Pets and Your Health

This Saturday, August 11th, is the one-year anniversary of welcoming the feline goddesses, Athena and Artemis, into our home. Given the joy I experience having them in my life, I thought it would be fun to explore what impact pets can have on our health and wellbeing.

My pet history

Growing up, I did not have any indoor pets as almost everyone in my immediate family – including me – was allergic to cats or dogs or both. Several of my close friends had dogs and there was at least one semi-stray cat that hung around the block as the neighbors continued to feed it. I enjoyed playing with these animals and always thought it would be nice to own a pet someday.

Fast forward about 15 years to my desperate attempt to find housing in North Carolina as I prepared to move from New York to start graduate school. Through luck or fate, I was reconnected with an acquaintance from college who was already a student in the same graduate program. She and some friends were renting a house and needed a fourth roommate. The only catch – one of the women had two house cats. Given that my allergy to cats was not severe and my symptoms could typically be managed with over-the-counter medication, I decided to take a chance. I figured it would at least be a place to live temporarily until I could find something else if my allergies prevented me from staying.

I moved in that August and immediately fell in love with the cats. Danny was a big orange tabby who loved to lay on my bed as I studied. Mona was a mischievous little grey tabby who was most often found in the bathroom, waiting for someone to turn on the water so she could play with it. At first, I did experience some allergic symptoms – occasional sneezing fits, watery eyes and a little stuffiness here and there, but I was content to medicate with an anti-histamine. The joy of having these two critters in the house outweighed any discomfort or inconvenience I experienced. They were often a huge source of stress relief during my grueling two-year program.

I was sad to say goodbye to my feline friends when my housemates and I finished school and moved on to new adventures. However, my experience taught me that I could live with cats despite my allergy and I was eager to own a pet of my own. I moved in with my fiancé (now husband) after graduation and a few months later, as I was still struggling to find a full-time job, he suggested we adopt a cat. That was the start of our journey to pet ownership. We are definitely “cat people” although there are several dogs in our extended family whom we love dearly too.

The health benefits of pets

A quick online search revealed a plethora of information regarding the health benefits of owning pets, particularly dogs but cats as well. Here are just a few ways that owning a pet can improve both your physical and mental health:

Reduce your cardiovascular disease risk

  • According to experts at the Harvard Medical School and a 2013 study conducted by the American Heart Association, owning a dog can reduce heart disease risk factors and potentially help you live longer. Experts believe the connection is related to dog owners being more active, since walking your dog can help you meet the recommended daily exercise guidelines. The extra exercise may also be why dog owners tend to have lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

Prevent or reduce allergies in children

  • Much like my experience growing up, the old thinking was that if you came from an allergy-prone family, pets should be avoided. According to WebMD, recent studies have suggested that children growing up in a home with “furred animals,” such as a cat or dog, will have less risk of allergies and asthma. University of Wisconsin-Madison pediatrician James E. Gern has conducted a number of studies that demonstrate having a pet in the home can actually lower a child’s likelihood of developing related allergies by as much as 33 percent. In fact, his published research shows that children exposed early on to animals tend to develop stronger immune systems overall.

Decrease stress

  • Simply being in the same room as your pet can have a calming effect. The neurochemical oxytocin is released when we look at our companion animal, which brings feelings of joy. It is also accompanied by a decrease in cortisol, a stress hormone. According to the CDC, studies have shown that cats provide emotional support, improve moods, and contribute to the overall morale of their owners. Dogs not only provide comfort and companionship, but several studies have found that dogs decrease stress and promote relaxation.

Boost your self-esteem

  • Pets are completely non-judgmental – they don’t care what you look like or how you behave. They love unconditionally and that boots our self-esteem. An article on Health.com notes that research studies have found that pet owners have higher self-esteem, as well as feelings of belonging and meaningful existence, than individuals who do not own pets.

