Self-care: 100 Free or Low-cost Ideas
This month, a list of ways to practice self-care that are either free or low-cost, and often don’t take much time. (Although they could still be quite challenging, some of them.)
A few caveats:
The purpose of this list is to offer ideas and spark your own. It’s emphatically not a to-do list.
It’s also not exhaustive. I’ve missed things. And I’ve got blind spots.
And it’s not in order! Some of these things are more important than others.
Some of these suggestions will seem guffawingly obvious to you. You may wonder: who on Earth needs to hear this?! If all these things are obvious for you, say a prayer of gratitude for your self-caring life, because out there, there’s someone who needs to hear this.
Some of these suggestions may incite more than scorn. Maybe some will anger you! If so, you could ask where the information that these suggestions are bad or wrong or stupid is coming from. Sometimes that disapproval has been forced upon us by the overculture, and is actually blocking our self-care.
If there’s something on it that you really hate the idea of, it might be very self-caring to enquire within as to why. Not for that horrible stock reason of “oh, it’s what you most need.” I hate when people say that! But because it’s as good to know what decidedly doesn’t work for us, as it is to know what does work.
Finally, I hope you will add your ideas in the comments. I’d love it if we could double the suggestions—or take it even higher!
Here we go.
- The Basics: sleep enough, eat enough, move enough. Check ’em!
- Start the day in a calm and collected way. That might mean a slower start, if you have that kind of control over your schedule. A few minutes to check in with yourself—any physical needs or emotional information?—before jumping to fill the requirements of your spouse, boss, children. A few minutes of sovereignty. A moment of independence, in a matrix (Latin for “mother”!) of community and family.
- If mornings are just very compressed, take a little time at the end of the day to get yourself set up for tomorrow. Something to wear, something to eat, some juice on your phone.
- Best: taking a few minutes to organize both morning and night.
- A routine for the morning is powerful juju. It’s not about doing ALL THE THINGS that would be good for you. It’s about having an anchor that will always be there.
- Likewise, have a relaxing routine for evening instead of just flopping into bed when you’re exhausted, or worse, falling asleep somewhere with the lights on. As it becomes a habit, it will start automatically putting you into a restful state, ready for sleep.
- Be your own lady’s maid: Set out your clothes for tomorrow.
- And check the weather, so you’ll be provisioned for extremes. (This reminder is 100 percent for me.)
- Pack a lunch. The internet is all about making this task easy and delicious and nourishing. And bougie, too, if you like that sort of thing. (I confess I do.)
- What do you like to drink in the morning? Set it up before bed and treat Early Morning You to a little extra leisure.
- Instead of waiting until it’s full, run the dishwasher every night. It’s actually pretty economical, and short-circuits a lot of micro-irritations. Life-changing magic at the push of a button. (From Home Comforts, by Cheryl Mendelson. Nearly 900 mindblowing pages of housekeeping lore.)
- If you have trouble remembering to do something like plugging in your phone, or taking your lunch, give your brain a directive paired with something you can’t forget. Like this: when I see my hand on the car door, I will get my lunch.
- Get out that scented lotion/potion/unguent you’ve been saving for a special occasion and smooth on yourself. It’s very hard to hate on your body when you’re literally loving on your body.
- Offer yourself a nice scent. Maybe you could have a pot of rosemary on the counter.
- Or maybe you could start a whole herb garden. Gardening, even on a miniature scale, is a well-known mood booster.
- Use the good china. I know you’ve heard this one. Did you do it? And did you keep doing it? It’s like bathing or breathing. It really works best on repeat. Because if we don’t do it a lot, then we’re really back to saving it for special. And life’s really short.
- Life’s also really long. Like, too long for chipped china if we have good stuff. Too long for harsh soap if we’ve got a stash of something good. A soap upgrade isn’t expensive, and your skin will love it.
- Much of the harshly scented products in our house have better-smelling alternatives. Test before buying.
- Matching underwear. Shazam!!!
- Practice your “I’m going to have to get back to you on that,” so that it comes right out of your mouth under pressure.
