Growing up, Costco’s grocery inventory dictated my family’s food intake. In college and into adulthood, convenience took over; Bagel Bites, Hot Pockets, and Lean Cuisine – anything that didn’t involve more than 5 minutes of prep, and bonus points if no dishes were dirtied in the process. As I became more concerned with physical health, I started counting my protein and carb intake. Eventually, in more recent years, I’ve begun cooking for myself and learning how my food reflects the land and people that grew it.

Food is a powerful thing. We prepare, consume, and hopefully enjoy it every day. Yet, while many people have thoughtful relationships with food, our relationship to money - for a litany of valid reasons - often gets stuck.

Think about the different ways we talk about money as a society. At the most basic level, there’s “financial literacy”: What are the different types of bank accounts you should have? What does the compounding nature of interest mean for your long-term plan? Can you make and follow a budget? If it were food, this would be the equivalent of understanding the difference in flavor between Granny Smith and McIntosh apples, or learning how to boil pasta.

One level beyond literacy is shaped by the growing number of public voices - think Dave Ramsey, Suze Orman, or Ramit Sethi - that discuss productive financial habits. They emphasize spending within one’s means, paying down debt, and making long-term investments that generate passive income. These (often very helpful) learnings represent the financial equivalent of dieting - prescriptive methods for achieving a specific goal.

But these goals stop short of considering a more holistic version of wellness. If financial plans are equivalent to dieting, how did we fall out of shape in the first place? Once we’re fit, what will we do next?

These questions drive at a deeper type of financial wellness - a sense of alignment that goes further than any budget or specific salary or savings account balance. Wellness necessitates a deeper level of reflection, and often involves grappling with questions like “How did your parents use their money?” and “When you’re afraid or uncertain, how does that play out financially?”

Distinct from financial dieting, wellness goes further than treating ourselves or having a “cheat day”. It’s about a sense of empowerment, where money becomes a tool in the pursuit of our deepest non-financial goals. One “money coach” (a newer more holistic type of financial advisor) described their clients’ unique journey towards wellness:

“I had a couple as a client, and as kids neither of them had much money. They weren’t born in the U.S., and they grew up with another cultural experience. So for them, going out to dinner was so important and fun and valuable...When they approached me, they said, ‘We spend a lot of money on going out…[and] we assume we shouldn’t. They say it’s the biggest money suck.’

But we started working on their emotional stuff – their communication, their finances, their values. I don’t use a prescriptive approach, so I said, ’Look. If you want to go out to dinner, that’s great. Here’s your assignment for the week. Explore what it means to you to be able to go out to dinner, and why it has that meaning.’

And when they did that, they [realized] that when they were growing up, it was such a treat. It gave them so much joy. They came back to our next session, and said, ‘You know…We thought about it. We just really love going out to eat, and we’re going to keep doing it. And we might even increase our budget for doing it.’ And I was like, ‘Amazing! Go for it.’

So for them, empowerment meant just being intentional – not going to that crappy place on the corner that [they] don’t really like just because [they] didn’t want to heat something up at home. If they’re going to eat out, they try to make sure it’s a place they know they really love.”

When it comes to food, this type of reflection may be more familiar. It’s second nature to evaluate how a dish looks, tastes, and will make us feel. We share food with friends and make a ritual out of acquiring and preparing it. We have an opportunity to treat money the same way - as a means to explore and engage with other people, our environment, and our values.

As Professor Jacob Needleman writes:

“There are things we need to do which are totally untouched by money, but in order to do them, we need money! We need to have money in order to engage in the kind of spiritual search and the kind of activities that money can’t buy.”

What if we thought about money more like we thought about food - as something with the potential to bring us closer to people, our environment, and ultimately ourselves?

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Photography: Christina Johantgen