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Health and wealth a good combo

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Fast pay for fast food
So what causes Americans to overeat and overspend? It's not that we're pigs by nature. We live in the land of opportunity, and in recent years we've been given more opportunities to get fatter and deeper in debt.

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"Ten to 15 years ago, you couldn't have used a credit card in a fast food place or even a supermarket," says O'Neill. In the fast-food scenario, to keep the line moving, you're often not required to sign a receipt but just swipe the card, she adds, resulting in fast payment for fast food. "So you've got the intersection of the fast food nation and the credit card nation right in one transaction, and you could be paying for those hamburgers 15 years down the line."

You could be paying for those hamburgers in more ways than one. But the book is not about shaming Americans into action. It's about helping them realize that taking even small steps can make a tremendous difference in their well-being.

In most cases, we got into trouble from taking small steps. For instance, O'Neill says, it's easy, if you don't count calories, to ingest an extra 100 calories a day.

Drink a soda pop. Eat a couple cookies. Do it every day while exercising only your remote control and you gain 10 pounds in a year. The same goes for small transactions with a credit card that add up over time.

"It may take five or six years, but people can put on 50 to 60 pounds and really go into debt," she says.

But that cuts both ways. Small actions such as shaving 100 calories a day will help you lose 10 pounds in a year. Making more than a minimum payment will help eradicate debt more quickly. And saving a small amount, even $5 a day, can add up to significant savings over time.

For instance, if you quit a pack-and-a-half-a-day smoking habit and instead put the equivalent of $5 a day into a mutual fund earning 8 percent and you do this for 20 years, you'll end up with $83,516. If you do it from the time you're 18 until you retire at age 67, you can end up with $967,876 -- or close to that seemingly unattainable million-dollar amount. (A 9 percent return easily hurls you over the million-dollar mark.)

 
 
Next: "Will people be healthy enough to work longer?"
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