, with the goal of saving the suggested six months' worth of expenses.
Remember: One goal is actually the sum of many smaller goals and thinking about it that way can make potentially lofty ambitions—like building up your savings or bettering your health—much more reasonable. And the next time you’re faced with financial stress, you can calmly look at your list of priorities and make a choice to feel more confident.