How to Practice Self-Care on a Budget
You don't have to spend loads of money to prioritize your emotional, spiritual, physical—and financial—well-being.
Learning to practice self-care on a budget is an invaluable skill. For me, as a new mom in the second year of a global pandemic, finding time to care for myself is rare; throw in financial restrictions, and it feels impossible. But that's because I used to think self-care was something that required a large chunk of money, trips to the salon, and a counter full of expensive products. Once I reframed what self-care means to me, I realized it is way more attainable than I previously thought—even on a budget.
Maybe you can't justify spending loads of money on yourself, but there are a myriad of other methods to prioritize personal wellness that can be even more rewarding. Here are some ways to access practical self-care that require little to no spending.
Cover the basics.
Sometimes the most accessible self-care is the simplest (and often the cheapest). Before getting too creative with my self-care routine, I often check in to see if I've taken care of myself properly. Did I drink a glass of water in the last hour? When was the last time I ate a real meal with a real plate and fork? Did I get enough sleep last night? Am I breathing? This is a great go-to list of questions to consider first, if you're feeling off. When you start with the most basic forms of self-care, it can keep you from rushing to the extravagant (and sometimes expensive).
Reevaluate old habits.
Switching up your go-to self-care routine can be just as effective as purchasing something new. A simple shift in your routine that says, I'm doing this just for me can offer the same pleasure as making a purchase. For example, I used to get coffee from the Starbucks drive-through every morning, but once I reevaluated this ritual, I realized their coffee was never exactly what I wanted. It was either too cold, burnt, or had the wrong quantities of cream and sugar.
Looking back, I don't know if I enjoyed the actual coffee as much as I enjoyed the ritual of doing something for myself. So I switched this routine for an at-home coffee ritual instead. I now have a gorgeous, hand-thrown pottery mug I use every morning to drink my perfect, dark-roast coffee.
Bring awareness into your habits. Make sure your self-care rituals aren't stale—because you may be paying for something you don't even love anymore.
Visit your local library.
If you love to read, but don't love the cost of books (financially and environmentally), libraries are a great way to enjoy your favorite authors for free. Try downloading the Libby app that allows you to check out books on your tablet for free. Plus, becoming a patron of your local library is a great way to support your community.
Explore at-home workouts.
Before living on a budget and becoming a mom, I either had a gym membership or a monthly unlimited yoga studio pass. Those expenses ended up costing $200 to $300 per month. I've found so much joy and financial relief by switching to at-home workouts.
Sure, it might take more self-discipline being my own motivator, but I like the flexibility of working out whenever I want (especially with a 9-month-old). Right now, I pay $99 per year for an online workout program that I can do in my living room. If that doesn't fit in your budget, YouTube and Instagram have tons of quality workouts for free.
Try meditation and relaxation (for free).
In some cases, intense physical exercise after a long day of work just isn't an option (especially for those who work manual labor jobs). When working out may cause more harm than good, social worker Yolanda Renteria recommends introducing relaxation techniques in the mornings or evenings for physical self-care. Incorporating meditation into your daily life is also a great way to calm the nervous system and improve overall health.
Try following your breath for a few minutes while sitting on a chair or meditation pillow. If you'd like to go deeper, a free meditation app like MyLife Meditation, Calm, or Headspace can be a wonderful option to help get you started. Try a few until you find one you love.
Ditch the brand names.
Finding the most inexpensive version of luxury items—looking at you, grocery store brands—is an essential part of a budget-friendly self-care routine. Graphic designer and mom of three Allyson Thomas explains that this is her strong suit: finding quality products for cheap. For instance, buying an eight-pound bag of generic Epsom salts buys you many relaxing baths for a couple bucks. "Keeping that mindset of breaking down the things I really want to their lowest denominator is a way for me to feel good, while also keeping my budget feeling good, too," Thomas says.
She also swears by monthly makeup subscriptions as another example of this "more for less" attitude towards self-care. Rather than paying for full-sized makeup—because she doesn't wear makeup every day—Thomas says having a monthly subscription of trial-size brand names is totally fulfilling to her. She looks forward to it every month, and in her words, "It's much cheaper than buying full-sized products that I may or may not finish using. Plus, $12 a month fits in my budget."
