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Stop Eating Your Retirement!

A version of this article was first published on March 12, 2003. The author hasn't lost weight since then.

I'm a big proponent of monitoring spending. I figure that I have limited control over the price of a barrel of oil, the direction of the stock market, and the rate of inflation, but I have a great deal of control over how I allocate my capital.

So, in thinking about my spending, I've figured out where a good portion of my money has ended up. I could show you, but I'd have to take off my clothes.

To the average observer (who, as far as I know, sees me with my clothes on), I don't appear overweight. But according to the National Institutes of Health's Body Mass Index calculator, and according to the reflection in the mirror of my shirtless self, I am. Let's just say that no one could call me gutless. If I were female, people would ask, "When are you due?" (However, since I'm male, people just think, "How did he swallow a seal?")

Recently, the problem has spread beyond my belly. I noticed in a recent photo that my chin has begun spawning little chinlings. If I don't do something soon, they'll grow up and ask to borrow the car for dates, possibly leading to grand-chinlings.

Land of the fat, home of the crave
Of course, I'm not alone. Several studies show that two out of three adults are overweight. One reason for our expansion is a lack of exercise. For me, I began gaining weight a few years ago when I left my job as a teacher (a profession of vigorous activity, considering the acrobatics it takes to keep a class attentive yet sedate) and became a writer (a profession of frantic typing, which explains why my fingers are the only fit part of my body -- I receive many compliments on my washboard digits).

But the other problem is the quantity and quality of food we consume. We eat too much, and the wrong stuff. According to Fast Food Nation, Americans spend $110 billion a year on fast food. One-quarter of the vegetables consumed in this country fall under one category: french fries. Our supersized diet is resulting in supersized waistlines. (A 32-ounce soda has 26 teaspoons of sugar. Think about that the next time you get a Big Gulp at 7-Eleven (NYSE: SE  ) .)

We're taking in more calories than are needed to fuel our bodies. It's like trying to pump a few more gallons of fuel into your car after the tank's already full. It's wasteful, and it causes gas problems.

From the pantry to the 401(k)
From a personal-finance perspective, this raises some serious questions about the allocation of resources. If we're eating too much, that also means we're spending too much. Thus, the food bill could be a good place to reduce spending and increase savings -- one of the most powerful steps you can take to rule your retirement.

According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, American households in 2003 spent an average of $3,129 on food at home and $2,211 on eating out, for a grand total of $5,340. Cut your food bill by 10%, and you'd save $534 a year. If you're above average on the food-spending scale (perhaps you spend about $7,000 a year on grub) and can cut back 15%, you'd save $1,050. And if you go out to lunch every workday, as many professionals do, cut back to just a couple of days a week and you'd save $1,560, assuming you spend about $15 on a meal, drink, and tip. Putting those resources in a retirement account instead of your mouth could add almost $75,000 to your nest egg, assuming 20 years of 8% annual growth.

Eating too much has costs beyond a higher grocery bill and reduced retirement savings. Overtipping the scales increases the risk of all kinds of health problems, including high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer, arthritis, gout, bladder control problems, reproductive issues, breathing difficulties, dancefloor dyspepsia, and wasteband ennui. All told, weight-related health care costs the country $93 billion. And an expanding torso can lead to even more expenses:

  • A new, larger-sized wardrobe (with vertical stripes to accentuate length and downplay width).

  • Tuition for Rock and Roll Fantasy Camp, in an attempt to halt the aging and fattening process.

  • Dietary supplements and exercise equipment, which account for more than $33 billion of spending (though they're clearly ineffective and/or underutilized).

  • Higher premiums for disability, life, health, and long-term care insurance.

  • Taking up, and paying for, an entire row on an airline flight.

  • Liposuction, tummy tucks, rump deflation, jowl drains, and arm de-flabilation.

Of course, you don't have to be overweight to examine your diet or your food bill. Most people would benefit from considering what goes in their bellies and how much leaves their wallets. So, along with tracking your spending, try documenting your eating. Record everything you consume in a week. Or review your recent credit card/debit card statements, and see how much money traveled from your bank account to McDonald's (NYSE: MCD  ) and Wendy's (NYSE: WEN  ) .

Then analyze your consumption. Did you spend more, and eat more, than was necessary or healthy? Since each American, on average, throws away 1.3 pounds of food a day, it's also worthwhile to monitor how much of your food budget ends up in the disposal.

If a great meal (or five) is one of your most treasured joys in life, then fine. Life's no fun when all the gratification is delayed. So go ahead and have an occasional meal at the Cheesecake Factory (Nasdaq: CAKE  ) and Outback Steakhouse (NYSE: OSI  ) . But I think many times, we don't put much thought into what, how much, and where we eat, and the money spent on the experience isn't worth the financial or health-related costs.

One of life's great pleasures for my wife and me is getting up early on a Saturday morning, driving to a hitherto unexplored small town, and having breakfast at a local restaurant. Or we just visit our local Panera Bread Company (Nasdaq: PNRA  ) . However, sometimes afterward we admit we would've been just as happy staying at home, reading the newspaper, eating toast, and drinking hot chocolate (both with cinnamon, preferably).

Money and food have a lot in common. When discussing either, we, the public, are called "consumers." And overconsumption isn't healthy on either front.

Also, people often think of budgets and diets similarly, and usually negatively. So as you examine your spending and eating, don't think in terms of "denial" or "living on less." Instead, think, "I'm not eating less -- I'm changing my eating habits." Or, "Less consumption will lead to net worth creation." Or, "I will deposit my money in my bank... and not my butt." Whatever works.

Robert Brokamp is the editor of theRule Your Retirementnewsletter service.Take a free-30-day trail and receive the "8 Ways to Supercharge Your Retirement" special report.The Motley Fool is eaters writing for eaters.


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