Building Wealth is Like Losing Weight

Image by Jeremy Brooks

My problem lies in reconciling my gross habits with my net income.
—Errol Flynn

Building wealth and losing weight are both simple in theory. There’s really only one step to each. To lose weight, simply burn more calories than you eat. That’s it. If you do that consistently, day after day, you will lose weight. You may not lose as much as you’d like as quickly as you like, but you will lose weight. Period. Nothing can change this fact — not your metabolism, genetic profile, family history, or any other excuse or rationalization you can come up with. No one can escape the laws of physics.

Similarly, if you consistently spend less than you earn, you will get richer. Again, perhaps not as quickly as you’d like, but your net worth will grow.

Simple, right? So why do so many of us struggle with both? Why are Americans the worst savers and most overweight people in the developed world?

Simple, but not Easy

The first thing you need to realize is that “simple” and “easy” are two very different concepts, especially when addiction dynamics enter into the equation. After all, to quit smoking, all you really need to do is never light up again. Simple, right? But as any smoker who has tried to quit will tell you, it’s anything but easy.

Our collective addictions to consumption in general, and overeating in particular, likely come from a common source. Humans evolved in an environment where food was scarce, without any effective means of preservation, and resources were limited. It’s only natural in such an environment to eat more than you need to survive when the opportunity presents itself, building up stores of fat for the inevitable lean periods. Similarly, it makes sense to hoard whatever resources you can get your hands on whenever possible.

Neither of these behaviors make much sense in our modern world of effectively limitless food and access to resources, but in the grand evolutionary timescale, humans have been living under these conditions for a blink of an eye. Our natural tendencies have yet to adapt.

So if you’ve gotten into trouble with your spending in the past (as I certainly have), or if you’re in trouble now, first off, give yourself a break. You are human, and succumbed to human nature. Beating yourself up about it will accomplish nothing.

At the same time, there’s no excuse for continuing the pattern. Realize that you and only you are responsible for your spending, and take action. There are many natural tendencies responsible adults must suppress to live healthy, productive lives. (I, for example, must constantly suppress the perfectly natural urge to assault anyone who plays Nickleback in my presence.) You’re just going to have to add one more to the list.

7 Comments

  1. Hayley

    You’re definitely right, but sometimes it’s so hard to get to that place where you are able to spend less than you earn! Especially when we factor in student loans, rent payments, bills, groceries, etc. It seems like a never-ending cycle!

    • Sean Owen

      I sympathize, believe me. The first step is to start tracking every single cent so you can find and plug any obvious leaks.

  2. dinesh

    Very nicely explained the importance of wealth. It is really true to consider things positively and have control on our expenses as well. Building wealth and loosing weight revolves around the same concept. Effective management of expenditure is as important as earning high profits.

  3. “… humans have been living under these conditions for a blink of an eye. .Our natural tendencies have yet to adapt…”

    I enjoyed this point you made, as I often think about the great mismatch between current conditions and evolutionary normalcy.

    Crazier yet is the fact that we will NEVER naturally evolve away these tendencies, since that implies frugal and diet-aware people somehow producing more surviving offspring. Reading the news on birth rates in different areas, I’d say that category is losing the evolutionary race these days rather than winning it.

    • Sean Owen

      It’s hard to say where those birth rates will lead us. For example, there’s long been this theory that because smarter people have fewer children, the average IQ would go down from one generation to the next – but the fact is that the exact opposite has happened. The average IQ has gone up steadily with every generation.

      Considering all the terrible health and fertility problems you get from being overweight, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a strong selection for better eating habits over time, but there will need to be a few more generations for it to really show up.

      You might imagine frugality being selected for as well, due to lower job-related stress, and general better life outcomes for kids whose parents are actually around to raise them. Remember that absentee parenting is a VERY new phenomenon, and the first generation of kids to experience it are still pretty young.

  4. Sreenath PG

    Well, I think building wealth is an art, a process that slowly cultivates. Each contribution you make to the process may seem insignificant, but the ultimate result is quite an accomplishment. It is neither easy nor quick, but it is very effective. The most important factor you need to possess, to achieve the goal of getting rich is having a positive mindset. You have to lead a disciplined and healthy lifestyle, and be careful always with your spending habits.

  5. FreeUrChains

    That picture made me hungry for 3 Burgers NOW! But I must tell myself, for dinner tonight, only 1 homemade Burger!!!!!! Not 3! After my 1 hour of bowling, 20×3 pushups, 20×3 situps, and anything else i can do in my living room, dips with a chair, 6inch raises, etc. (40 min workout, that’s all!)

    Drinking water before and during every meal helps a lot to feel Full!
    Doing the things that you are passionate about also keeps you from thinking about Food all the time because you are having fun!

    Think about it, Arena Slaves barely ate enough healthy food to keep up with their 8 hour training sessions every day to stay alive, yet now all consuming slaves want to do is workout out for 8 hours a day and eat healthy, yet are chained back mentally from doing so by those who depend on consumers.
    Shall we free our chains? I think now is the time!

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