- Put together a playlist for every feeling you want to cultivate and/or flip on like a switch: confident, worldbeating, joyful, summery, sad, obstacle-crushing, secret agent. (Yes! You might want to feel sad sometimes. You might want to feel destructive sometimes! You might want to feel assassin-y. Any of those could be useful.)
- When someone compliments you, say, “Thank you, it’s true!” Or “Thank you! I’ll take that.” That’s so YOU can hear it. (And eventually believe.)
- Build in a buffer after vacation, instead of going straight back to work.
- If you’re an introvert, build in a buffer day after having houseguests.
- Sleep in a dark room. Or with a mask. Full darkness really adds to the quality of sleep.
- If you’re not eating breakfast, try it. Bodies change, and if you last ate breakfast in primary school, you might really like it. If you’re not eating a protein breakfast, try adding protein. As an experiment.
- Keep a little notebook for when you have an actionable realization, the kind that if you don’t write down and act on next time, suffering will result. Example: I always think it’s going to be fun to work at Cafe X, but they are usually playing a kind of jazz that I can’t work to. And I always forget this. (Havi Brooks calls this the Book of Me.)
- Find a way to manage your self-talk, and mute the Inner Critic.
- Set aside all-or-nothing thinking for more-or-less. Remember the 80/20 rule: the big wins come from the first steps. After that, the effort becomes greater and the payoffs smaller.
- When establishing new routines or habits, remember that consistency is more important than intensity. You can build up anything over time.
- There are lots of strategies out there for dealing with emotions. But emotions don’t always need a response beyond letting yourself know what you’re feeling.
- Lift a little weight. Many older people go into care because they can’t open a jar or take the rubbish out—not because they don’t remember how to get home.
- Do a simple set of stretches every day. Inflexibility is a huge, huge part of aging. And it can be remedied in a pretty short time.
- When making a change, think about the minimum effective dose (MED). What could you do that would move you forward and make a real difference, without overdoing it, forcing you to take two steps back? Tim Ferriss talks about this, as did Aesop. It’s the Tortoise strategy, and it works pretty well, if the Hare’s experience is anything to go by.
- Just wiping the counters before bed or getting the mail off the dining table does wonders for the environment, and that has a powerful effect on mood.
- Check your capacity meter before deciding that you’re a failure, your best years are behind you, you don’t deserve happiness, no one will ever love you, your ship has sailed, blah blah blah. Believing these lies is often a sign that we’re really depleted, and need some kind of recharge.
- Dry brush your skin. I don’t know if it’s a miracle weight-loss trick (doubtful!) but it feels fantastic.
- Start playing the hotter/colder game with everything in your life: outfits, tasks, diversions, the people you spend time with. Seek the feeling of getting warmer, and tip the balance toward your hot spots.
- Make note of like-minded women who want to up their self-care. Support takes us further faster, and self-care in a squad is a glorious experience.
- For example, clothes swaps are self-care in community—and very fun.
- Speaking of clothes, I suggest letting go of everything that does not make you feel good in your body. Far better to have two outfits that fill you with pride and queenliness than 16 that make you squirm and tug and want to shrink.
- Color in some free coloring pages from my friend Grace Simone Seol.
- Reminder: ignore everything on this list that makes you feel tense, obliged or anxious.
- Have a self-care inventory so you’re not reinventing the wheel. You could have a list that you visit every 90 days, for example. Do I need to see the doctor? Stylist? Get a mammogram? How’s my 5-a-day going? Etc.
- Do you avoid going to the dentist? If visits can be improved by trading up, fire that dentist and get a better. (A surprising number of seemingly unrelated health problems can prevented with regular checkups and cleanings.) Same goes for all the other practitioners: doctors, lawyers, hair stylists, the lot. No reason to work with people who don’t feel good to be around.
- A lot of the things on this list are about maintenance self-care. Keeping ourselves out of the dark, cobwebby corners of self-neglect. But sometimes we need emergency self-care. Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), aka “tapping,” is great tool for a self-care emergency. You say soothing things to yourself, like acknowledging what sucks and reminding yourself you don’t have to like, while tapping gently on specific parts of your head and body. It’s magic.
- From Ije Ude: Identify the energy leaks in your life. Plug those up, and watch everything else get easier.
