Although this is a site that celebrates the role of food in feeling your best, it would be naive to think that health is a singular product of what you eat. As I’ve said before, stress management and lifestyle play just as significant a role, but relaxation and balance are so quickly forgotten when life gets busy. This article rounds up 21 self care ideas that are easy to fit into your day, and won’t cost you much time or money.
“Self Care” is a term that is up there with “basic” and “FOMO” (also “me time”) – wholly unnecessary, gimmicky, and kind of embarrassing to use if you’re not a 20-something white girl wearing Uggs.
But also? It’s important. Taking the time to practice self care is critical to your wellness, physical health, and emotional resilience. The act of prioritizing yourself, taking care of yourself, showing yourself the same love, attention, and, well, care, is critical for yourself and the people who rely on you. It’s the everyday version of putting on your oxygen mask before helping others: if you aren’t maintaining your own strength, how can anyone rely on you?
Self care may be a gimmicky term, but it is also the difference between thriving and collapse. Trust me, I’ve been there.
If you’re anything like me, you’re probably thinking “oh please. I’m fine. I don’t need a self care routine, and I don’t have the time or money to waste on it, either”.
You do, and you do.
And, if you’re like me, and have been having a hard time, but you can’t quite put your finger on why, then you can’t afford not to.
I realize this is another departure from the food that I usually share, but as much for myself as for all of you, I wanted to compile my list of all the things – large and small – that I’m finding helps rejuvenate me during or after a long day of work and caring for others.
These are some of the best self care activities I’ve found that are free or inexpensive, many are DIY, and all of them are easy to start incorporating into your routine right now. Incorporating just one or two into your daily routine will positive impact your mental health in ways you may not even realize you – and, probably, your blood pressure – need.
Whether you’re a new parent, a parent of a young child, the primary caretaker of any kind in your household, or just overwhelmed with life lately, these self care ideas are worth keeping in your back pocket.
But this is just my list. I’d love to hear some of the small, but meaningful, things that you do to energize, relax, and care for yourself each day.
The List: 21 Low Cost and No Cost Self Care Ideas
Self Care Idea #1: Take a shower
Any mom with young kids will tell you that, with all the demands on your time each day, a shower feels like an unattainable luxury. But, for me, it makes all the difference to face the day feeling cleaned up and reasonably presentable – even if it means adjusting my morning routine to wake up 15 minutes earlier, and not washing my hair. In addition to feeling good when you look good, a shower is one of the few places you can escape all the screens, be alone (assuming you have either no children, or a partner willing to distract them for a few minutes), breathe, and think.
Cost: notwithstanding your water bill, free.
Self Care Idea #2: Make a phone call
Sometimes all it takes to put things in perspective or turn your day around is to connect with someone. Call a good friend from the car, or a family member on your lunch break. I’ve found that when I’m feeling stressed, even a 15-minute conversation with someone who makes me smile can completely turn your day around.
Cost: assuming unlimited minutes on your cell phone, free.
Self Care Idea #3: Order your groceries
Having 30 hours of things to do in a 24-hour day is almost always the cause of my stress. I don’t want to eat out all the time (nor is that healthy, appetizing, or cost-effective), but going to the store is a major undertaking when you need just about everything. Paying someone to do my grocery shopping and deliver my food to my front door may seem frivolous and unbelievably luxurious, but when my whole day is packed with responsibilities, this is one area where I can pay a few dollars to free up at least a couple of hours of time for relaxation and mental health.
Cost: varies by service. I use Amazon Prime Fresh (delivery is free with a Prime Membership) and Imperfect Foods* (Delivery costs $4.99/order, regardless of the size of the order). In the past I’ve also used Instacart*, which charges $5.99-$7.99 for delivery, plus small upcharges on certain items, and JewelOsco’s service, but I don’t use either anymore.
Self Care Idea #4: Practice guided meditation/mindfulness
Mindfulness is just a fancy word for practicing the act of focusing on the present. When I’m stressed, it’s because I am juggling too much and worrying about all the things that I have coming up. Mindfulness teaches you how to put on mental blinders and focus on what’s in front of you. It’s definitely a work in progress for me, but apps like Headspace and Calm, which offer guided meditation and deep breathing modules on your phone, help a lot.
Cost: you can find guided meditation practices free on YouTube and, possibly, the iTunes store. There are free versions of Headspace and Calm, but in order to unlock most of the modules, you can pay $5-$13 monthly or $70 annually. If you have a Peloton app subscription, there are tons of great guided meditation sessions on there too ($10-40/month). The paid services are worth every penny, in my experience.
