My doctor told me to lose weight. . I lost 10 lb. . I gained 10 lb. I've said those words to my editor Ann all too often over the last two years. Last month when I proudly announced that I'd bought new walking shoes to replace my old Nike Airs and had lost a bit of weight since my annual checkup, she said that was good news, but that I was fighting the wrong battle. Huh?
Ann has been my editor since I joined Casey Research. She and I share an easy rapport, so I had no problem digesting (pun intended) her comments on my dieting misadventures. Monitoring my health might not be Ann's highest calling. She's a member of the New York Bar, and we'd already planned to push her out from behind the curtain to write on legal topics near and dear to our readers. After our recent exchange, however, I insisted this letter be her first guest spot.
A Retirement Guru Eats Broccoli. Maybe
By Ann Coxon
Don't worry. I'm not going to recommend only eating purple foods while standing on your head and singing the "Hokey Pokey." Maintaining or regaining your health in your golden years is much simpler than that, and it brings an added bonus: more money.
After quietly listening to Dennis speak about his dieting disasters, I finally risked overstepping professional bounds and told him why he wasn't having any long-term success and what he could do about it. Instead of taking offense like I feared, he thanked me and all but demanded I share my little health rant with you because so many of his friends and peers share the same struggle. If you don't fall in that category, good for you!
Now, about that money. For Americans age 65 and older, the mean annual expenditure for drugs is $798; for medical services, $935; for medical supplies, $200; and for health insurance, $3,186. That's a lot of cash, especially when you consider that the mean after-tax income for this age group is $43,969, according to our friends at the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
Now, here's the truly astonishing part: This same group spends a mere $452 on fresh fruits and vegetables. Put another way: Seniors are spending $346 more on drugs each year than they are on fresh, green goodness. Talk about a misallocation of resources!
Some of you are likely thinking, "But I need those drugs to control my blood pressure, or arthritis, or type 2 diabetes." Just name your ailment. Frankly, you'd probably be right-at least, in the here and now. I'm not a doctor, nor do I play one on television. But we all know these lifestyle diseases are largely preventable and sometimes reversible with diet, exercise, and stress reduction.
It's hard to see the big picture, however, when many or most of your friends and neighbors suffer from similar diseases of civilization. It just seems normal to hand over your hard-earned dollars to Pfizer, Merck, AstraZeneca, etc.
Don't get me wrong. Pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies do amazing things. We've even recommended one in the Miller's Money Forever portfolio. If I ever need a life-saving drug developed on the back of Lipitor profits, I will quietly thank my lucky stars that Americans stubbornly refused to give up their three cheeseburgers per week habit.
Nevertheless, there is a better place to put that $798: your brokerage account. Of course, you may need to redirect some of it to your green grocer first.
Turning Medical Costs into Profits
Some health costs are unavoidable. You can chalk the $3,186 spent on health insurance up to the cost of living on planet Earth in 2014. But what if you could lessen or even eliminate the other costs? Could that make a real impact on your financial well-being? The short answer is: yes!
For most, medical costs in the decades leading up to retirement are far lower than they'll be throughout their golden years. From age 25 through 64, the annual mean drug expenditure averages out to $456.75; medical services, $836.75; and medical supplies, $131.75. That's $1,425.25, year in and year out.
Our chief analyst, Andrey Dashkov whipped up a chart showing the additional funds a hypothetical health nut would have on his 65th birthday if he saved and invested that $1,425.25 each year from age 25, at a modest 5% return (the green line).
It's an ambitious goal. Even the most diligent among us get bumps, bruises, and the occasional bout of influenza, in addition to any genetically unavoidable ills specific to our individual blueprints. So Andrey ran the numbers a second time assuming our health nut only saved 50% of those costs over the same time period (the yellow line).
The verdict: saving 100% gave our guy $172,170 to play with during retirement; saving 50% gave him an additional $86,085.
OK, you get it. We all agree that more money and better health are good things. So why did I tell Dennis he was fighting the wrong battle?
Finding Lettuce in Texas
In the United States circa 2014, both the type of foods and how they are eaten make it practically impossible for people to not get fat and stay fat; and we all know that diet, exercise, and weight are directly linked to those diseases of civilization mentioned earlier.
The most common reasons I've heard for not eating whole, healthy foods, other than "nachos just taste better," are: they're too expensive; or, they're simply unavailable. To the former, I say: Pay now in food costs or pay later in medical bills and a lowered quality of life. To the latter: High-quality food is difficult to find in many parts of the country, but it is not impossible.
Having spent the bulk of my life in northern California, I didn't have to look far for first-rate fruits and vegetables until moving to a certain state in the Midwest. (I won't name names. Let's just say this place is awfully proud of its cheese.)
