Priotizing your health when money is tight

We all go through times when we’re worried about money. Whether it’s a downturn in the nation’s economy or an unexpected rough patch in our personal finances, most women at some point experience the stress — sometimes extreme stress — of finding that their expenses are greater than their income, or that their hard-earned savings have shrunken during a financial decline. We often remind our patients that tough times are exactly when it’s most important for them to remain mindful of nutrition, exercise, and the signals their bodies send every day — all the ingredients for maintaining good health.

Many of our patients feel stuck between the proverbial “rock and a hard place” when it comes to health care costs. “I can’t afford to be sick!” is a half-joking complaint we hear from some patients. Sometimes there’s an undertone of suppressed panic that lets us know what she really means: My insurance won’t cover the cost of this visit, or the test you’ve ordered, or the prescription you just wrote for me — I don’t know how I’m going to pay for it all. When these feelings of panic take hold, many women cut back on health care, or even avoid it altogether — they skip their periodic check-ups, don’t fill prescriptions they may need but can’t afford, or downplay symptoms until they become too severe to ignore. Yet study after study has shown that the longer we put off addressing health issues, the greater the amount of intervention (and expense) needed to correct them.

We know it’s often difficult to take a deep breath and step back for perspective when you’re in the middle of a financial crisis. The good news is that although health is a genuinely priceless commodity, maintaining it doesn’t have to be a financial burden. There are many ways to preserve and improve your health on a budget, as well as methods for conserving resources when you’re sick — it just takes a little planning, forethought, and most of all prioritizing. So let’s look at some money-saving tips you can use to keep yourself healthy without breaking the bank.
Prevention – the best way to reduce healthcare costs

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” is not just an old saying — it’s a recipe for health, especially when resources are limited. And preventive care is something that we all can do without too much trouble or expense. When given the right support, our bodies will naturally tend toward a state of health.

What women often don’t realize when they’re frightened about finances is that cutting corners on healthcare actually worsens their economic picture. Without the care you need (and deserve), you’re more susceptible to illness, which costs you time at your job or interferes with your ability to do your job well. Or your illness becomes harder to treat once you finally do go to your practitioner — which ends up costing still more time and money. And when it comes to an acute illness, like a stroke or heart attack, putting off appropriate care is downright life-threatening!

Ultimately, our health is a sound investment. When we take steps to prevent illness and promote our overall well-being, we not only feel physically better, but it improves our outlook even when we have tremendous pressures and worries. If you know you’re healthy because you make your health a priority, you’ll have confidence in your body — and this can help you stay grounded and reduce stress, which supports your health still more.

There are so many ways we can build this strong foundation without too much expense. Let’s look at some simple methods for supporting our health.

Make your grocery budget support your health as well. Even though costs are rising, food is still the least expensive form of medicine there is. And since you have to buy food anyway, why not choose foods that promote health rather than detract from it? Your grocery budget can do double-duty as a health maintenance fund if you make a conscious commitment to buy only foods that support health.

Here are some tips on what to look for — and what to avoid.

* Buy organic if you can — but if you can’t, at least try for fresh, whole foods as much as possible. While these products are a little bit more expensive, consider the cascade of benefits they create for your health. With these foods, it’s often what’s not in them that makes the difference.

* Buy a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables — they’re packed with nutrients and fiber and can tamp down hunger pangs. If you can’t afford fresh produce, head to the freezer aisle and choose brands with the fewest — or no — added ingredients. Many nutritionists think frozen produce can be as good for you as fresh.

* Buy in bulk, watch the flyers for what’s on sale, cook in large quantities, and freeze pre-made meals so you’re eating healthy, home-cooked frozen foods rather than paying for the packaging that accompanies prepared frozen meals (most of which are loaded with unnecessary salt, sugar, artificial colors, and preservatives anyway). This is a great opportunity to turn food preparation into a family affair. Set aside a time for the whole family to get together to make meals and freeze them for the week or month ahead. It saves time and money and brings everyone into the process, including kids and spouses. After all, everyone eats — and turning mealtime into a fun, family-oriented event can release stress and make you healthier!

* Stay away from processed foods as much as possible — though some of these might be cheaper at the checkout, they cost you more in terms of health. Stick to the outer aisles of the store to avoid temptation, since most of the highly processed foods and junk food, like chips, candy, and soda, are usually found in the middle while the fresh, whole foods are usually located around the perimeter of the store.

* Go spice shopping. Spices add color and flavor to your food, and many have medicinal properties in the right amounts. Garlic, for example, lowers blood pressure and acts as a blood thinner; ginger and turmeric are natural anti-inflammatories; and hot peppers contain a compound called capsaicin that has been found to lower cholesterol and triglycerides, enhance immunity, and soothe pain associated with shingles and arthritis. Although some spices are expensive, they tend to last a long time and they have the added bonus of brightening up everyday meals. And it’s a little-known fact that you can buy spices you don’t use often in packages smaller than those found on the shelf for much lower cost — you just need to ask for them.