As someone who has been a proud pet owner for almost 20 years, I have experienced many of these benefits firsthand. There is nothing better than coming home after a long day at work and having my kitties greet me at the door. Their playful antics often crack me up and as they say, laughter is the best medicine. And when I am feeling stressed, all I have to do is cuddle on the couch, stroke their soft fur and hear their contented purrs to feel calm again.

Owning pets is a big responsibility, but there are so many ways you will reap the benefits of their companionship. Consider adopting a shelter animal today!

 

Some observations on health overseas

My family and I just returned from a short vacation over in London. I was struck by a number of health- and wellness-related observations I made while abroad, so I thought I would share them while still fresh on my mind (fortunately, the jet lag hasn’t been too bad). As promised back when I started this blog, I’m stating up front that these are just my anecdotal observations. Not evidence-based but interesting nonetheless – or at least I hope you think so!

So many steps

I think I broke my Fitbit record for steps this past week – yahoo! Here in the US, I typically struggle to get 10,000 steps before I go to bed at night – and that’s with my 30-60-minute workout each day. In London, I was easily at 10,000 steps before midday tea every day except our travel days. Even with hopping the “tube” around town to visit various sites, there was still a ton of walking to be done. Most of the Underground stations had several flights of stairs or escalators to get to street level. In one older station, the elevators (or “lifts” as they like to call them) were out of order so we had to take the stairs – 193 in total, equivalent to 15 stories (or so said the lovely British woman on the PA system as she broke the news to travelers). I felt the burn that day!

The amount of walking we did in London got me thinking about our life – and lifestyle – here in Raleigh. While sight-seeing in London, we didn’t bat an eye at walking a mile to the next tourist attraction. It just seemed natural and most of the time, quicker than trying to catch the nearest tube. Yet, I realized the movie theater we frequent here in town is about a mile from our house…and we rarely walk to it, even in beautiful weather when we have plenty of time. There’s really no excuse – there are sidewalks almost the whole way and crosswalks at the “busiest” intersections, which really aren’t busy at all when I put it into perspective. We’re just so used to the convenience of our cars. I understand the argument that US suburbs are nothing like high density cities such as London, but bottom line: a mile is a mile. If we can walk it over there, we can walk it over here. I’m going to nudge my family in that direction next time we have plans to catch a flick.

Size matters

Another thing I noticed, particularly as we were riding the subway, was the noticeable lack of overweight and obese individuals. Sadly, the ones we did see often had American accents. I’m guessing that all of that walking around helps the natives manage their weight, as I also noticed the scarcity of gyms and fitness centers around the city. There were some scattered here and there, and I definitely saw women dressed in athletic wear, often carrying yoga mats. But nothing like here where you’ll often find two or three gyms within a mile radius.

Something else my husband pointed out when we were getting coffee near our flat was the distinct lack of choice when it came to cup sizes. In many shops and restaurants where we dined, there was one size and I would say it was on the smaller side compared to back home. I think the coffee cup at our favorite shop was about 12 ounces – not too big, not too small. The business decision behind the cup size was probably more cost-related than health-related, but I imagine it helps keep calorie counts down as well. At most of the nicer restaurants where we ate, the beverage glasses were definitely smaller than those at restaurants here in the states. Prices seemed lower too, even with the British pound to American dollar conversion. Smaller sizes, lower prices – a win-win in my book.

Up in smoke

Lest you think I believe London has a leg up on all health- and wellness-related matters, let me say that they seem to be lagging behind the US in their tobacco cessation efforts.  Although most restaurants and shops were smoke-free inside, smoking was allowed when dining outside, much like it is here in the US. I also saw people smoking regular and e-cigarettes quite frequently while we were sight-seeing. It was rather frustrating to be walking along the Thames River on a beautiful day when suddenly you find yourself trapped in a cloud of vapor emanating from the person in front of you. I did see the usual no smoking signs in public places, but I did not see many anti-smoking messages like we have here in the states.

