How I stay healthy on a budget

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How I stay healthy on a budget

Like 40 million other Americans, I have my fair share of student loan debt. I also have an auto loan, a personal loan and other monthly expenses like rent and car insurance. So, I'm on a budget.

But even as I scrimp and save money, I leave room in my budget for my health. Sure, it might be cheaper to eat ramen and cancel my gym membership while I pay down debt, but cutting corners at the expense of my health could cost me a lot more in the long term.

Here, I'll break down the potential costs associated with poor health, and share some budget-conscious ways to stay healthy.

Poor health is expensive.

Poor diet, inactivity, sleep deprivation and stress are risk factors for chronic diseases such as heart disease, stroke, obesity and diabetes -- all of which can lead to expensive medical bills.

  • Chronic conditions account for 86 percent of U.S. health care costs. Chronic conditions also incur ongoing expenses such as prescription drugs and health insurance deductibles and copays.
  • Someone who is obese spends an average of $2,741 more on annual medical spending than someone who maintains a healthy weight.
  • Mounting medical bills can lead to stress that can worsen chronic conditions.
  • Medical debt contributed to 62 percent of all bankruptcies in 2007, according to a study from The American Journal of Medicine.

Taking care of your health can reduce the likelihood you'll have high medical bills or you'll miss work due to illness.

Consider these tips to help you maintain a healthy lifestyle on a budget (no ramen necessary).

1. Choose cost-effective whole foods.

Processed foods are cheap sources of calories, but they lack essential nutrients. When you think about the potential long-term costs to your health, are cheap, processed foods actually any less expensive than whole foods? Nutritious meals may take more planning and preparation, but you can still eat well on a budget.

Here are some budget-friendly tips for healthier eating:

  • Before you go to the grocery store, plan your meals for the week and buy only the ingredients you need. Not sure where to start? Check out ChooseMyPlate.gov for meal-planning tips.
  • Eggs are the best bang for your buck. They're an inexpensive, high-quality source of protein and fat.
  • Oats, rice and dried beans are cheap and versatile complex carbohydrates. Buying them in bulk can help you save money.
  • Peanut butter is a delicious fat source, but the inexpensive commercial varieties typically contain trans fats and added sugar. For an affordable, healthier alternative, buy raw peanuts in bulk and make your own peanut butter.
  • For fruits and veggies, frozen may be the way to go. You waste a lot of food and money if you don't eat fresh produce within a few days of buying it. In fact, U.S. households throw out $640 worth of food per year. But you don't have to eat all-frozen, all the time. Consider buying fresh on a seasonal basis. For example, buy fresh strawberries and blueberries in summer, when they're often cheaper than frozen. You could also freeze them yourself.
  • Skip the soda, juice and bottled water. Tap water is free, and your body needs it for optimal health. For something more flavorful, jazz up a glass of water with some fresh citrus or mint leaves.
  • Shop around! You can find deals at farmers markets, discount grocery stores and wholesale stores.
  • Double the recipes when you cook. You could eat the leftovers over the next few days, or freeze them for a later time. Having meals ready to go makes it harder to justify the drive-thru or snacking on junk food.

2. Exercise even if you cancel the gym.

I'm into weightlifting, so I choose to keep a gym membership over other leisure expenses like dining out or going to the movies. But if the gym really isn't your thing, don't feel bad about giving up your membership. Strength and resistance training can be done using your own body weight.

You can download free apps like the 500 Bodyweight Challenge and BodyWeight Workout for exercise tutorials and guided workouts.

In general, aim to move your body at least 30 minutes a day. You could go for a run, take a bike ride or stretch. Even simple things like walking, taking the stairs and standing help keep you active. If you sit at a desk all day, you could ask your employer for a standing workstation.

3. Get more sleep.

Sleep is essential for good health, but many of us don't get the recommended seven to nine hours to feel sufficiently rested. Sleep deprivation is linked to obesity, heart disease, diabetes, depression and other conditions. Here are tips for better quality sleep:

  • Establish a consistent sleep and waking time, even on weekends. Don't sleep in just because you have a day off; your body needs routine.
  • Turn off screens at least 30 minutes before bedtime. Studies show that smartphones, tablets, laptops and even television screens interrupt our sleep cycle.

4. Keep a journal to manage stress.

Journaling can help you manage stress and focus on what's most important to you. It's a place to sort your thoughts and emotions and express yourself.

Journaling can have physical health benefits, too. Studies have shown it can boost your immune system, reduce blood pressure and improve your sleep.

A spiral notebook is all you need to start, and it costs less than a dollar.

Bottom line: You're worth it!

Even if you're on a budget, investing in your health is as important as - if not more important than -investing in your education or retirement. Investing in prevention today can help you reduce the possibility of medical expenses tomorrow.

About the author:

Carrie Deakin is a copywriter at Credit Karma. When she's not wordsmithing, you'll find her in the weight room, on the balance beam or at a baseball game.

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