Credit card debt is stressful. Add a global pandemic, economic uncertainty, home-schooling, racial tension, and political chaos on top of that debt and it’s no wonder more Americans than ever report feelings of anxiety and depression.
During times of stress, we’re often encouraged to spend time and money on ourselves as a form of self-care. It’s even become synonymous in pop culture to “treat yo self,” a phrase popularized on Parks and Recreation. This attitude was all about splurging on luxury items, overindulging in everything you want, regardless if your budget allowed for it.
But this perception of self-care is flawed. True self-care does not take a lot of money to do because true self-care includes considering your finances. “The whole concept of self-care has really strayed from the original intent, and become a meme unto itself,” said Kathleen Dahlen deVos, a psychotherapist in San Francisco.
“When I talk with my clients about self-care, rarely am I encouraging practices and habits that cost money. In fact, spending excessive money or funds we don’t have In the name of ‘self-care’ can actually be distressing, destructive and work against our mental and emotional wellbeing.”
Types of Self-Care
When it comes to self-care there are four components to consider:
- Drink Water
- Declutter Your Home
- Declutter Your Office
- Set clear boundaries on your time and energy
- Surround yourself with positive people who motivate and inspire you
- Address issues and problems as they happen so the rage doesn’t build up inside of you
- Spend time with those you care about and who care about you
- Personal Development
- Professional Development
- Take time for personal reflection
- Cultivate Self-Awareness
- Notice Your Inner Experiences, Thoughts, and Feelings
- Prayer or Meditation
- Visualize and Practice Gratitude
- Spend time in nature
- Identify what is meaningful to you in work and life
50 Budget-Friendly Self-Care Ideas
Massages, manicures, and bubble baths are all nice, but they can’t undo the damage of a harsh inner voice criticizing, judging, and berating yourself all day long. Practice giving yourself the same kindness and forgiveness that you would give to others. Don’t know where to begin? Allison Hart ― a mental health professional in San Francisco ― recommends putting your hand over your heart and saying the following to yourself: “I am struggling right now. I’m in pain, I’m angry or feeling out of the flow. May I be gentle and flexible with myself. May I be kind to myself and may I take a break from problem-solving just for a moment.”
Spend Time Outside
Take a walk around the block, sit in the grass, hike a local trail, or just let the sunshine on your face for a few minutes. “No matter where you live, you likely have access to an outside space,” says Tiffany Lester, an integrative medicine doctor in San Francisco. “If it’s not in your neighborhood, think of a close space you can get to within 10 to 30 minutes. Getting outside and away from our devices calms our nervous system from the negative effects of everyday stressors.”
When your apartment or office is a mess, it can take a toll on your mental state, making you feel more stressed, anxious, and overwhelmed. “For some, a messy or disorganized space can activate their nervous systems and impact mental health wellness,” said therapist Jesse Kahn, director of The Gender & Sexuality Therapy Center in New York. “If that’s you, taking time to clean up your space can be an act of self-care and self-love, and may feel healing rather than like a chore you don’t want to do.”
Redecorate Your Space
Have you ever flipped around your couch or rearranged the art on your walls and felt like you walked into a whole new space? Try swapping art, furniture, or feng shui the rooms in your home to refresh your home’s design without spending a dime.
Reduce Social Media Consumption
Scrolling through social media feeds for hours on end is not only a time suck, but is also linked to lower self-esteem, sleep issues, and an increased “fear of missing out,” or FOMO. If you’re struggling to stay off your phone, utilize apps to help you reduce your time on social media such as the iPhone’s “Screen Time” feature, Android’s “Digital Wellbeing” tools or apps like Moment can help you monitor your social media usage. Other tricks that may be useful include disabling certain push notifications, switching to grayscale mode, or hiding your most enticing apps in a folder that’s not on your home screen.
Using either pen and paper or Google docs, journaling can be a great way to help you understand your own thought patterns, work through difficult emotions, reflect on certain events or cultivate more gratitude in your everyday life. There are many different types of journaling. For those who are working on paying off debt, sometimes using a gratitude journal is an effective form of self-care that helps keep your mind focused on your long-term and short-term goals so you feel a little less FOMO when you’re on a tighter budget.
Get Better Sleep
Quality shuteye can make a huge difference when it comes to your overall well-being. Doctors have found that those who consistently get seven to nine hours of sleep each night have a better immune function, improved mood, and better performance at work.
Dim the Lights and Listen to Some Music
Spa sounds, ambient rain, or ocean waves are particularly soothing in a candlelit room.
Light some Candles and Incense
While you’re working, cooking, or helping the kids with homework, light some candles or some incense to give yourself a little ambiance to lift your spirits.
Meditate (or Pray)
Taking some quiet time to sit with your thoughts can help clear your mind and give you some inner peace to handle everything the day may throw at you. As the writer, Anne Lamott said: “Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes.”