So, to make sure I didn't completely stick my foot in my mouth, I looked for supermarket alternatives in Corpus Christi, Texas, commonly billed as "America's fattest city." I was curious to know if Corpus Christi had any farm-share programs similar to the one I use.
For $35 per month, Corpus Christi residents can pick up a full basket of seasonal fruits and vegetables biweekly at the Southside Farmers Market, or so I'd read. I called up the farm's proprietor, Rey, who said he'd had to discontinue the farm-share program this year because of what amounted to a lack of demand. He'd had to give away too much un-purchased produce to local homeless shelters for the program to remain profitable.
Locals can, however, still buy Rey's produce and that of 15 other farmers at the Wednesday and Saturday markets. In short, there is lettuce to be found in Corpus Christi, but folks down there aren't buying much of it.
You Can Opt Out
"Franken-food" manufacturers and the ever-growing diet industry make dollar after dollar from a chronically overweight and sick population. Here at Miller's Money we are as pro free market as they come, and I support us all having the choice to spend life feeling crummy, to buy diet books, powders, and potions to lose weight, and then to spend retirement paying big bucks to treat preventable ailments. But why not keep that money for yourself? You earned it.
To make matters worse, federal agricultural subsidies have helped make cheap-but-empty calories so cheap that "poor" increasingly means "obese-but-malnourished."
Where does that leave Americans? Overweight, chronically ill, and struggling.
So, here was my prescription for Dennis: Opt out of the modern American diet. These guidelines aren't always easy to follow. Truth be told, I spent two solid minutes at the market last night pondering the wisdom of buying a pint of banana chocolate ice cream for dinner in lieu of the salmon I actually purchased.
Some of these mantras are borrowed, and some I've learned through trial and error. No broccoli is required, since Dennis hates it.
Sit down at a table and eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner-nothing more and nothing less. A car is not a table. A couch is not a table. A desk is not a table.
Oh! And turn off the television, or your electronic distraction of choice, during every meal. A bit of conversation, or music if you're dining solo, will slow you down before a casual meal turns into a feast fit for Emperor Caligula.
Don't eat seconds. Another meal will come your way, and you will not starve to death waiting for it.
Never eat commercially processed food. Just don't do it. What does "processed" mean? Look at the back of your milk carton. Does it say "Vitamin A palmitate and/or Vitamin D"? If so, it's commercially processed in my book.
There is simply no way to eat enough commercially manipulated food to feel satiated without consuming excess calories. Too many people are fighting this losing battle; they may have minor successes along the way, but they will likely be short-lived. So put down the Lean Cuisine and master or re-master the art of simple home cooking.
Eat vegetables with every meal, even breakfast. Ketchup is not a vegetable.
Dessert is like alcohol; have a little with friends, but never alone. The implicit social pressure to not eat a half gallon of ice cream is enough to keep most people in check, but it's pretty easy to curl up with a dozen cookies when no one is looking. No judgment; we've all done it.
Never drink soda, including diet soda. Although artificial sweeteners contain no calories, they trick your endocrine system into thinking you've consumed real sugar, triggering an uptick in insulin and ghrelin, a key hunger-regulating hormone. So say "goodbye" to Diet Pepsi and "hello" to club soda and unsweetened iced tea.
Eat the full-fat version, not the artificially low-fat or non-fat substitute. Less of the real thing is always more satiating than more of the fake stuff. Who wants to live in a world without real butter and bacon? Not I!
Break a sweat every day, even on Sundays. You don't have to join a fancy gym. Your local YMCA likely has classes geared toward seniors so you don't end up in aerial yoga next to a 25-year-old former New York City Ballet dancer. (Laugh away, but aerial yoga is a real thing and quite the rage among twenty-something urbanites of means. At $20 or so per class, think of how much they could be saving for retirement instead.)
Plus, if you're recently retired and missing office camaraderie, a group class is a no-brainer way to get out of the house every morning. Or just take a brisk walk; it costs nothing.
Eliminating processed foods is a difficult adjustment for many people. You might not know what else to eat. If that's the case you're not alone; there's communal amnesia about how to cook whole foods that taste, umm. tasty. It's a skill, but it's an easily learned skill.
Oh, and lest I forget, even if you like hotdogs, fast food, and pre-packaged anything now, our palates are malleable. Start eating whole foods and after awhile you'll want to eat them. You may feel like you're in the twilight zone for the first couple of weeks; just give it time. Even Dennis could eventually learn to like broccoli.
By all reports Dennis is following my advice, and his weight and blood pressure are dropping. I practically fainted when he told me he'd eaten beet greens with dinner.
I truly admire Dennis' willingness to abandon an approach to a problem that wasn't working. If you feel the same about your approach to retirement investing, or if it simply needs fine-tuning, take a gander at our premium publication, Miller's Money Forever by signing up here.