Basic budgeting can help you lose weight (without costing you money)

by Karen on August 7, 2008

Money Saving Mom wrote an insightful and realistic post today about frugal weight loss. Because I’ve struggled with both debt and my weight and I believe the two are alike in more ways than one, it inspired me to throw in my two cents.

Two years ago I lost 40 pounds without spending a dime. No gym membership. No diet program. No special meals or exercise equipment. I think it’s really important to stress to frustrated dieters that you don’t have to spend money to lose weight. In my personal experience, stressing about finances often led to overeating. The more I spent, the more I stressed, the more I ate. So for me spending money on weight loss was counterproductive.

The single most effective part of my diet was planning my meals and tracking each and every calorie that I ate. In essence, I created a “food budget.”

You can’t expect to get out of debt and save money without a budget, so how can you expect to lose weight without being accountable for what you eat and when you eat it? Every day I planned what I was going to eat for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and two snacks, and I tracked how many calories I “spent” on different foods in my food budget.

I determined how many calories I needed to be consuming (you can do this by entering your information into this handy calorie calculator). Much like a budget helps you avoid spending more than your income, a food budget helps you avoid eating more calories than your daily allowance.

It doesn’t have to be time consuming. I used FitDay to track calories, exercise, and goals. Registration is completely free, and the site has a huge database of common foods so you can estimate how many calories you’re eating. I compared the database information to many of the foods that I knew the nutritional information for, and it was pretty accurate. All you do is search for the food you ate and add it to your online food diary. You can also manually enter the nutritional facts for your favorite foods and save them to add them again later.

The site keeps track of your most common foods and makes it easy to add them without searching. It does all the math for you, so it’s easy to stay on track.

Not knowing exactly how many calories there are in a food is like buying something without even looking at the price tag. Would you hand over your debit card and walk out of the store without at least looking at the receipt? I don’t think so.

I learned more about nutrition and dieting in the first two weeks of tracking calories than I had in a lifetime of yo-yo dieting. Like a financial budget, my food budget mapped out where I was “overspending” calories so I could make targeted changes.

For the first week of my diet, I ate a bagel with a tablespoon of cream cheese for breakfast. When I looked at my food budget and realized I had been wasting 100 calories every day on cream cheese alone, I quickly determined that it wasn’t worth it and switched to high fiber cereal to save the calories. Sound familiar to you budgeters?

Tracking calories wasn’t just informative, it was empowering. I loved being able to make informed choices about what I ate. Knowing that a piece of cake would cost me more than half a day’s calories made it a lot easier to turn it down. On the other hand, I was pleasantly surprised when I found out that a mini Reese’s cup was a minuscule 40 calories, an amount I could easily afford to work into my budget and enjoy guilt free from time to time.

The point is, if you have the tools to manage your finances, then you have the tools you need to manage your weight. Discipline, basic math, organization, planning, and budgeting are the keys to staying physically and financially fit. You wouldn’t spend money to get your finances under control, so why spend money on weight loss?

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