The Difference Between Food and Money

From some spam I got yesterday:

Dear Customer,

As someone who has shown interest in books and magazines on cooking, you might like to know that you can get a $5.00 instant discount on SmartMoney this month.

Ice Cream Lotus Head

I’m not entirely sure what is going on here. It’s possible that it’s just a mail-merge typo, that the text "cooking" was accidentally put in where Amazon meant to write "finance and investing." I like eating as much as the next guy, but describing me as somebody "who has shown interest in books and magazines on cooking" is quite a reach. On the other hand, I do keep buying books about finance, so flogging SmartMoney to me makes some sense.

But there is another, less likely, explanation that I would rather was true. I would rather that the algorithms at Amazon that tell them that people who bought A might like to buy B have found that personal finance and cooking/nutrition/dieting are similar topics with similar audiences.

To be clear, I am not happy that the topics are so related in the minds of so many, but I think it is true that they are. On the subject of saving money and controlling spending in particular, it is hard to find a mainstream discussion that avoids the food and diet metaphor. It’s just so convenient to draw the analogy between saving and the familiar topic of dieting. Dave Ramsey’s semi-permanent bestseller Total Money Makeover sustains the saving-dieting analogy for the entire book.

On a superficial level, the similarities between how we deal with money and food are strong. Both involve willpower and delayed gratification. A diet is a lot like a budget.

But beneath the surface there are meaningful differences between getting rich and getting thin that can cause big problems if you take the money as food analogy too far.

(And do I need to point out how pathetic it is that saving is so unfamiliar and dieting so familiar to us that this analogy is helpful at all? Do weight loss books tell their readers it’s like saving money? Of course, I wouldn’t know….)

If you want to be successful at getting in shape physically, you need a long sustained campaign of eating less and exercising more. Eventual victory will come from many small triumphs over your urges to eat cookies and skip the gym. Occasional lapses, as long as they are truly occasional, will not ruin your campaign. Being virtuous almost all the time is enough.

But success in getting in shape fiscally doesn’t work that way. A single act of giving in to your desires, buying too much house or car, for example, can outweigh months or even years of consistent good money behavior. It would be as if a single slice of a special cake could cause you to gain ten pounds.

Conversely, being relatively unvirtuous with day-to-day small things, e.g. lattes, is comparatively harmless on the money front. What matters in money is winning a few big battles. With food there are no big battles. What counts is your overall rate of success. Which is why the saving-dieting analogy, although awfully convenient, can do more harm than good.

[Photo: Lotus Head]

No Comments

  • By Neil, September 14, 2009 @ 11:44 am

    The other reason why cooking and finance may be found to be related by the “similar items” algorithm is that a common way many people cut expenses is by learning to cook for themselves instead of eating out a lot.

    Anyway, I know that you don’t believe that small battles matter in personal finance. But they do. If between two or three items, my wife and I can cut $5/day out of our lives, that will be a 25% increase to our savings rate. For people with tighter budgets, it can be the difference between increasing savings and increasing debt. That’s significant.

    Big battles are easier in finance. It’s not that hard to do that math and see that I simply cannot afford a brand new car, or that I cannot afford a half-million dollar house. But it’s a bit harder to make the argument that I can’t afford the expensive cheeses or an extra dinner out in a month. Because I can. It’s just that by making those small choices, I might be giving up the bigger things that matter more.

  • By Rick Francis, September 14, 2009 @ 12:29 pm

    The skills don’t really transfer well either- I’m great a saving but not nearly as good at dieting!

    Available Information is pretty diffierent, consider how many things to you eat that you don’t know the calorie counts vs. purchaes where you don’t know the price?

    Excercise doesn’t really fit in too well either- it’s kind of analogous to a side income but while you can get rich without a side income can you really be very healthy with no excercise?

    There also isn’t any way to store or borrow diet and excercise- if there were fitness products would be really amazing!

    Finally, how do you get compound dieting? If I could figure that one out I would never have to worry about money again!

    -Rick Francis

  • By CN, September 14, 2009 @ 4:43 pm

    I totally agree with you. After a couple years of working hard at the frugality front (small fixes) it is now clear to me that what is required is more income (a big fix.) Getting rid of the moral baggage that prescribes being frugal and poor to become wealthy is not as easy as it should be. Some good healthy greed is necessary in my life.

  • By gpr, September 15, 2009 @ 5:37 pm

    Here are the titles and complete text for my not-so-best-selling books on diet and finances:

    HOW TO LOSE WEIGHT: Eat less. Exercise more.
    HOW TO SAVE MONEY: Make More. Spend less.

    My agent says I need to beef them up a bit. Develop a metaphor. Tie them in with being green. I prefer minimalist.

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