Media fast

One thing that struck me once we were getting ready to come home was how happy I had been for the four days when I was essentially on a “media fast,” with limited access to news. Here at home, I usually read the Raleigh newspaper every morning and I have two news apps (one local and one national) that I check regularly throughout the day. I didn’t pick up a newspaper once while we were gone. We had a TV in the flat we rented but flipped it on only a few times when we were still adjusting to the time change and needed to just chill out before going to bed. We had chosen to do the “pay as you go” travel plan for our cell phones and thus, limited ourselves to one “activated” phone per day. Even on the days when it was my turn to have cellular turned on – and despite having access to free WiFi almost everywhere we went – I did not have the urge to check on the news like I do back home.

Maybe it was a matter of trying to be truly disconnected from the world, so I could enjoy my vacation, but it made me realize that I can survive (and thrive, really) without the constant need to know what’s happening around me. I pride myself to some extent with being an informed citizen who stays abreast of current events, but to be honest, I’m more often overwhelmed by the sense of information overload I experience when trying to take it all in. I think this vacation demonstrated that being tuned out now and then is not the end of the world and leads to more peace of mind than being in the know every minute of the day. I’m hoping I can continue my limited media exposure as I ease back into my normal schedule, now that I realize it’s better for my mental health.

IMG_6771

Know your numbers – but which ones?

It’s that time of year when many employers are strongly encouraging their employees to complete their biometric screening, typically as part of an employee wellness incentive program. According to the CDC, a biometric health screening is defined as “the measurement of physical characteristics such as height, weight, body mass index, blood pressure, blood cholesterol, [and] blood glucose…that can be taken at the work site and used as part of a workplace health assessment to benchmark and evaluate changes in employee health status over time.” Many organizations use this screening as a way to increase benefit offerings, improve employee health, and decrease health plan costs at the same time. Given the amount and variety of measurements involved in such screenings, making sense of the numbers can be challenging for many people.

I recently came across an article in the Washington Post written by a registered dietitian, who surveyed 20 experts in her field for their suggestions of which numbers are the most important when it comes to monitoring health. Interestingly, many of the numbers they believed to be most important are not even part of the usual biometric screening. For example, the first two recommendations focused on daily fruit, vegetable and fiber intake:

  • When it comes to a healthy diet, a simple method to use is the plate model, with appropriate proportions of fruits, vegetables, proteins, and grains. The rule of thumb is to fill half your plate with mostly vegetables and some fruit, which may be easier than trying to track how many servings of each you’ve eaten. Using this plate method can also help you get the recommended daily amount of fiber, which is 25-35 grams. Fiber is important for regularity, managing cholesterol and blood sugar levels, and prevention of certain cancers including colorectal cancer. It is also helpful in weight management as it keeps you feeling full for longer. Fiber-rich foods include most vegetables (the darker the color, the better), fruits, beans, nuts/seeds and whole grains.

The article did reference two of the typical biometric tests as being important for health management: fasting blood glucose (sugar) level and blood pressure:

  • The fasting blood glucose test is used to check for Type 2 diabetes and the goal is for it to be less than 100 mg/dL. These days, it seems more and more people are diagnosed with “pre-diabetes,” which corresponds to a blood sugar level of 100-125 mg/dL. The good news is that you can often reverse the effects of Type 2 diabetes (and pre-diabetes) through eating a healthy diet and exercising regularly. Therefore, it’s important to conduct this test at least annually to monitor your blood sugar level so you’ll be able to make necessary lifestyle changes to prevent or reverse a diagnosis of diabetes.

 

  • High blood pressure is commonly referred to as the silent killer because it often has no clear symptoms. However, if untreated, high blood pressure can lead to a heart attack or stroke. Therefore, it’s important to monitor your blood pressure regularly so you can seek treatment if necessary. This measurement is more important than ever as new guidelines from the American Heart Association lower the definition of high blood pressure to account for complications that can occur at lower numbers and to allow for earlier intervention. Previously, a measurement of 140/90 or greater was considered high. Now, the threshold has been lowered to 130-139/80-89 and even 121-129/<80 is considered “elevated” and an early warning that blood pressure should be lowered through non-medication approaches (primarily diet modification and exercise).