Self Care Idea #5: Read a magazine
I used to read books before bed. Heavy books, like this one*, which – understandably, I think – would get my mind racing and spark thoughts and conversation. Not really the pre-lights-out wind down I needed in order to sleep well. I recently switched to reading magazines which, by their nature, are mostly intended to be light, disposable reading. I’m talking about Real Simple and People, not The New Yorker, for the record. I’ve found that light, fun, analogue entertainment before bed (or anytime) calms my mind.
Cost: Free, since I used airline miles to subscribe through the website magsformiles.com. If you don’t have miles to burn, annual subscriptions start at $15-$20/year, depending on the type of magazine, publishing frequency, etc.
Self Care Idea #6: Move your body
I was once a hardcore exerciser. In college, I exercised 6-7 days a week. It was my habit and I enjoyed it. I also had the hubris to judge people who said they couldn’t fit exercise into their week, let alone their day. When I was young and single, it was so easy, but now I don’t have the time or energy to cram my already-overfull day with an additional obligation to go to the gym. Instead of being something I look forward to, that gym obligation now adds to my stress.
Instead, I focus more on the general idea of moving my body every day. Just getting out of your chair, getting outside if possible (not possible lately), and getting my blood moving with a brisk walk or even cleaning up the kitchen. Anything that gently and organically moves my muscles seems to release tension in a way that hard core, structured exercise (usually) does not for me, lately.
Self Care Idea #7: Waste time
Time is such a luxury, and for people who are busy, overwhelmed, and stressed, it can be easy to fall into the productivity trap. But there is so much value to just doing … nothing. Productive time wasting suggestions:
- Binge watch Netflix or silly YouTube videos (without also checking emails and social media on your phone, or working on your laptop)
- Take a quick nap or a hot bath. For extra luxury, make it a bubble bath scented with essential oils! IThis is a thing I know people love, but I hate baths, so I will take your word for it)
- Give yourself a spa night with one of those face masks
- Sit in a coffee shop and do some people watching
- Or whatever makes you happy.
The point is that, sometimes, all you have to do to clear your mind is to focus on what’s in front of you right now. You’ll be pleasantly surprised by how much putting down your to do list and making time to just do nothing benefits your mental health.
Self Care Idea #8: Find a flow
Have you ever heard this expression before? If not, perhaps you are familiar with the idea of being “in the zone”? They basically mean the same thing, which is being “fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of [an] activity” (source).
The activity will vary, but you probably already have a sense of what works for you. For me, it’s usually photography, cooking, or going for a bike ride; for my husband it’s playing drums. For some people, it’s as simple as becoming immersed in a good book. The activity doesn’t matter, though. Just do what makes you feel happy, unburdened, energized, and – when you’re done – refreshed.
Cost: free-ish (depends on the activity)
Self Care Idea #9: Stand up Straight
I know, I know, I sound like your grandmother. But when you stand up straight, you feel different: stronger, more confident, taller (crucial for someone as small as I am!), and more energized.
You can breathe more deeply and somehow, the world feels brighter when you’re not busy trying to scrunch yourself into the smallest, most invisible package. It’s kind of a “dress for the job you want” thing.
Self Care Idea #10: Write it down
Journaling doesn’t get enough credit for its role in mental health. Sometimes, you need a physical manifestation of getting a thought out of your head in order to let it go. Other times, the act of translating heavy or overwhelming thought and feelings into coherent sentences allows you to make sense of them and process them effectively.
I’m sure a psychologist could explain this in more detail, but everyone who has ever had a journal can tell you how the act of translating thoughts onto paper leaves you feeling surprisingly unburdened.
Self Care Idea #11: Do something that used to make you happy as a kid
Think about it: when was the last time you felt deliriously happy and carefree? I’ll bet it was when you were a kid. While there are a lot of things about being a kid that you can’t really replicate in adulthood, it’s amazing how quickly that sense of lightness returns when you re-adopt a hobby or activity that you used to love when you were younger. For example, a lot of people swear by the positive effects of adult coloring books. Of course! Because remember how much fun coloring was when you were a kid?
For me, it’s ice skating. I used to be a pretty serious skater (by kid standards, not by Olympic standards) in elementary school and junior high. I gave it up to pursue other interests and devote my energy to the gauntlet of getting into college, but it wasn’t until a few years ago that I realized how much I missed the feeling of freedom and lightness I felt on the ice. My friend Jean and I started sneaking away from work at lunch time to skate and even after so many years off the ice, it still felt as invigorating as ever.
If you don’t have time to get in the car and go somewhere, it might be as simple as making a playlist of music you used to love but haven’t listened to in awhile. For me, it’s listening to a carefully curated Pandora playlist that ALWAYS seems to know what song I want to hear. And yes, these are songs that came out when I was in high school and college. No shame!