Meditation allows us to reconnect with the needs of our mind and body. If you find your mind wandering too much you might try guided meditation where someone walks you through the process with specific prompts usually set to relaxing music. You can check out the free version of apps like Headspace or Calm, or find videos on YouTube. And, of course.
Move Your Body
You don’t have to do a proper workout to reap the benefits of moving your body. Turn on your favorite playlist and have a dance party or do a few squats in your living room. If you’re looking for a more structured physical activity or exercise routine, there are a plethora of free workouts available on YouTube and Amazon Prime. From kickboxing to yoga to Zumba, there’s something for every body.
Take a Sanity Break
Sometimes the day feels too overwhelming and you just need to get away for a few minutes. “When I can’t leave because my kids are here but I’m feeling in desperate need of some recharging I will simply hideaway! Not in the closet or the basement, but mostly in my bed!,” writes Cents + Purpose. “If you feel like you need to catch your breath simply stop everything you’re doing at the moment and just walk away,” Cents + Purpose said. “I mean, make sure the stove is off and all that, but then just walk away. Sometimes I’ll even leave the dinner plates on the table, the dishes in the sink, and I curl up in my bed and watch some trashy reality tv on my phone (helllooo, Bravo!).”
Play a Game
If you’re feeling a little blah sometimes the best remedy is to just have more fun. And what better way than to play a game! What board games do you have stuffed in a cabinet somewhere? How many hours of laughs have you shared over a deck of cards? Or maybe your kids are always bubbling with excitement when they play a game on their Switch or PlayStation – ask to join them!
Did you know that when we don’t drink enough water, our body starts taking water from our brain? If you’re feeling a bit moody, you may just need to drink some more water. If you don’t like the taste of water, consider adding some fresh fruit like pineapple, strawberries, lemon, or cucumber to your water for added flavor.
Deeply Clean a Room
When we have a lot on our minds, one thing we tend to do is organize our thoughts by organizing something we can physically touch. Deep cleaning requires more energy and thought than a quick sweep but the reward is sweet satisfaction every time you come across that organized shoe collection, tool cabinet, or kitchen drawers.
Spend Time With Furry Friends
Not only are pets cuddle buddies, but spending time with our furry friends has been shown to alleviate anxiety, depression, and feelings of loneliness.
If you live with a partner, your children, your parents, or friends, you may want to ask for a hug or some cuddle time if you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed. “Cuddling releases oxytocin, a feel-good hormone, that also helps with reducing stress,” said Lynsie Seely, a marriage and family therapist in San Francisco.
Live alone or prefer to not be too touchy-feely? Weighted blankets are a great alternative to cuddling with a loved one!
Call a Friend
When we connect with others we care about, it helps to shift us out of our heads, regulates our nervous systems, and elevates our moods.
Cook or Bake Something
From cookies to muffins to home-cooked meals, playing around in the kitchen is one self-care activity that includes tasty benefits.
Invest Time in a Hobby
Carve time out each week to do something that brings joy to your life. Put it on your calendar if you need to. “Most of us are too busy to make time for activities that are joy-filled and feel nurturing,” said Tamara Levitt, a Toronto-based meditation instructor and head of mindfulness at Calm. “Find a time each week to shut off your electronics, and engage in a hobby that rejuvenates your spirit; play music, write in a journal, take a cooking class. While electronics deplete us, our favorite activities nourish us.”
Enjoy a Cup of Tea, Coffee or Cocoa
When was the last time you took 10 minutes to just sit and enjoy a cup of tea, coffee, or cocoa?
Take a Deep Breath
During high-stress periods, we may go hours or even a whole day without taking a full, grounding breath if we’re not intentional about it. “I like to take a few deep breaths in the morning and also throughout the day because it helps me to recenter and connect more with the present moment,” said Jessica Jones, a San Francisco-based registered dietitian and co-founder of Food Heaven. “One strategy that I use to remind myself to do this is to take three deep breaths every time I go to the bathroom and wash my hands. It’s easy, free, and makes a huge difference in my daily stress levels.”
Choose your cause, whatever it may be, and then figure out a way you can pitch in. “Engaging in altruistic acts and seeing our actions make a direct and positive impact in the lives of others is a surefire way to shift your mood and feel part of something bigger than yourself,” Dahlen deVos said. “This can help put our problems in context, or at least give us a break from stressors without numbing out.”
Increase the Veggies in Your Diet
Aim to put more of your grocery budget toward veggies and less towards ultra-processed snack foods. “Vegetables nourish our physical bodies on a cellular level with fiber, minerals, vitamins, and antioxidants, and they can taste really delicious too,” said McKel Hill Kooienga, a registered dietitian in Nashville, Tenn., and founder of the site Nutrition Stripped
Say ‘No’ to Things You Don’t Want to Do
We often think of self-care as doing something extra for ourselves but self-care can also be about what you choose not to do. One way to give a healthy “no”? Start setting boundaries with the people in your life. “So many of us are people pleasers and spend a lot of time doing things out of feelings of guilt and obligation, causing us to feel energetically drained and lacking the ability to focus on ourselves and what we truly want,” said Sara Groton, a nutrition and eating psychology coach in San Francisco. “Any time I find myself thinking ’I should do that or I have to do that,′ I take a moment to question and challenge that thought.”