'Treat yourself' doesn't mean every day.
Self-care on a budget often means getting more intentional about your spending, period. By cutting down on frivolous purchases, you can treat yourself with with your exact heart's desire once in awhile.
In the three years it took mom and entrepreneur Kayla Hart to pay off $75,000 worth of debt with three kids, her idea of self-care transformed completely. She no longer looks to shopping sprees, drinks, and dinners out to soothe herself on a regular basis. These days, she keeps her wants and needs in check by remembering what she calls "the four walls: food, shelter, clothing, transportation." Everything else is extra.
That said, Hart says she knows she "could easily drop money on good cheesecake," and it would 100 percent fit in her budget. Because sometimes, aligning our needs and wants is self-care. We deserve to treat ourselves every now and then. Just make sure to use caution with language like "treat yourself" and "you deserve it," lest you go overboard budget-wise.
A great way to manage how many times you go beyond "the four walls" is by using a budget-tracking app like You Need a Budget. This way, you can indulge responsibly while still putting your financial goals in the forefront of your mind.
Meet up with friends.
"The cure for burnout isn't and can't be self-care. It has to be all of us caring for each other," Emily and Amelia Nagoski say in Dare to Lead with Brené Brown. For many of us, staying connected through Zoom and group texts has been a major part of self-care during the pandemic. Reintegrating yourself in your community post-pandemic can help remind you that leaning on others for support is self-care, and it doesn't have to cost anything.
Try meeting up with a friend for a power walk. Maybe bring iced tea and a picnic blanket for a long-overdue catch-up in the park. Or if your schedules are jam-packed, try bringing your laptops to a picnic table and working together in silence. Sometimes just knowing another person is around is enough. Self-care doesn't mean being totally self-sufficient. Stay connected.
Community involvement and speaking out against injustice in the place where you live is a form of self-care. "Research shows that volunteering and helping others is linked to higher levels of happiness," says Renteria. It's an esteem-building act to do the right thing and become an active member of society.
In a recently resurfaced Instagram post from 2017, Rachel Cargle, public educator and philanthropist, addresses activism as a necessary part of self-care: "I don't want your love and light if you're not also doing the work to make the world we live in more survivable."
If your self-care doesn't include caring for your community, is it truly self-care, or just selfish? "Goddess groups" and wellness circles that cost a ton of money and often aren't accessible to most people who could really benefit from them—those are helping the few, not the community as a whole.
Contributing to your community is rewarding in itself. "Meditate AND call your senator. Go to yoga AND go vote. Breathe deeply AND donate to causes that matter. Go on a retreat AND go support small businesses. Enjoy your essential oils AND check people on their bullshit in the community," Cargle says.
The nature of giving is rewarding in itself. Standing up for a cause and contributing to your community will benefit the lives of those around you as well as your own.
Plan a nature walk.
Nature slows down the internal rush and fans out that cluttered feeling you get after being inside for too long. Also, it's spring, so slowing down to notice the unique shapes and colors of flowers in your area is a great anxiety-reducing activity (plus totally free self-care). As we transition into summer, try planning a nature excursion to give yourself the feeling of space and freedom without spending a ton of money.
When you act like a tourist in your own area, whether that's a quick jaunt out of town or simply wandering a city park, it fulfills the need to get out of town without actually paying for a vacation.
Remember: Saving money is self-care, too.
As the world begins to open up in 2021, the urge to splurge is normal. For some, saving money during lockdown was easy. Others barely made it through. Either way, if you're trying to stick to a budget, don't let FOMO and advertisements derail your goals. It's easy to feel left behind as friends book flights and cruises to celebrate being fully vaccinated—but try to remind yourself that saving money is self-care. Sticking to your budget, in the end, will always feel better than impulsively purchasing beyond your financial means.
When we stay grounded in what we actually want, it keeps us from impulse buying, so when we do spend money on ourselves as a form of self-care, we'll know it's laser-focused—and actually worth it. Besides, checking in with mental and physical health always feels better than blowing money on things we can't really can't afford.
You can have both: personal wellness and a reasonable budget. It's easy to think self-care means giving ourselves expensive things, but self-care can be free and more intentional when we just get creative and tap into what it is we are truly craving.