 

The author also addressed some measurements that she and her colleagues believe don’t matter as much when it comes to monitoring health. I agreed with all of them, but the one I want to address is body mass index or BMI, as there has been lively debate for some time now as to whether it is an accurate measure of health, particularly of obesity. As the author notes, BMI is a tool used to classify people into categories of normal weight, overweight or obese depending on height and weight. Individuals with BMI results in the latter two categories are often encouraged to lose weight by their healthcare provider and many are incentivized to do so through workplace wellness programs. However, BMI does not consider factors such as age, gender and bone structure, nor can it distinguish between muscle and fat. Thus, you can have a healthy, athletic person who exercises regularly but has a high BMI due to muscle mass. Or conversely, you can have a person with a normal BMI who does not eat well or exercise at all and is generally unhealthy. Going by BMI only, the athlete would be considered the obese or unhealthy one.

Scientists have recognized that what really matters is not body weight but body fat, and thus given the limitations of BMI, they now recommend a different measure for body fat/obesity: waist circumference. Measuring your waist to learn if you have abdominal obesity and excess visceral fat (fat surrounding your internal organs) is important as excessive fat inside the abdomen is a major contributor to cardiovascular disease. You have a higher risk of developing obesity-related conditions if you are:

  • A man whose waist circumference is more than 40 inches
  • A non-pregnant woman whose waist circumference is more than 35 inches

The one drawback to waist measurement is that it is more prone to errors than measuring height and weight. Click here to learn the proper way to measure waist circumference. It may also help to have a family member or a healthcare professional measure it for you, to be as accurate as possible.

There are numerous ways to measure and monitor your health and wellbeing. It’s important to look at a variety of screening test results to understand the complete picture of your health, but it’s also important not to get hung up on measurements that may not be all that accurate. I encourage you to discuss the options with your healthcare provider at your next physical or checkup so that together you can determine the best measures of your health.

On the Fourth, Put Safety First

Many of us are looking forward to July 4th, a day off to celebrate our nation’s independence and frolic in the summer sun. Whatever activities you have planned, please consider the following safety tips (courtesy of the American Red Cross) so you and your family can enjoy the holiday and remain safe while doing so.

Highway safety

Millions of people will travel by vehicle over the Fourth of July holiday. Follow these four rules to stay safe while driving:

  • Adults should wear seat belts and children should be in appropriate car seats at all times.
  • Observe speed limits and use extra caution in work zones or congested areas.
  • Do not drink and drive or operate a vehicle under the influence of other drugs.
  • Pay full attention to the road – pull over if you need to make a call or send a text.

Water safety

Many of you may be planning to swim and/or engage in other water-related activities. Here are a few ways to make water safety a priority whether at the pool, the beach, or your favorite watering hole:

  • Always swim with a buddy; do not allow anyone to swim alone.
  • Have young children and inexperienced swimmers wear a life jacket.
  • Obey all instructions and orders from lifeguards.
  • Always check weather conditions before going in the water, especially at the beach.
  • Be aware of the danger of rip currents. If caught in one, swim parallel to the shore until out of the current. When free, turn and swim toward shore. If unable to swim to the shore, call out for help, float or tread water until free of the rip current and then head toward shore.

Grilling safety

One of the best parts of the holiday is the yummy eats that are served up at backyard parties. Stick with these steps to safely cook up treats on a charcoal or gas grill:

  • Always supervise a grill when in use.
  • Never grill indoors – not in the house, camper, tent, or any enclosed area.
  • Make sure young children and pets stay away from the grill.
  • Keep the grill out in the open, away from the house, the deck, tree branches, or anything that could catch fire.

Fireworks safety

Perhaps the most exciting tradition on the Fourth: the bright, loud colorful displays that light up the night sky. The safest way to enjoy fireworks is to attend a public show put on by professionals. If fireworks are set off at home, please adhere to these safety steps to avoid serious injury:

  • Always follow the instructions on the packaging.
  • Keep a supply of water close by as a precaution.
  • Make sure the person lighting fireworks wears eye protection.
  • Never throw or point fireworks toward people, animals, vehicles, structures or flammable materials.