Soak Your Feet in Warm Water
Soaking your feet in warm water can reduce inflammation and stimulate circulation.
Read a Book
How long has it been since you read a book? What have you been wanting to read? If you’re not sure you have the time to dedicate to a book, there’s always audiobooks, magazines, comic books, and newspapers.
Draw, paint, write, doodle, photograph, sing, dance, knit, play an instrument, repurpose an old piece of clothing, do whatever you like to do to tap into your creative energy.
Take a Shower and Moisturize Your Skin
You can use olive oil or coconut oil instead of fancy creams.
Write Yourself a Letter
When you’re feeling particularly confident about life, write a letter to yourself to remind you when times get tough about all of the things you’re grateful for, all of the things you do well, and all of the things you’re working toward in life. During moments of doubt, read this gift to yourself
Make a Vision Board
Clip inspirational pictures and phrases from magazines, newspapers, or Pinterest and create a vision board for your life. It can be a board inspiring a career, travel, fashion, relationships, money, and more!
Watch Your Favorite Movie or TV Show
Who cares how many times you’ve seen Legally Blonde! If watching the “bend-and-snap” puts you in a better mood every time, go for it!
Take a Virtual Art Gallery Tour
Given that the pandemic has closed just about everything, art galleries, aquariums, and museums that were once available only in-person are now accessible virtually! Google’s Arts & Culture platform lets you take in some of the world’s most impressive sights from the comfort of your living room.
Plan Your Next Vacation
While you may not be quite ready to travel yet, there’s no harm in researching where you want to go and what you want to do when you are ready for your next trip!
Listen to a Podcast
From learning about money to sharing wedding horror stories, there’s a podcast available for every mood.
Enjoy the Sunrise or Sunset
Nature has a way of helping us put our problems into perspective at times. Maybe you’ll be lucky enough to see the green flash!
Create a Spa Ambiance at Home
Light some candles, add a couple of drops of your favorite essential oils to your diffuser to scent the room, and put on a soothing face mask before you go to bed.
Stretch before Bed
Spend 15-30 minutes doing bedtime yoga stretches before sliding into bed.
Epsom Salt Bath
Soaking in Epsom salts doesn’t just feel good, it can help reduce both stress and cortisol levels.
Schedule Money Dates
Nearly 1 in 4 adults hides debt from their partner and nearly 70 percent of Americans are not talking about their every day financial issues. Try to lessen the guilt and shame around money by scheduling money dates with loved ones or a trusted friend. Don’t pretend everything is fine during these dates – share your money worries, hopes, and dreams.
Create Money Goals
Spend some time thinking about what are some short-term and long-term financial goals? Vividly describe them and the steps you’ll take to achieve them. Refer back to this list when you need inspiration.
Be Realistic About your Budget
Sticking to a budget can be tough, especially when you’re just starting out. Be kind to yourself as you adjust your budget to match your actual spending, cash flow, and savings goals, but check in at least once per month to make sure you’re on track.
Budget for Self-Care
If you enjoy getting a massage, golfing or you would rather hire someone to walk the dog or cook some meals for your family, put it in your budget. There’s no reason to force yourself to do things you don’t enjoy if you have the resources for it. By putting this self-care in your budget, you ensure you’re also financially in a good spot too.
Ground Yourself in the Present
Usually, when we experience great anxiety and stress, we’re living in the future or the past, not the present moment. Staying mindful then can help us make better decisions because we’re not manically switching mindsets.
Set Financial Boundaries
The only person you should be focused on pleasing is yourself. So when it comes to financial boundaries, if you don’t feel comfortable lending money to a family member, you can say no. You can also re-negotiate how you’ve split expenses with a roommate or significant other if it’s feeling a bit one-sided, and unfollow big-spenders on social media who always leave you feeling FOMO.
Make Your Bed Every Day
It takes no more than five minutes and makes your room not only look better, you’ll feel better too.
From apps on your phone to karaoke instrumentals available on YouTube, you can miss Christina Aguilera’s high notes and no one will ever know.
Learn a New Language
With free apps like Duolingo, you can expand your mind and learn a new language. Très magnifique!
Take a Shower
There’s nothing like washing the stress of the day off at night or starting the day clean and fresh with a nice shower.
Stand nice and tall in front of a mirror. Strike a superhero pose. Feeling more confident?
What are some of your favorite affordable self-care rituals? Share with us in the comments below!
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