Cost: depends on the activity, but in my case, since I already had my skates, it was $5/week for admission to the Friday free skate at the local park district rink. Pandora is free.
Self Care Idea #12: Say No
There are big ways to show yourself some self love and then there are all the small ways, which often make just as much of a difference as the more substantial self care activities. Learning to say no is one of those little things that makes a big impact.
Saying no to all the little things that eat up your time and mental energy allows you to make time for the activities that make you feel refreshed. Honestly, for me, holding myself back from saying yes to every request that comes my way has been one of the most effective ways that I’ve addressed my feelings of being overwhelmed.
Self Care Idea #13: Spend time alone
Maybe this has a greater impact if you’re an introvert, but my guess is that everyone can benefit from just a little time alone to think (or not think), or do exactly what you want without interruption.
It doesn’t matter how you spend the time: browse a bookstore, pick up an old (or new) hobby, or just sit on a lounge chair in the backyard and feel the sun on your face. If you’re short on time, you can still take advantage of your commute. Instead of checking your email or making phone calls, try listening to a podcast, audiobook, or favorite album – or just enjoy the silence.
Self Care Idea #14: Get away
I think this speaks for itself, but once in awhile, you need to stop managing the demands of your life and just take a break from them. I’ve tried staycations the (free-er) alternative to actually getting away and, without fail, I always end up unable to resist my to-do list. There’s something powerful and restorative in completely removing yourself from your routine and allowing yourself a change of scenery.
This one isn’t free, but it can be extremely low cost if you do it right: go somewhere driving distance, wait for airline fare sales, or travel at off-peak times of the year, if possible. Stay with friends or family, if the opportunity presents itself, or book your hotel using deal sites like Hotwire, Groupon Getaways or Living Social Escapes.
Better yet, skip the hotel altogether and book a room, or a full house or apartment, through an Air B&B* or another similar resource (I can only recommend Air B&B since I’ve never used any of its competitors). This is a strategy I always recommend if you’re a food allergy/intolerance traveler, and it’s equally handy if you have kids. But, convenience aside, if done right, you end up seeing a non-touristy part of the city, saving on lodging and saving on food too, since you won’t have to eat every meal out.
Ultimately, no matter your budget or your destination, just getting out of the house and taking time off from work, school, and the daily grind is invaluable.
Self Care Idea #15: Ask for help – especially with repetitive chores
One of the most effective changes Bryan and I have made in our house lately is to begin to identify the repetitive tasks (like laundry) that are always hanging over our heads, and establish responsibilities for them. That doesn’t mean that we don’t switch off sometimes, or help each other with these tasks. All it means is that I don’t have to be the one keeping track of every single thing that has to get done in our lives.
Little things like taking 5 minutes to throw in the laundry, sign some preschool paperwork, or schedule a plumber are not going to make you crazy on their own, but enough of those sorts of things weighing on your mind at the same time, all day, every day, will wear you out much more than you may think. (For more on this, Google “emotional labor” or “mental load”. Our culture needs to be talking about this more.)
Drawing the line when you’re overburdened – even (and especially) by tasks as innocuous as laundry or dishes or scheduling – and changing the routine when it comes to these kinds of chores, is an important aspect of self care.
Cost: free, if you and your partner can handle it, and well worth a small investment for occasional help (think: monthly house cleaning service or fluff and fold laundry service), if you can afford it.
Self Care Idea #16: Invest a little money (but not in the stock market)
If you’re wearing old, worn out jeans and waiting 6 months between hair cuts (*cough* like I have been *cough*), you’re probably a mom – but you also deserve to treat yourself with the same level of attention that you most likely give other people in your life. Investing in yourself – whether it’s a manicure, a fancy haircut, or a new pair of jeans – reaffirms your value, plain and simple. And, let’s face it: when you feel like you look good, you feel good.
But, investing in your loved ones, your home, or other important touch points of your life is equally important. Treat your friend to a coffee shop date (or, the free version: make them coffee at your home); organize and/or invest in new baskets for your linen closet. It doesn’t have to mean spending a lot; looking good, making others feel good, and making your home feel fresh and welcoming always makes you (ok, me, at least) feel refreshed and energized.
Cost: can be free, but it is well worth actually putting your money toward something to signify its value. There are nearly infinite options to fit any budget.
Self Care Idea #17: Eat Slowly
Not only is this good for your digestive health, but it also allows you to pay attention to what you’re eating, enjoy the experience, and savor the flavors. Not every meal has to be gourmet, but slowing down and enjoying the experience of eating it builds natural breaks into your day (oh, and it goes without saying that not eating in front of a screen is ideal, right?), and encourages mindfulness in a natural way – which is especially helpful if you struggle with the formal mindfulness and guided meditation practices, like I do. It’s also a good time to connect with friends, family, or coworkers, or enjoy a quiet moment of (analogue) entertainment (e.g. see#5).
