Review: “Your Money: More Advice Graduates Don’t Want to Hear”

While scanning the New York Times, I came across the following financial advice column by Damon Darlin. In the column, Mr. Darlin writes about how we recent college graduates ought to save more money so that we’re better off when it’s time to retire. Most of the advice for saving, I found very sensible – buy used items, avoid solicitors and advertising, don’t purchase high-tech products you don’t really need, and, most importantly, don’t borrow money for a depreciating asset. What struck me, though, was what Mr. Darlin predicted we’d need our savings for: out-of-pocket medical expenses. From the article:

“There may be another compelling reason to save and that is that while many aspects of retirement savings are predictable, the big unknowable is health care costs…projections based on the Health and Retirement Study , a survey of 22,000 Americans over the age of 50 sponsored by the National Institute on Aging found that by 2019, nearly a tenth of elderly retirees would be devoting more than half of their total income to out-of-pocket health expenses.”

The professors and studies cited by Mr. Darlin take it for granted that when we’re old, we’re going to need extra money to pay for “wheelchair lifts, private nurses and a high-quality nursing home.” In one particularly morbid example, a professor states that money is most useful when you’re old because it makes all the difference whether you have to wait for a bus in the rain to get to the doctor’s appointment or you ride in a cab.

I have no doubt that the research cited in this article is to be taken seriously. While on the one hand the average American life span is approaching 80 years, for many people, those final thirty years are spent struggling with debilitating health concerns. In this sense, the retirement period of life is not just about retirement from work, but also can entail a forced retirement from many enjoyable activities. Older people are more likely to have to deal with decreased mobility, arthritis, alzheimer’s, cancer, strokes, digestive disorders, incontinence, osteoporosis, vision and hearing loss, and other concerns. Cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity can occur early on in life but can continue to have ramifications into old age.

The medical care that Mr. Darlin specifically refers to seems to take the form of helping the retired to persist through debilitating health concerns, rather than helping them either to recover from these concerns or to avoid such health problems in the first place. In other words, medical care enables us to live longer despite the fact that we’re sick; it doesn’t necessarily improve our quality of life. In my opinion, the onset of so many health concerns after the age of fifty is at least partly a result of poor diet and lifestyle. Although aging is a natural and essential part of life, it is not necessary that it involve losing your hearing, eyesight, mobility and memory, piece by piece. If we nourish ourselves properly with healthy food and a healthy amount of activity, then, although we might lose some stamina as we get older, we will be much less likely to suffer serious, chronic health concerns.

Mr. Darlin does acknowledge the importance of taking care of yourself at a young age in order to be healthy by the time you reach your retirement. He suggests losing weight, cooking for yourself, and also finding a partner and sticking with them. But missing from his article is the fact that all the health problems listed above are hastened by a diet low in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Spending time now to really learn how to eat a balanced diet that you enjoy will result not only in an immediate improvement in your energy and happiness, but it will give your body the nutrition it needs for a long and healthy life.

Many people don’t turn seriously to a healthy lifestyle until they’re already nearing retirement and at risk for disease. But young people are starting to develop an interest in how to be healthy now, not just because they want to feel good, but also because it is an incredibly wise investment in our health. Spending a little more now to eat better food, or to get some nutritional guidance, can ultimately save you tens of thousands of dollars, or more. Combine the money you’ve saved with the healthy body you’ll have in retirement and you’ll really be ready to enjoy those later decades!

Eating Affordably

This is a topic I’ve been struggling with ever since I started paying for my own food a few years ago. When I was a kid we would sacrifice new clothes to help us pay for organic food, which, in a way, made sense: healthy bodies are a much more valuable investment than almost anything you could spend your money on. The only reason this is an issue, however, is because of the curious fact that a very healthy diet is often seen as prohibitively expensive. This is not just due to the emergence of Whole Foods (sourly nicknamed Whole Paycheck by those who compare it with conventional supermarkets); even the little co-ops and health food stores of the past 25 years have always been somewhat costly. I think that there are a variety of reasons for this situation. There is a smaller market for organic, locally grown food, than there is for conventional food. A few major consolidated food companies still dominate what Americans eat – and this dominance enables them to sell food at lower prices. But perhaps more importantly, by virtue of the same manufacturing and processing shortcuts that decrease the quality of the food and differentiate the food from organic food – for example, stuffing thousands of chickens or cows in a big shed rather than giving them space to roam around, or growing mass quantities of one crop in the same place year after year, or cramming snack foods with ingredients made from heavily subsidized crops like soy, corn, and wheat – these companies can charge a lot less. Using technology to diminish the amount of labor required is not necessarily bad, in my opinion, except in those cases where the nutritional value of the food – i.e. the very thing for the sake of which we’re eating it in the first place, so that we can survive – is sacrificed.

Proponents of especially expensive health-food diets like the raw food diet (which certainly isn’t locally grown and advocates exotic health foods like raw cacao, goji berries, noni juice, algae, reishi mushrooms, and other foods that would probably not be sustainable if we were all to eat them) say essentially that you should just suck it up and absorb the price because it’s worth it (Whole Foods reps have been known to say something similar). I don’t believe this is the answer. Ironically, once upon a time, the healthy food choices were those available to the poor. Processing rice to make it white, for example, was a privilege the rich could afford, but not the poor (I’m particularly fond of the scene in Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai where the besieged peasants are described as so poor they can’t even eat rice – they have to eat millet. Yes, millet – that delicious whole grain I was just recommending for summer eating a few pages ago). Common workers were more likely to be strong and healthy (until they finally deteriorated from backbreaking labor, of course), while the royal family was susceptible to being weak, frail, and wasting away at an early age – despite, or because of, their access to whatever food they wanted.