* Drink filtered tap water and sun tea instead of bottled beverages — you’ll save money because you won’t be paying for the bottles, and you’ll get the health effects of better hydration without all the sugar and chemical additives that go with many bottled drinks. Or, if you must have bubbles, drink seltzer with a little lemon or lime juice in place of soda. We suggest using a Brita jug for filtered water because it’s less expensive than most tap filters.

* Make your own sweets. Treats taste better when they are homemade and they don’t contain unfriendly, processed ingredients. Plus, if you make rather than buy your treats, you won’t be able to just grab a handful of cookies off the shelf on impulse — you’ll really have to want a treat if you are willing to take the time to make it from scratch.

Remember your Mom’s advice about sleep and hygiene. Mothers are always reminding their children to go to bed at a reasonable hour, wash their hands, and brush their teeth — even when the “child” is a full-grown adult. And of course, they’re right. All of these practices support wellness no matter what our age. As adults, we may disregard Mom’s advice when we’re pressed for time or have too much on our minds to worry about these “little” things.

But there are good reasons why we should reconsider:

* Sleep helps us shed the day’s stresses and restore energy. At the same time, our body’s systems are detoxifying and repairing the damage of day-to-day life. Without seven to eight hours nightly, there is a buildup of the toxins and damage that our sleep cycle would ordinarily address — and that will contribute to a breakdown in health in the long run. One of the best ways to get adequate and refreshing sleep is to routinely go to bed at a reasonable hour — early enough that you’ll get about eight hours even if you don’t fall asleep right away. For more tips on good sleep hygiene, see our article on women’s health myths. If you have trouble falling or staying asleep, our article on insomnia offers some additional guidance.

* Washing your hands regularly and practicing good general hygiene can greatly reduce the transmission of communicable diseases. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that “keeping your hands clean is one of the best ways to keep from getting sick and spreading illnesses.” The more people you come into contact with on a regular basis, the more important this advice becomes. But this does not mean you need to use antibacterial soaps or carry “waterless” hand hygiene products in your purse to stay well. Unless you are working in a high-risk setting (such as a hospital or a school), periodically rubbing your hands together under warm running water with a bit of old-fashioned soap throughout the day will get them clean enough. (It also greatly helps to avoid touching your eyes or nose with your hands.)

* Brushing and flossing regularly doesn’t just prevent cavities, gum disease, and bad breath, recent studies show a connection between good oral hygiene and reduced risk for heart disease. Bacteria in the mouth can be a starting point for infection and inflammation that leads to atherosclerosis, which ultimately increases the chance of heart attacks and strokes. So the more you do to care for your teeth and gums, the better your chances of avoiding these effects — and it just feels pleasant to have squeaky clean teeth!

Take time for yourself. Our physical health is so closely tied to our emotional well-being that simply paying attention to how we’re feeling is one of the best preventive measures we can take. Getting a handle on stress is all the more important when we’re trying to be healthy in difficult times. We frequently tell our patients to take a deep breath and remind themselves that “this too shall pass.” Take time to recognize the blessings in life even when the world around us seems to be permanently in crisis. Our fears often color the way we see our world, so stop for a moment to put things in perspective. Often we find that our lives really aren’t as bad as we feared. If we keep that in mind, we can choose to live without fear — and that’s a big part of what keeps us healthy.

And along with eliminating fear, let’s get rid of guilt! Many women put their own health last after that of their children and spouse — but there are good reasons why women should consider their health at least as important as their family’s health, if not more important. We’ve all seen the video on airplanes that reminds us to put the oxygen mask over our own faces before assisting our children — the (unstated) lesson is that if you put your child’s needs ahead of yours, you may succumb to the lack of oxygen and leave the child helpless and alone, whereas seeing to your own needs first enables you to better help the child. This lesson also applies to your health in everyday life — if you become sick because you downplay your health needs, you’ll have a harder time seeing to the needs of your family. The bottom line is that we don’t have to feel guilty when we take care of ourselves, because in supporting our own health, we support our family’s well-being too.

Do the math — it pays to kick a bad habit. When we are under stress or consumed with worry, we may cling even more tightly to bad habits because we have gotten used to the quick comfort we think they provide. But kicking a bad habit has a double pay-off: not only does it improve your health, it saves money because you stop buying the soda, cigarettes, alcohol, or junk food your body doesn’t want or need.