Plus, let’s be real: food is delicious. When you allow yourself the time to appreciate the experience of something as seemingly mundane as eating, it’s a nice reminder to appreciate some of the other small pleasures in your day.
Self Care Idea #18: Organize, declutter, purge
For over 10 years, I’ve held on to a wobbly Target desk that no longer fits my work style (one drawer? Who is satisfied with only one drawer?) or the style of my home. I’ve moved it halfway across the country and in and out of 4 apartments, all because it was one of the first pieces of furniture I bought for my first apartment. Sentimentality makes you do crazy things.
I finally got rid of it today (I donated it to this wonderful organization) and you know what I feel? Relief. A weight lifted.
We carry around so much stuff out of obligation, nostalgia, or habit. For most of us, my guess is that we don’t really think about the impact all of this stuff has on our mental health. If you’ve read Marie Kondo’s book*, you know the whole deal about distinguishing Things That Bring You Joy from the rest of your stuff.
Once you really focus on that idea – joy taking many forms, including sheer utility, for me – you can get rid of all the rest. I’ve been on an organizing kick lately, which has included donating or giving away things that are redundant, clutter, or simply no longer useful to me. Living in a space that feels airier and more spacious, and knowing that those things are somewhere making someone else happy, makes me feel an unexpected sense of peace.
Cleaning seems like a very strange form of self care but, if you ask me, there is no better way to take care of yourself than to surround yourself with things that make your life easier and happier.
Cost: free, plus by donating or giving things away, you’re offering someone else an item that brings them joy without spending a lot of their money!
Self Care Idea #19: Take your shoes off and go outside
Who doesn’t like the feeling of their feet in the grass? Not only does it make you feel like all of the structure and demands of adulting have fallen away, there is also a growing body of scientific evidence to support the health benefits of “grounding” or (ahem, this is a real term) “earthing”, or connecting to the energy of the earth through the soles of your feet.
Whether or not you believe there is any credence to that concept, there is no denying that you really can’t take anything too seriously when your toes are being tickled by too-long blades of grass.
Oh, and it goes without saying that we’re not Instagramming this moment, right?
Self Care Idea #20: Ruin your dinner
All this talk about trying to recreate carefree childhood experiences totally glosses over the immense benefits of being an adult. Namely: no one yells at you for ruining your dinner. Although I firmly believe in the importance of balanced meals 99% of the time, some days you just have treat yo self with some comfort food. If that’s a giant slice of apple pie a half hour before dinner time, so be it. If it’s a bowl of cereal in place of dinner, you’re not alone.
One thing that stresses me out immensely is the pressure (that I put on myself) to constantly do the “right” thing: have a healthy meal, follow the schedule, etc., etc. Occasionally releasing myself from those restrictions reminds me that I am in charge of my life, my happiness, and my dinner. 😉
The point is this: it’s important to, occasionally, do something benignly irresponsible. Take a mental health day off from work, or stop for an impulsive bowl of ice cream. Anything to break out of your rut, or prevent it in the first place!
Cost: minimal or free, depending on what’s already in your kitchen!
Self Care Idea #21: Believe you deserve it – then go get it.
“It” being whatever you need to be happy. You only get one life.
Cost: varies, but doesn’t have to be pricey
Bonus! Self Care Idea #22: Get a Massage (or a pedicure, or a skincare treatment or whatever floats your boat)
I didn’t include this in the main list, because it’s not traditionally cheap or free, but sometimes, if you can, you just have to splurge. Yes, massages (or pedicures or facials, if those are your thing instead) are expensive, but I get massages as often as possible because they help me so much. I don’t even know how tense my muscles are until they’re not tense anymore, and my body and mind feel better as a result.
And it’s not as expensive as you’d think. First of all, do NOT go to a fancy spa. I go to the masseuse at my chiropractor’s office or, occasionally, the gym. Here are a couple of ways you can get the cost down:
- Buy a Groupon, LivingSocial, or other voucher from one of those deal sites. (Just make sure you don’t forget you have it!)
- Research massage schools near you. Some offer low-cost massages to give their students some practice.
- Check to see if a physical therapy studio or chiropractor’s office offers massages as a form of “physical therapy”, which allows them to bill part of the cost to insurance. I’m not sure how this works, but apparently it is possible. So, it’s worth asking about.
Those are my best self care tips for you! I’d love to hear some of yours. Leave me a message in the comments below and tell me what you do to take care of yourself!