- Related: Make a suck list. Everything that sucks about your life, write it down. You don’t have to do anything about these items. But if you want to look for a common cause, like if you have 99 problems, and 98 of them can be traced to a single source, you might want to consider some actions. Make the list exhaustive—and don’t make it again for a long time.
- Identify the sacred time that you will use for you. You. Your creative project, your artist date, your contemplative lounging, you. Not your laundry. On your calendar, I mean.
- Artist dates! Book one right now.
- Morning pages: People swear by them for a reason.
- If you read a lot of self-help, pick up a novel. Feel free to make it a trashy one, if you want to give the self-improving literature a full break.
- Go on a date with yourself. Do you perhaps have a hot outfit you’d like to wear out on the town? Do not wait. Make a plan, and strut on out there.
- Honestly is the best policy when dealing with the self. Telling the truth to yourself doesn’t mean forcing yourself to do anything with that truth. You can just know it, whatever it is. It’s exhausting to pretend to ourselves.
- Honesty is often not the best policy with others. I find courtesy is usually the best And I hope I give courtesy for free to all. Respect and trust though? Those have to be earned. Those are the folks who get my honesty. Self-preservation is nine tenths of self care.
- Are you the person that’s always on the phone with your friends helping them with their problems? Always doing the listening? We do need to listen to our friends, and find ways to support them. Reciprocity is the law of the jungle, though. That’s also the law of modern life. So you can take a look at the balance. It would be very OK for you to have some listening time as well. It would be very OK if you reduce the time that you spent absorbing other people’s problems. Address the balance.
- Podcasts! Wonderful especially for those who work at home or are otherwise isolated (and who doesn’t sometimes feel isolated in our crazy world?) I love Call Your Girlfriend, the celebrity gossip cast Who Weekly, Elizabeth Gilbert’s Magic Lessons and Gretchen Rubin’s Happier. (And I’d love to hear what your favorites are.)
- Watch Moana again, a thrilling tale of a young adventuress who sails beyond the reef to save the world. And doesn’t need a prince to rescue her. (With catchy tunes by Lin-Manuel Miranda.)
- Read Be Less Crazy About Your Body, by my friend Megan Dietz. It’s free in Kindle form! Its sanity will provide enormous relief and many laughs.
- You can’t have too many laughs. I seek out good-humored people like George Takei, who make it their mission to buoy their Twitter followers.
- Occupy Yourself (Megan Dietz coined this phrase). The place to start is the body. Move more, eat better, reject punishing beauty norms.
- Take time out, even if it’s a little bit. (Dear heaven so obvious. And so hard for most of us.)
- And maybe put out another pillow for yourself.
- Have a good verbal spring cleaning. I learned this at the School of Womanly Arts, and I do it with a partner weekly. Formality and rules are important here. (See Resources, below.)
- Adopt a mentor: What Would Joan Jett Do? Or Audre Lorde? Or Frida Kahlo? The women who have gone before us are full of good ideas.
- Consider this definition of trauma: Anything that happens to us that’s too big to process in the moment. Kind of a relaxing way to think about our troubles, eh?
- Now if you think you might have some childhood trauma to address, this book is a solid resource: Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving, by Pete Walker.
- For recovery from traumatic relationships, I love the work of Richard Grannon. A lot of sanity, and a lot of laughs there.
- Take a leaf out of my friend Annalisa’s book, and host a Ladies Drawing Night at your local pub.
- As discussed in these pages, don’t go on any more diets.
- Sometimes the best self-care is the hardest to remember. Maybe a self-care menu would do the trick? Just pull it out when you need a little something, and you just can’t think what.
- When in the grip of frightening or self-hating thoughts, remember to ask the simple Q: Is it true?
- If it seems like this awful thing is true, and is really upsetting you, and emergency self-care is called for, enquire further.
- More on why routines are powerful!
- Getting out ahead of future needs is powerful! When you’re doing errands, stock up on some of those things you’ll always need: batteries, light bulbs, dental floss, stamps, toilet paper.
- If you live in earthquake country—or if you don’t—have an emergency kit prepared.
- Be in nature. Forest bathing, a Japanese practice, is extremely restorative. A park or a riverwalk would also be good.