You may be surprised how much you spend on these things, so do the calculation. Even something that seems as innocuous as one 20-ounce bottle of cola every day can cost between $1.50 to $2.00 — which doesn’t seem like much until you multiply it by 365 days in a year. That’s when you realize you’re spending more than $500 a year on cola, and that’s just what comes out of your wallet — it doesn’t scratch the surface of all the “hidden” health-related costs associated with your habit! Insulin resistance, poor dental health, bone and muscle weakness, stomach discomfort — the sugars and acids in soda can contribute to any or all of these, so switching to water or tea could save you money you’d otherwise pay to your practitioner to help you feel better.

Coffee, cigarettes, candy, junk food, and alcohol are expensive not only in terms of money, but in terms of what they can do to your health. Most of us know how hard it is to break the hold these habits have, but we can start by just noticing our patterns of use. The “observation” stage usually leads to accepting the reality of the time and money you spend, and is often followed by the “action” stage: the desire to make a conscious effort to end or cut back on such habits. You’ll save a bundle, and improve your nerves, digestion, immune system, cardiovascular health, bones, and muscle strength, too. (For more tips on how to change health habits, see our article on making life changes.)

Don’t skip your multivitamin. A lot of people look at a daily multivitamin as an added expense, but the truth is it’s an essential component to health maintenance. Just as your car won’t run if you don’t keep putting gas and oil into it, your body depends on continuous supplies of nutrients to keep functioning properly. When we are deficient in key vitamins and minerals, we quickly “run out of gas” — we feel fatigued and weak, and we’re more likely to get sick.

Poor nutrition sets us up for a host of chronic health problems, such as heart disease, cancer, obesity, diabetes, depression, metabolic and digestive disorders (including heartburn and acid reflux), rheumatoid arthritis, fibroids, and osteoporosis, among others. It also lowers our resistance to communicable diseases because our immune system is so busy attending to the consequences of our poor diet, it may not have the resources to take on an invading microbe.

Most of us don’t get all we need from our food — particularly when we’re under stress and eating poorly — so a multivitamin is a cost-effective safety net that gives support to your body when you’re under stress, as so many of us are during times of financial trouble.
We often urge our patients to get enough of important disease-preventing nutrients, especially the following:

* B vitamins are important during stressful times, because they counteract the corrosive effects of cortisol.

* Antioxidants such as vitamins A, C, E, and beta-carotene support the immune response, which helps us fight off infections and inflammatory conditions. They also prevent our cells from being damaged by free radicals — a factor in many chronic diseases, including cancer, Parkinson’s, and atherosclerosis.

* Omega-3 fatty acids act as natural anti-inflammatories, and may help prevent a host of inflammatory diseases. They also boost mood, memory, and emotional well-being — a very important effect when financial concerns put us under pressure.

* Vitamin D is a key component to overall health as it promotes normal cell growth and tissue renewal in many different body systems. It is also particularly important in the synthesis of neurotransmitters, helping us to avoid the depression and anxiety that can compound our stress. When we’re deficient in this vitamin, we’re prone to low energy and fatigue, decreased immunity, mood swings, and sleep disruptions, all of which contribute to even greater stress. While it’s the least expensive nutrient of them all — our skin makes it when exposed to sunlight — many people don’t get enough sun exposure to make all they need, particularly in winter months.

In so many ways, these nutrients are key factors that protect us from disease — and when you compare the cost of taking vitamins to support health with the cost of recovering from illnesses brought on by poor nutrition, it’s clear that the vitamins are hands-down cheaper. For about the price of a large coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts, you can provide your body with the daily support it needs via a good nutritional supplement!

Rethink your “necessities” and scrimp in health-promoting ways. There are a lot of little lifestyle changes that can both improve your health and free up your budget. Some of these suggestions may seem radical, but once you get used to them, you’ll wonder why you ever did it any other way.

* If you have multiple TV’s in your household, think about reducing it to one. It encourages family togetherness as you all gather to watch the same show and will save money too. Then consider scheduling times to unplug the TV and VCR altogether, and shut off your computer at least two hours before you go to bed. These may be tough steps, but are well worth the effort, because when you find yourself without any screens to stare at, you’ll be prodded towards more health-promoting, relaxing activities like going for walks, playing with your children, reading a book, or even having sex! And you’ll find very quickly that your electricity bills are reduced dramatically — we never realize just how much energy (and money) we spend on operating electronic entertainment until we turn them off for a while. (If you’re wondering why we say “unplug” rather than “turn off,” it’s because a lot of electronic devices use power even when turned off — so unplugging is the best way to eliminate extra electricity costs.)

* Try going to bed an hour earlier than usual — again, turning the lights out for an extra hour will save on electricity (and heat, if you turn down the thermostat in winter), and the extra hour of sleep will make you healthier.

