Self-care doesn't have to cost an arm and a leg. Here's how to find (and fund) self-care without sabotaging your savings.
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When the poet Audre Lorde first wrote, "caring for myself is not self-indulgence; it is self-preservation," she did not mean to inspire an entire generation to buy expensive cosmetics or to justify costly spa treatments. She knew that taking care of herself was the only way she'd be capable of consistently offering her most brilliant writing and her most important intellectual thought.

Nowhere in Lorde's poems does she advise derailing your savings goals or jeopardizing your financial stability in order to buy into debt-inducing consumer trends. In fact, experts suggest that free and low-cost investments in mental and physical health—like these—may make the most meaningful difference in your quality of life.

Get your finances in order.

"As a CPA, I have heard the entire spectrum on how people care for themselves through binge-spending on luxury items, from taking an exotic vacation to using shopping as mental therapy," offers Jaclyn Strauss. "Now more than ever, people are craving a sense of peace of mind, which can be obtained through many different sources—whether it's from investing more in their savings account, investing in tools to help them become more efficient, or investing in services to simply get them organized. Sitting down with a certified financial planner is one way people have been approaching post-pandemic life and the realization that they can live the life they desire." 

To set things aright, Strauss advises that clarity—financial and emotional—also comes from digitally organizing those important financial documents, like social security numbers and life insurance policies, that are the most problematic to replace. She founded My Macro Memoir ($75/year), an encrypted, web-based sorting portal where people can safely store their financial, health, and family heirloom documents. As her family's CFO, she sleeps better at night knowing that their estate planning and legacy documents are up-to-date and globally accessible in case of emergency. 

Put your wellness routine in the household budget.

Merilee Speigner of Easy Budget Blog just posted about more than 40 budget-friendly self-care activities, from DIY manicures to Groupon deals. She says that although self-care is special, it shouldn't come as a financial surprise; nor should self-care be seen as some sort of financial "cheat day." You shouldn't have to jeopardize other money goals to treat yourself. On the other hand, low-budget self-care routines can become so mundane that they lead to unplanned emotional spending to trigger that old endorphin rush. How do you find the balance?

Speigner says that "a good way to remedy this in the budget is to set aside a certain amount every month to use as 'fun money' or 'self-care money.' You can use it on whatever you most need in that given month—a spa trip, a therapy session, a pedicure, or a great dinner out. By setting some money aside for that, say $100-$200 depending on your budget, you can be spontaneous with it each month and use it for whatever your soul needs." Speigner says keeping the budget fixed but the activity fluid will prevent feeling deprived. 

Speigner also notes that it's a myth that self-care is something only female-identified folks are spending on; guys can derail that household budget by mistakenly counting themselves out of the self-care planning but then dipping into the coffers to fund predictable splurges, like boys' nights out, coveted equipment for hobbies, or activities with loved ones. "Men should set aside some money in their family budgets to do things to help care for their physical, mental, and emotional well-being," Speigner adds. "This could be a gym membership, therapy, a massage, or even just some time out in nature. Whatever it is, it's worthy of being valued in the family budget." 

Take time away from caregiving responsibilities.

Licensed Clinical Psychologist Dr. B. Nilaja Green created the Introspective Journal: Therapist's Edition to help psychologists, psychiatrists, counselors, social workers, and other mental health professionals cultivate their own self-awareness in order to improve the clinical practice they offer their patients and clients. In the process, she realized that whether it be spending more time with aging parents, doubling as elementary school teachers, or managing our own mental health through long stretches alone, this past year has stressed most people's normal caregiving resilience. "Although taking care of oneself can mean treating oneself to mani-pedis, massages, and expensive trips, the most effective forms of self-care involve daily, weekly, and even monthly rituals," advises Dr. Green. 

"Make sure you take care of your basic needs before, during and after your caretaking responsibilities," Dr. Green continues. "Eat, take time to rest, engage in physical activity and take small breaks throughout the day. Self-care moves so much beyond the things we can buy. Authentic self-care involves treating ourselves and our lives with value, respect, compassion, and gratitude." She advocates for committing to self-care maintenance, which is more like regularly checking the fluid levels on your car rather than calling roadside assistance to replace a punctured tire. The idea is to avoid a sudden breakdown.

Regular maintenance activities include getting outdoor exercise, journaling, mindful meditation, proper nutrition, and regular doctor's visits (annual checkups with a general practitioner and reproductive care specialist). These critical self-preservation rituals are free, low-cost, or reimbursable, but Dr. Green finds that they are often omitted from a caregiver's never-ending list of to-dos. 

Protect your time, preserve your energy.

Sharon Fisher, a board-certified psychiatric nurse practitioner and owner of a women's mental health practice in Towson, MD, says that self-care falls flat because of a lack of time much more than a lack of money. She explains that "the advent of cell phones and teleworking means we are available 24-7. Many companies have downsized to the point that existing employees will never be able to carry the load. Much of this is self-induced by not being intentional about how we spend our time, wanting to please others, and putting their wants before our needs, and a fear of missing out.  We impulsively say yes. Eventually all these yeses add up to not having any time for ourselves." 

These days, learning to budget your time is the cornerstone of good mental health. Sharon recommends a free at-home retreat—complete with zero spending and zero demands on your time. "Spend a weekend totally unplugged. Do not answer your phone or email. Spend the first morning doing something relaxing (coffee and newspaper, yoga, a walk), then spend the afternoon thinking about your values and life goals. Next, make a list of all the ways your time is used. If something doesn't align with your values or life goals, then cut it," she prescribes.

On the final day of this time audit, consider how you'll axe energy vampires (relationships that drain you) that are bound to test your new time-sensitive boundaries. She cautions, "in our modern society, time can be as valuable and scarce a commodity as money," and it is imperative that we are careful about how we spend both of these limited resources.