Don’t forget about sun protection

If we’re lucky, Mother Nature will cooperate and provide lots of sunshine this week, so we can enjoy the beautiful outdoors. However, the hot sun and high temperatures can also bring potential health hazards such as heat stroke. Watch for warning signs including hot, red skin; changes in consciousness; rapid, weak pulse; and rapid, shallow breathing. If you suspect someone is suffering from heat stroke, do the follow:

  • Call 9-1-1 and move the person to a cooler place.
  • Quickly cool the body by applying cool, wet cloths or towels to the skin (or misting it with water) and fanning the person.
  • Watch for signs of breathing problems and make sure the airway is clear. Keep the person lying down.

Check out my earlier post for additional tips on staying safe in the summer sun. After all, no one wants to have the fun cut short due to a nasty, painful sunburn, right?

I wish you all a safe, happy and relaxing Fourth of July!

fourth-of-july-th-of-july-party

 

45: Celebrating the little things

Relax. This isn’t a post about the President. Having just celebrated my 45th birthday last Friday, I thought I would take a moment to share a key lesson I’ve learned over the years, one that I am most grateful for at this juncture in my life.

It’s the little things

It has taken me some time to really understand this lesson, but I have found that it truly is the little things in life that matter. I am sure I had older, wiser adults tell me this in my youth, but I think it takes living life and learning from your own journey to appreciate the message. I had a few “small moments” on my birthday and over the course of the weekend that created some special memories that I will not soon forget:

  • I had a few short trips in my car on my birthday, zipping around town from place to place. Every time I turned on the radio, some of my favorite songs happened to be playing. I couldn’t help but smile and sing along at the top of my lungs. Thanks to the universe’s DJ for spinning my favorite tunes!

 

  • During one of my car trips, I was approaching a red light at the bottom of a hill. To my left, there was a maintenance worker driving one of those industrial lawn mowers, trimming the tall grass at the corner of the road. As my car came to a stop, I instinctively looked up at the older gentleman driving the mower and we both broke out into huge grins and waved at one another. The next second, the light turned green and I was off. I have no idea who that man was, and I may never see him again in my life, but we shared a moment. A moment that set the tone for the rest of my day: it warmed my heart and made me more aware of the importance of human connection…whether with your loved ones or a perfect stranger at an intersection.

 

  • I spent most of my birthday with three other health coaches that are part of a Mastermind group. We had decided to engage in a visioning retreat, as we all desired to refocus our business efforts. After a brief check-in, we paired off for some dyad work. My colleague and I chose to answer the question “What’s inside of me that needs to get out?” For me, two themes kept coming up: the need to scratch my creative itch and the desire to inspire others. When we reconvened as a group, we all chose to make a “concrete” version (such as a vision board) of our respective visions. The coach who hosted us had brought along a plethora of arts and crafts materials, including river rocks. I knew immediately what I wanted – a simple visual reminder of my two themes: create and inspire. No need for a fancy vision board that will just gather dust in the corner. Just two simple rocks that now sit on my desk, keeping my vision in plain sight.

vision rocks

  • Perhaps the sweetest moment of the weekend unfolded on Sunday morning. I was on my way to the grocery store, when I approached the same intersection where I shared a moment with the maintenance worker. I noticed that a couple of cars in front of me seemed to be slowing down to avoid something in the road. I looked closer and saw this tiny white creature moving slowly across the road: it was a kitten, probably less than 2 months old. It was hesitating, given the large SUV and other car in its path. As a cat owner/lover, I had to do something. I pulled my car over to the shoulder and jumped out to go get it. Fortunately, there was very little traffic this early in the morning. I headed toward the kitten and when it saw me, it started to come toward me. I scooped it up and ran back to my car, gently placing it on the passenger side floor. With two other cats at home already, I knew that we couldn’t keep it, so I brought it to the emergency vet clinic in town. They said they were pretty sure they could place her (turns out “it” was a she) with a rescue group that would help find her a loving home. The whole adventure only lasted about an hour, but it was a highlight of my weekend and a birthday memory that will stay with me for years.