* Stress reduction through exercise, meditation, or yoga can improve your health markedly — and if you get into the habit of doing it at home, it’s free! (“Unplugging” can help you find time to incorporate more stress relief into your daily routine). If you need guidance for these activities, you can often find exercise or meditation books or videos at the library, or at yard sales for little or no money. You can also cut out the cost of a health club membership by buying used equipment from yard sales or moving sales — you can often find good, barely used exercise bikes, treadmills or weights at great prices.

* Another form of stress reduction takes even less time, effort, and money — you need only lift one finger and turn off the news! Sometimes, “staying informed” doesn’t do anything but stress you out. You may just need to limit your exposure or embark on a temporary “news fast” so you feel less worried — and disconnecting from the world to focus on yourself and your family each evening can be almost like having a vacation. After a stressful day, if you can prevent your evening cortisol levels from staying high, you will sleep more soundly and your overall stress response and hormonal balance will be healthier.

* Home remedies for common colds and minor ailments can be far more economical and equally effective as many over-the-counter remedies — for example, sinus flushing, a neti pot, or steam for congestion, tea with honey and lemon for cough, gargling with hot salt water for sore throat, and herbal teas like chamomile to calm your mood, valerian for sleep, or peppermint to soothe minor stomach upset.

* Use chemical-free alternatives to common cleaning solutions. You can turn inexpensive products like vinegar, lemon juice, and baking soda into your own cleaning solutions that are environmentally friendly. They’re better for your health because you’re not being exposed to quite as many toxins, cheap to make, much more pleasant to smell — and effective!

* Plan ahead for the inevitable sick days we all have. Whether it’s back-up childcare or knowing how you’ll shift your budget around when you lose a day’s pay to illness, assessing the options ahead of time will calm your mind and give you one less thing to worry about when you’re not feeling well.

Abandon worry in favor of fun — and love. Making a conscious effort to limit the time you spend on worry and anxiety in favor of enjoyable pursuits can have a profound impact on your health. The upside to less disposable income is that we spend more time with our families and friends, indulging in simple but satisfying pleasures while making personal connections that offer us emotional support. Playing board games with the kids, watching DVD’s with the neighbors, or organizing magnificent potluck suppers at home are just a few ways we can make the most of our leisure time without spending very much. Even taking a little time each day to practice deep breathing, read a good book, or simply hug your child or cuddle a pet can give you long-lasting benefits, physical as well as emotional.

Don’t underestimate the influence of having a good attitude about health either. It’s important to believe you’ll stay healthy, because biologically, a strong belief system is vital to your well-being — but gambling with your health is not.

And if you do get sick, speak up about costs!

When you do get sick or need surgery or other medical care, you may hesitate to tell your practitioner that you’re concerned about costs — it’s only human nature. It may feel awkward, but take it from us — there’s no need to be embarrassed or ashamed if you have money woes, because you’ve got plenty of company!

We can tell you from experience that it’s very important that your healthcare providers be told up front that money is a consideration, because it helps us craft a plan of action for your specific diagnosis and treatment. We’ll always give you our best care, but maybe we’ll hold off on asking for an expensive test if we think that the results are unlikely to be positive — or if we are already 99% sure that the result will be positive, and the test is intended just for confirmation. We may also look for an effective alternative to an expensive new prescription drug that works better, but maybe not a lot better, than an older, less expensive generic or herbal treatment for the same problem.

Your practitioner may also know of programs designed to help patients meet costs, and direct you to them if he or she is aware that cost is a concern. Some hospitals and clinics also have case workers to help patients navigate insurance reimbursement, but again — unless you inform your practitioner or healthcare facility that you need these services, you won’t get them, so don’t be afraid to speak up. There are many resources to help people manage their finances when they’re sick, particularly if you’re faced with a chronic or long-term illness, and oftentimes your practitioner or a hospital caseworker can point you in the right direction. (See our article on managing the finances of illness for more information.)

And there’s another good reason to share your concerns: being open with your practitioner about financial worries may help you communicate more freely, especially about your health concerns. Sometimes if we hold back on one matter that worries us, we inadvertently hold back on others as well — so when your practitioner asks you about symptoms or health issues, you may withhold important information without really meaning to, which only complicates the job of diagnosing and treating your illness.

Health is not a luxury — it’s the foundation of true prosperity

The bottom line is that our health is the underpinning of everything we want in life, whether it’s happiness, love, family, a fulfilling work life, or financial security. When we don’t have health, all of these are harder to acquire and keep — and it’s certainly harder if not impossible to enjoy what we do have if we’re not healthy. We can’t do much to change the ups and downs of our nation’s and the world’s economy, but we don’t have let our fears lead us to compromise our well-being in the process. And we can make good choices for ourselves to maintain our health — financial as well as personal.