- Collect botanical specimens from your (hopefully regular) walks. Emily Dickinson said to her friend Abiah Root, “Have you made an herbarium yet? I hope you will if you have not, it would be such a treasure to you; most all the girls are making one. If you do, perhaps I can make some additions to it from flowers growing around here.” Or just look at this facsimile of the teenage Dickinson’s work.
- Emily knew this, and studies now show that having a little mission to fulfill makes any outing or trip more satisfying. Next time you travel, ask a friend what treasure they’d like you to bring back. The search will take you places you wouldn’t otherwise find, and success will be disproportionately satisfying. Because we are wired for the hunt.
- Help your friends in need. We’re only as strong as our communities.
- Stay in touch. If you sent a quick postcard to someone every day, that’s a lot of bright spots in others’ lives. It’ll do a lot for you, too.
- Have a file folder for every month of the year. Put birthday cards and quarterly bills and other reminders in them, so you can pull the month’s folder out on the first and be ahead of the game.
- I hope you’re keeping the birthday cards you receive. Pull them out sometime and see how loved you are.
- While you’re in the attic putting the birthday cards back, find your kids’ craft projects. There’s probably an alligator keychain in there you could decorate your tote with.
- Toss 10 things. Throw out or recycle 10 things in the immediate area that you no longer need. You’d be surprised at how many days running you can do this. (Tip from Barbara Sher.)
- My decluttering motto: No elaborate disposal strategies. (I made that up myself. Or maybe it was inspired by Dinah Sanders.) The point: If separating your discards into many piles (sister, auntie, Salvation Army, the dump, Little Free Library, etc., etc.) is going to halt your decluttering efforts, don’t do that. Make it easy on yourself, and take everything to the Sally.
- Practice saying “As Oprah likes to say, ‘No is a complete sentence.'”
- Maya Angelou said, “The first time someone shows you who they are, believe them.” A huge part of self-care is managing boundaries, and deciding how close the different people in your world get to be to you. The first time someone shows you where the boundary should be, set it!
- Tony Gaskins (and Dr. Phil, and probably a lot of other people) said “You teach people how to treat you.” I know what he means, and he’s not wrong, but I also like to give this a little twist: I’m not obliged to teach anyone how to treat me. I can watch how they treat me, and see if that’s aligned with how I want to be treated. And if not, well, maybe I don’t care to spend my time on big tutoring projects.
- Look in the mirror and tell that woman you love her. Say it like this: I LOVE YOU.
- Keep what I call a Friendly Book at your bedside. This is a True Friend in book form. A Friendly Book is always there for you, and never has to cancel at the last minute.
- Before going to bed, ask your mind to solve a problem for you while you’re sleeping. Solutions will often come in dreams.
- Notice how many of these things are additive? It’s nice to subtract, too. One of my mentor Martha Beck’s top tips for making life better is “Bag it,” that is, don’t do anything you can actually put off doing forever.
- Opt out of catalogs you don’t need.
- Unsubscribe from mailing lists that don’t ring your bell.
- Resign from volunteer positions or other obligations that take too much and give too little back.
- Toss or give away projects that you know will never be finished. (Can you believe I said that?! I’ve done it. It worked out OK.)
- Erase longstanding undone items from your to-do list. (If they’re important, they’ll find their way back.)
- Unfollow folks on social media who cause painful envy or comparisons. As they said back in the social-media-free 14th century, comparisons are odious.
ONE HUNDRED: But if it feels good, enjoy your envy! My friend Susan Hyatt points out that envy is a clue about something you want for yourself. Tell yourself, That’s for me! Enjoy thinking about how it might come to you.
Be Less Crazy About Your Body by Megan Dietz (free Kindle copy)
Coloring pages from Simone Grace Seol
The Fluent Self by Havi Brooks
Home Comforts by Cheryl Mendelson
Artist dates and Morning Pages: Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way
Online Morning Pages app: 750 words
Discardia: More Life, Less Stuff by Dinah Sanders
Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving by Pete Walker
Richard Grannon the Spartan Life Coach
Spring Cleaning for the soul, Mama Gena’s School of Womanly Arts