kitten 1

 

One of my favorite songs that I heard on the radio over the weekend is “Little Wonders,” a song from the movie Meet the Robinsons and written by Rob Thomas (who also happens to be one of my favorite singer/songwriters.) The lyrics below really capture the message in a beautiful way:

 

Our lives are made

In these small hours

These little wonders

These twists and turns of fate

Time falls away

But these small hours

These small hours still remain

 

In the future, when I look back on my 45th birthday, it is the events referenced above – those small hours and little wonders – that I will remember most.

Health at every size?

I had two experiences last weekend that I didn’t realize were related until I started thinking about the theme for this blog post. Saturday night, I had the opportunity to attend a screening of the documentary Fattitude followed by a panel discussion with community members and health professionals. Sunday morning, I attended service at my spiritual home, the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Raleigh, where Reverend Osterman spoke about the “Burden of Perfectionism.” It is only in the last day or so that the connection between these two topics hit me and have inspired me to reexamine my long-held beliefs about weight and health.

Rethinking the connection between weight and health

 As I’ve shared before, I was overweight as a kid, so I have firsthand experience with the shame and frustration that comes with not fitting into the preferred norm when it comes to body image in this country. I have spent years on the yo-yo dieting cycle, losing weight only to regain it and start the weight loss cycle over again. It is only in the past few years that I have finally seen the light and realized that my struggle with maintaining a healthy weight has almost nothing to do with health, and everything to do with body image – and striving for the unattainable: a “perfect” body, like the images we are bombarded with daily on TV, the internet and print media alike.

It occurred to me that even when I have been overweight, I did not have any health issues. Blood pressure? Normal. Blood sugar? Normal. Cholesterol? Normal. However, given my family history of diabetes, heart disease, stroke and cancer, I have always been concerned about preventing such problems down the road. As a public health professional, this message was hammered into my brain: educate individuals about the health risks of being overweight/obese and help them modify their lifestyle to achieve a healthy weight. But as I learned the other night at the movie and discussion, the research upon which this message is based is not black and white. Most studies have demonstrated a correlation between excess weight and chronic diseases, not a direct causation. This is an important distinction to make. Being overweight or obese may increase your risk of developing diabetes or heart disease, but it is not necessarily a given. There are plenty of thin people who develop these conditions, just as there are fat people who do not.

Fattitude

The documentary Fattitude was eye-opening for me. As much as I knew that our culture is biased toward thin people, I was not aware of the breadth and depth of discrimination around weight. The movie pointed out that in children’s books, cartoons and movies, the villains and bad guys are almost always fat. In most of our entertainment, the fat person is the butt of the joke. But even beyond the entertainment world, I learned that fat people are often paid less than their thin counterparts and that they face bias in the healthcare environment. Self-report studies show that doctors view obese patients as lazy, lacking in self-control, non-compliant, unintelligent, weak-willed, and dishonest. Wow.

During the discussion after the movie, a teen-aged African-American girl in the audience posed a question to the physician on the panel. She said her pediatrician told her that because she is fat, she will develop diabetes and die. She wanted to know if that was true. The physician assured her that was not true, and the young girl ran out of the room crying – I’m assuming from a sense of relief that she was not doomed to this fate. (As a side note, I would say that this girl appeared to be a little overweight but by no means obese. I’m also happy to report that after being consoled by a few of the event organizers, she eventually returned to the discussion and was smiling and laughing by the end of the night.) I want to assume that this girl’s pediatrician meant well and had her best interest at heart, but we know using fear tactics is not the best approach to motivating people to change.

