How to Make Self-Care a Priority Without Going Broke

Michelle Jackson

One of the most challenging aspects of adult life is making sure you are first on your priority list. While taking a timeout for self-care has numerous (and crazy) health and mental wellness benefits, finding the time is hard. And if you’re paying off debt, have a family, or just trying to focus on your financial goals, self-care may feel somewhat indulgent and potentially hazardous to your financial health, even if the costs are a small as a bottle of those charcoal face masks you saw on Instagram.

But self-care doesn’t have to be expensive—even if you do want to treat yo’ self a little.

Currently, I am working to pay off a significant amount of debt. It has been an incredibly humbling, stressful, and, at times, scary process.

At first, in my rush to pay off debt, I put myself last on my list of priorities. It’s not surprising that I found myself losing traction on my goals because I became depressed, frustrated, and unable to focus. I knew I needed to take some me time, and if we’re being honest, I knew I wanted to indulge myself a little too, but jetting off to a three day spa vacation wasn’t happening, and there’s no way my wallet (or my sanity) was buying a $125 Goop Exfoliating Instant Facial.

To get my calm back without breaking my debt repayment goals, I’d have to find some affordable ways to take time out and give myself some care. Here’s what I learned from that quest:

Self-Care is a huge business

According to a MarketWatch, Americans spend $199 a month, on average, to treat themselves. I couldn’t afford to run out and splurge two bills a month, so I took a step back and really considered what would make me feel my best.

I spent a lot of time thinking about what made me happy, what helped me tune out the constant noise of adult life, and what activities I enjoyed on the cheap. Going on frequent hikes, getting fresh air, and staying in shape have always been free and relaxing ways for me to decompress. Living in Colorado, I not only have easy access to the mountains, but also a ton of meetup groups for like-minded hikers. By joining in, I was able to carpool to fun hikes, which saved gas money and let me meet new people at the same time.

Looking for fun ways to relax beyond my usual hike was a bit more of a challenge. I started with the obvious: Groupon. The success rate of discount sites like Groupon really depends on where you live. While urban areas will have a ton of options from mediation classes to fancy spa days, smaller cities and rural areas may only offer a handful of local eateries. I got lucky and scored a few one-offs for affordable massages, but not much else.

To really save, I became a sort of social media sleuth. I found discounted—and occasionally unusual (stripper aerobics, anyone?)—fitness classes by sifting through the Facebook events of friends and friends of friends. I also poured over pages created by businesses and organizations catering to wellness in my area, which led me to a ton of coupons and one-time deals. Once, through a friend, I found out about a pop-up puppy yoga class being held for $5 at a local winery; and I spent an afternoon playing with five puppies, who wandered around greeting people and getting some lovin’ as we all did our yoga poses.

But sometimes for me personally, staying at home was the best self-care around. Journaling was a wonderful way to check in with myself and focus on some of the mindset-related issues that come up when working on a large financial goal. And, if I didn’t feel like journaling, I spent time working my way through all the books in my library.

It surprised me how easy it was to take of myself without breaking the bank, but I wondered if I just wasn’t getting lucky—I’m fortunate to live in a rapidly growing city with lots to do—so I reached out to several self-care (and frugal) advocates around the country to see how they unwind.

How do other money nerds focus on self-care?

Sarah Willison, founder of Budget Girl, paid off $33,000 in debt while earning a small wage. Focusing so hard on a seemingly impossible goal made self-care a priority for Sarah. “I think about self-care from the perspective of the rejection of daily busyness and the ability to focus on myself,” she says.

One of her favorite ways to decompress is reading free romance novels.

“For mental self-care I read. I read two types of books: finance and business books. The book that will improve my life and brain. And, then I read ‘brain candy.’ Tween romance novels for example about the love between a vampire and werewolf. Or, anything sci-fi, and anything dystopian. And, my source for these books are free book services like and Amazon lists,” says Wilson.

In addition to focusing on her mental wellness, Sarah also takes time for her health. She works at a university and has access to free fitness classes and additional services offered by her employer. While it’s easy to overlook these smaller perks when starting your job, it’s worth circling back to see what discounts might be available to you as an employee.

When she has to stay indoors, dance videos on YouTube help her stay fit. When the weather is nice, she goes for long walks.

Robert Gale from Real Money Robert works a traditional 8 to 5, runs a side business, and is a father to five rambunctious kids. For Gale, finding time to prioritize his favorite hobbies has been the best form of self-care to get through it all.

“I take time for myself to do the things that I enjoy doing like hunting and fishing. I’m a pretty avid outdoorsman. I prioritize and schedule that stuff,” says Gale, who also enjoys going to the gym and taking yoga classes with his wife.

Gale has an unwavering focus on prioritizing himself. With so much on his plate, the best way he’s found to meet that goal is to schedule the time in his calendar, and then treat it like any other obligation.

It doesn’t have to be complicated

Self-care can actually be quite simple. Recognize that you have to come first on “your list.” Simple activities such as reading, hiking, and even making your food beautiful are easy ways to communicate to yourself that you’re important and that you love and care for yourself.

And when the little breaks just aren’t cutting it, shoot for bigger. For example, I take small, inexpensive trips into the mountains when I’m craving just a bit more than my normal routine. Recently, I spent four days in Breckenridge, Colorado relaxing and enjoying some time away from the city. All in, I spent about $225 by finding a hostel, complete with patio hot tub to soak in after a long day exploring.

Whatever you choose to do, just remember: if it makes you happy, it counts.