Now, however, the poor are more likely to be found at McDonald’s, buying cases of coca-cola, junk food, candy, and generally suffering from diabetes, obesity, and a host of other health problems. And others of us – like the many college grads who subscribe to this newsletter – aren’t that bad off, but still can’t go to the health food store and just buy whatever we want. Nevertheless, we don’t want to cash in our health if we can help it. I am of the opinion, personally, that it will not always be like this. The rate of growth of the organic and health-food industries suggest that the time will come when Americans demand reasonably priced health food and the government subsidies will be readjusted so that you can buy an organic cantaloupe for less than a Snickers bar.

So, as I said, I’ve been working on this issue for a few years now – so what do I do to eat affordably? My general schema is a refrain that is going to sound familiar if you read this newsletter a lot. Some of the advice, though, may seem surprising. As for the format in which it will be presented, I’m afraid I’m going to have to go with something I always considered fairly…hackneyed. Yes, you are about to hear my “Top 5 Tips” for eating inexpensively. Oh my god. Well, let’s just move on and get it over with. One caveat, though: unless you are really trying to spend as little as possible, you don’t need to totally adopt these suggestions – just try to follow them when you can, and you will end up saving more. If you really would like to drastically cut your food bill down but still continue to eat healthy, delicious, filling meals, send me an email and I’ll get more specific with you. I usually help people plan this kind of thing out over time in my program, but nevertheless I’ll try to be as detailed as I can without turning this article into War and Peace.

1. Eat whole foods. Didn’t I say something about this last time? Yes, but that was just for your health. Now it’s for your savings. It turns out that the foods that are the best value are vegetables, whole grains, and beans (in bulk). Part of the reason for this is that they take more preparation, though with a little practice you can introduce these foods into your diet without introducing a lot of extra cooking time into your day. I’ll give one example – oatmeal vs. boxed cereal. Organic oatmeal is about .90¢ a pound. A pound of a boxed cereal like Kashi’s heart-to-heart cheerios is about $3.00. I won’t even mention how oatmeal is so much better for you. Now, you do have to take about five minutes to prepare it and wash the pot afterwards. It might be worth it, though, if you knew you were also cutting your food bill by two thirds. The exception here is fruit – it can be ridiculously expensive. Having some of it in your diet every day is a good idea, especially in the summer, but you only need a little. Stick with what’s in season because it will usually be the cheapest.

2. Eat three meals a day. Now let’s talk about some of the most expensive food in the store (and when I say most expensive, I mean cost divided by nutritional value + quantity of healthful calories): snack food. Yes, we all love snack food…I admit it…sometimes I go to the store and just want to buy nothing but snack food because I feel like I’ve been deprived of it for so long. So I do, but then after two days suddenly I need to go shopping again – and I think, What happened to all that food? Oh yeah…I snacked on it. Well, of course. That’s what it’s for. But snack food is really what happens when you missed a meal, or you’re doing something you don’t want to do, or you’re not doing anything and feel somewhat bored, or you’re too tired to prepare something. But the idea of snack food is not that it’s really supposed to satisfy you. The food you get at the rest stop is only supposed to get you to the next rest stop. If you arrange your life so that you eat breakfast, lunch and dinner at specific times each day and have enough at each meal to help you last until the next one, not only will you save a ton of money but you might even lose some weight as well, if that’s what you’re interested in. And don’t hesitate to eat all the food you want during those meals – just don’t eat between them.

3. Pack a lunch. Eating out is just simply much more expensive than making your own food. That’s not to say that I never do it, but for me doing so is largely a social occasion – the food I make myself usually tastes better. When you make dinner, I suggest making enough to have the leftovers for lunch the next day. You’ll be amazed at how much extra money you save just by coming prepared.

4. Make one trip to the store per week. From my own personal experience, I know that every time I go shopping for food I pick up something that is not on my list, not something I really need, and is something that will probably make me feel slightly sick later. Yeah. What works for me in solving this problem is making a list ahead of time of everything I’ll need plus a little, just so I don’t run out. If you get into a habit of spending fifty dollars every time you go to the store, whether you need more food or not, that can be a problem. And if you do run out of food before the end of the week, well, many health gurus are huge advocates of fasting. (That’s mostly a joke. Fasting can be good sometimes, but I don’t recommend starving yourself to save money).

5. Eat balanced meals. Many people spend a lot on food because of daily cravings. An obvious example is the wild success of Starbucks. The truth is that if the food you eat, or the events in your life, do not satisfy you, you’ll be looking for additional sustenance. When I talk about eating three meals a day, make sure that there is enough food to fill you up! Many dieters go hungry because they don’t get enough healthy sources of fat in their diets; the same thing happens to junk food vegetarians. Some people buy a lot of food because they’re using it to make themselves feel better about something that’s not food-related (what am I saying, some people? Everyone does this. Especially the health counselor). But when I say “balanced meals,” I mean it’s not enough to have a certain volume of food, but also to ensure that you have variety – enough protein, carbohydrates and fat (especially fat – it’s filling and good for you. I suggest olive oil, sesame oil, avocados, organic animal fat (butter, milk, cheese, eggs, meat), fish and fish oil, coconut oil, nuts and seeds, peanut butter, etc. Not margarine, and not trans fats (see: anything that says “partially hydrogenated.”)). Other ways of balancing the meal: taste (salt, sour, sweet, pungent, bitter – this goes back to the 5 element system listed above) and color.

As I said above, you do not need to follow all these different tips rigorously – just see if one or two of them work for you, and let me know how it goes.