Perfection is overrated

I was still reflecting on the lessons learned Saturday night when I attended service Sunday morning. As a “recovering perfectionist” (I’m still a work in progress), I was eager to hear what my minister had to say about it. He shared insights about the three most common types of perfectionism:

  • Self-oriented perfectionism: Self-oriented perfectionists have high personal standards, expect to be perfect, and are very self-critical if they fail to meet these high expectations.

 

  • Other-oriented perfectionism: Other-oriented perfectionists expect other people to be perfect and are highly critical of those who fail to meet their impossibly high expectations.

 

  • Socially prescribed perfectionism: Socially prescribed perfectionists believe that other people expect them to be perfect and that these other people will be highly critical of them if they fail to meet expectations.

 

In thinking about it, I’m pretty sure I have a little bit of each type in me (yikes), but when it comes to my weight, I definitely link it to that last one. Although I have technically been at a healthy weight since high school, I have never felt “thin” – mostly because I have not had a flat stomach since I was about five years old (and probably never will unless I opt for surgical enhancement).  And in our culture, thin is beautiful and beautiful equals perfect. It is this external beauty standard that has kept me on the metaphorical treadmill year after year, trying to get that beach-ready body…and failing spectacularly with each passing summer. Why? I’ve come to realize that it is just not worth it to me. I’m not willing to put in the time and effort to achieve – and maintain – that ideal. There are too many other things I’d rather be doing than spending hours at the gym and obsessing over every piece of food I put in my mouth.

So now what?

As I said at the beginning, the events of this past weekend have given me pause and the desire to rethink my own beliefs about weight and health, as well as what this means for me as a health and wellness coach who works with others around weight management. I am inspired to re-read Health at Every Size, a book that challenges all of us to take a second look at the research around weight and health and consider adopting a different approach. I hope to learn more about the body positivity movement and speakers who were featured in the movie. Mostly though, I will be satisfied knowing that I am doing my best to eat a healthy diet and move my body in ways that bring joy and pleasure so that I will remain in good health and be able to enjoy life. Am I perfect? Nope, and that’s absolutely fine with me.

A Different Kind of Checkup

When it comes to the various dimensions of wellness, there is one area that is often overlooked: financial wellness. However, your financial health can impact many other areas of your life, including your physical health. The stress from worrying about money can definitely take its toll on the body. Therefore, it’s important to do at least an annual checkup of your finances to see where things stand.

Financial wellness is understanding your financial situation and taking care of it in such a way that you are prepared for financial changes. It includes being comfortable with where your money comes from and where it is going, but it is about more than just cash flow. A solid financial plan includes strategies such as budgeting, saving for emergencies, reducing or eliminating debt, and planning for retirement (and possibly paying for college, if you have children).

What is your financial IQ?

If the term financial wellness seems foreign to you, it may help to start with a simple assessment to measure your financial well-being. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) offers a short questionnaire on their website, which provides your score, the US average score for comparison, and suggestions for improving your financial situation if needed. There are also several free consumer tools available if you need help in specific areas such as buying a house, paying for college or planning for retirement.

Budgeting basics

One of the most important steps you can take to help manage your finances is to create a budget. A budget is a financial plan that helps you balance income (money you earn) and expenses (money you spend) from month to month.  Creating a budget – and sticking to it – can help you save money and reach your short- and long-term financial goals. You can use something as simple as an Excel spreadsheet or a financial app such as Mint.

Budgeting does take time, effort and discipline, but it can be a very valuable financial tool. If you find you are not able to stick to your budget, it may mean you are spending beyond your means or that your budget is not flexible enough. Take the time to review and readjust your budget monthly until you find a plan that works for you.

Emergency savings fund

Maintaining an emergency savings fund is one of the pillars of financial wellness. This is the money you set aside for those unexpected events such as major car repairs, damage to your home, or worse, losing your job. How much money to keep in your emergency fund really depends on your circumstances. At the very minimum, you should aim for at least one month’s salary (i.e., your after-tax, take-home pay). A safer rule of thumb is the 3-6-9-month guideline:

  • 3 months’ salary may be enough if you are single, renting, have a steady paycheck and a “safety net” to fall back on (i.e., family or close friends who would gladly help you out if you were really in dire straits.)

