The Cost of Losing 30 Pounds

Photo credit: Wicker Paradise, CC BY 2.0.

As far as I can tell, there have been three times in my life when I have lost a total of 30 pounds. There have been other pounds lost over the years, in smaller increments: ten pounds here, twenty there. This most recent round is due to Weight Watchers and a mild winter that lends itself to long walks, and those walks have given me the chance to think about the worth of this, and about how much have I spent over the course of my lifetime to get healthy.

Because losing weight and money for me are inextricably linked. But that might not be entirely my fault. Billions of dollars every year are spent on people trying to lose weight. There is an industry that has long linked the pursuit of health with the ability to spend money on it. The Biggest Loser pays its winner $250,000 dollars for losing the highest percentage of weight. The show also pays its contestants for avoiding temptation; or, even worse, giving into it: $10,000 if you eat this cupcake; $20,000 if you down the whole pizza.

But even the systems that are set up to make people healthy equate weight loss with economic value. The ultimate goal in Weight Watchers, for example, is reaching Lifetime — the name they give to members who have successfully maintained their goal weight (plus or minus two pounds) for two months or more. The reward for reaching Lifetime? Free membership. Well, as long as you stay within that two-pound margin of error.

But there is no such thing as a free lunch, right? Even weight loss methods that seem less expensive in the short-term can have huge hidden costs. Starvation, for example, is deceptively expensive.

In college, I lost 30 pounds for the first time. I had spent all of high school restricting and counting calories and the method finally backfired by the time I was twenty. I don’t know how much weight I gained in college, because I refused to weigh myself, but I know that the only pants I could fit into by my junior year were sweatpants. So I stopped eating.

This form of weight loss was incredibly cheap. At first.

For three months I subsisted on one pack of cream caramels a day ($1) and as much Diet A&W as my heart desired ($3.98). The cumulative price of that weekly food bill ($34.86) is pennies compared to what I spend on groceries these days, and the gym membership came with the tuition my father paid annually for me. Not that I was exercising. The most I did over the course of that winter was to walk slowly to class in the snow and lie in my bed and watch Sex and the City.

Total cost to lose 30 pounds the first time: $458.16, unless you count the cost of the two years of therapy I went through to repair my relationship with food and my body, which I would argue you should, in which case the cost of this weight loss was actually $11,898.16.

The second time I lost 30 pounds, I was living in Florida and making $64,000 a year. Back then I spent almost all of my money on losing weight. Besides monthly trips to visit my friends back north and ridiculous shopping sprees at Boca Town Center that, thinking back now, make me want to drool and die a little at the same time. I was 22 and making my own money for the first time, and so, for an entire year, I spent it on weekly trips to Whole Foods ($80) and a membership to a fancy gym with really fancy people in it ($125). One day I walked by Andy Roddick without knowing it. A woman in my pilates class shook me by the shoulders when I walked in, having witnessed the whole exchange.

“Do you know who that was?” she asked.

Honestly, I still don’t.

On top of my gym membership I paid for a trainer that I saw three times a week ($267), a pilates instructor I worked with twice a week ($110), and took a reformer class once a week that of course cost extra ($20). I also ate dinner out every night, stopping on my way home from the gym to load up a black plastic dish with iceberg lettuce, a hard boiled egg, black olives, and ranch dressing ($12.99), and I let my trainer convince me that I needed to take a test to determine my RMR ($202) and use a heart rate monitor to better track my fat burn ($99).

The test, by the way, determined that my metabolism sucked, which was surprising to no one.

Total cost to lose 30 pounds the second time: $31,352.35

I actually kept the weight off for a while. I moved to Maryland and joined a Gold’s Gym ($19.99) where I took group fitness classes every night. I made a great group of friends. I met an amazing man.

And then I did something drastic: After three years in Maryland and as many years of maintaining my weight, I quit my cushy job. I moved to New Hampshire to go to grad school and began to panic about money and gain weight in equal measure.

I had no money for food, let alone gym memberships; no money for gas, let alone a Fitbit. I cancelled my cable. I couldn’t even afford Netflix. I spent an entire week with nothing in my refrigerator but a Pyrex of steamed rice and a bag of frozen peas.

Things I accumulated during that time in my life: two master’s degrees, a new group of friends, $46,364 in debt, and 42 pounds.

I graduated a year ago, and losing 30 pounds this time cost me money, too. This time I chose Weight Watchers in part because I knew that counting calories did screwy things to my disordered relationship with food and because I respond well to peer pressure. External accountability — a trainer, friends who also work out every night with you — has always worked well for me.

It’s taken me seven months to lose 30 pounds this time, and these days I budget for my monthly membership ($44.95) and make up for it in other ways. I’m a writer now, and so my take home is both modest and variable. I don’t belong to a gym, but I did buy Stabilicers ($39.99) to make winter walking doable. Occasionally I attend a weekly Body Step class and have to pay the drop-in rate as a non-member ($8), and then there’s the post-weigh-in Starbucks that has become a Saturday morning ritual ($3.81). There’s also the Chipotle burrito bowl and large Diet Coke after weigh-in ($13.69), and my weekly grocery trip that keeps me and my boyfriend well-fed ($130 on average).

Some people have to calculate the cost of new clothes into the price of losing weight, but because I have been at this weight before — and for most of my adult life — losing 30 pounds has landed me squarely back in the clothes that I haven’t been able to wear for years. The biggest expense these days has been in skincare, because I’m convinced that I’m either starting to look my age or losing weight is making me look older, my skin once bolstered by excess fat now sagging. I find new wrinkles every day and spent a small fortune on a nighttime moisturizing routine ($236.50) that I rarely follow.

I also go to therapy weekly, because losing weight is about so much more than the food that I eat or the number of steps my Fitbit tells me I’ve taken, but that’s free thanks to new healthcare regulations and President Obama ($0). I don’t even pay a copay.

Total cost of losing 30 pounds the third time: $4,618.61

Trust me, the causal relationship between money and my weight is not lost on me. I see how money (having it and not having it) has directly impacted my health, and how money (having it and not having it) has directly impacted our nation’s health. But there is also something to say about health and privilege. It is a privilege to be able to be afford to be healthy. Having had money and not had money, it’s clear to me that health does have a cost. It is not free. One needs, at the very least, time to exercise, money to buy food. The times in my life when I have been able to lose weight have been the times in my life when I could afford to lose weight.

But losing weight hasn’t always equaled being healthy, either. That for me has come from the constant trying to balance the things that I know I need in my life to take care of myself: a career, relationships, physical well-being, and, well, money. When one tips sideways or dips down to the floor, I can feel the others start to overcompensate, to be pulled down with it. Today, half of my income comes from freelance work, so I have slow months. I have times when I feel so anxious about money that I order a large Wisconsin 6-Cheese from Domino’s just to numb out for a night. I still stress about money. I still binge. For me, health and wealth are inextricably linked in this way — food and money, fulfillment and feeling like I have enough — but I keep trying for balance. To not try, I know, will cost me more in the long run.

Emily Lackey is a writer living in Massachusetts, and, yes, she knows guacamole is extra. Follow her weight loss journey on Instagram: @emilyeatsanddrinks

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