 

  • 6 months’ salary is the most common recommendation particularly if you are married (with or without kids), own your home and have two steady paychecks coming in. Even so, you will likely want to base that amount on the take-home pay of the highest earner in your household.

 

  • 9 months’ salary may be warranted if you (and/or your spouse) are self-employed or full-time freelancers and your income is less predictable. Having an emergency fund padded with nine months of the highest earner’s net income may help you sleep a little better at night and not worry as much about weathering a financial storm.

One of the easiest ways to help you save is to set up an automatic deposit from your paycheck to your savings account. Many employers offer the option to split your paycheck between a checking and savings account, so a part of your pay gets automatically saved each pay period. Putting the money aside before you can spend it will help build up that rainy-day fund.

Dealing with debt

One of the first things to understand about debt is the difference between “good” debt and “bad” debt. There are certain types of debt that may provide opportunities to improve your financial future.

Good debt includes things like home mortgages and student loans, which typically are low cost and have potential tax advantages. With mortgages, you’re borrowing money to own a potentially appreciating asset, and the mortgage interest may be tax-deductible. With student loans, interest rates tend to be on the low side, and the interest is often tax-deductible. Plus, furthering your education can lead to enhanced career opportunities, which will hopefully increase your earning potential in the long run.

On the other hand, you want to avoid “bad” debt, which is generally high cost and not tax-deductible. The most common source of this debt is credit cards. The high interest rates associated with this debt will cost you over time. Credit cards are a necessity for most of us and can be helpful if you can pay them off every month and not accrue interest. It all goes back to budgeting and spending within your means.

If you are already in a situation where you are struggling to deal with paying down your debt, the worst thing you can do is ignore it. Consider working with a credit counseling organization that can advise you on managing your money and debts. They usually offer free educational materials and workshops. The National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC) is one source for finding a reputable organization.

Planning for retirement

If you are planning on living off your Social Security benefits when you retire, you may want to reassess that decision. Although Social Security should be around for some time, for most of us, the amount we’ll receive won’t be sufficient to cover expenses, even with some “downsizing” of our lifestyle. Thus, it’s important to have some additional investments to ensure a happy retirement. Experts suggest the following guidelines based on the assumption that you’ll retire at 65, need about 75% of your pre-retirement income and that Social Security benefits will cover about a third of your expenses:

 

At Age Savings should be
40 7x your income
45 8x your income
50 9x your income
55 10x your income
60 11x your income
65 12x your income

 There are several options when it comes to saving for retirement. You may have access to a 401(k) or 403(b) plan through your employer, and if you’re lucky, your employer may contribute to it as well. However, if you are self-employed or your employer does not offer a retirement plan, you can open an account and make contributions on your own. The most important thing about saving for retirement is to start early.  Even if you can only contribute a small amount each month, your contributions will earn interest over time and you’ll have peace of mind watching your nest egg grow.

For those of you who are parents, a quick note about saving for college: if money is tight and there is a choice between funding your retirement account or your child’s college fund (such as a 529 plan), it is always best to fund your retirement first. You can use retirement funds to pay for college, but you can’t use a college fund to pay for retirement. There are also other options to help pay for college, like student loans, but no one is going to loan you money to retire.

Using a financial planner

Whether you are just starting out on your own or counting down the last few years until you can retire, it may be worth your while to secure the services of a financial planner. The Wall Street Journal has some helpful tips for choosing a financial planner. Experts recommend choosing a Certified Financial Planner (CFP), as these individuals have passed a rigorous test administered by the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards and they must complete relevant continuing education to maintain their designation. A financial planner should offer to meet at least annually to review your financial holdings and ensure that you are on track to meet your financial goals.

As you can see, there are several reasons why it’s important to monitor your financial well-being. A little time and effort on the front end will ensure peace of mind during your golden years.  I can guarantee that your future self will thank you for it.

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