8 ways you can master self-care without spending a dime

Forget spa days and idyllic getaways, self care is about consistently taking moments to rejuvenate and re-center.
by Nicole Spector /
Image: Group of friends laughing
The brain doesn't recognize the difference between real and fake laughter — research shows that any smile or laugh can boost your mood.Westend61 / Getty Images
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As a journalist who writes about wellness and healthy living, I spend a lot of time exploring self-care and its various benefits. Despite taking this research and reportage very seriously — and avidly recommending tips to friends and family — I often feel like a self-care failure in my personal life, judging myself against the amount of money and time I spend on rejuvenating leisure.

I work out, but not as much as I feel I should, and usually I opt for high-intensity exercise rather than yoga, which though challenging, can afford me a sense of peace and calm like nothing else. I can’t remember the last time I got a massage or a facial because I hate spending money on that stuff, and while I often say I’ll go on a long reflective hike on Saturday morning, I’m 99 percent more likely to spend the morning reading in bed.

I embarked on this story because I wanted to find methods of self-care that wouldn’t cost me much money or time — two things I’m chronically short on. Through conversations with mental health experts, I discovered an abundance of such self-care practices, which I’ve itemized below. But I also came away with a much more important takeaway: I am not a failure at self-care. Based on these expert recommendations, I’m actually doing pretty good at self-care, which is less about pampering one’s self with spa days and idyllic getaways (though I don’t dispute the advantages of either), and more about taking moments to rejuvenate and re-center with consistency and ease.

Self-care is about recharging and reducing stress

"Self-care is a way to recharge our mental and emotional energy," says Dr. Ryan Hooper, a clinical psychologist. "If we don’t do self-care on a regular basis we will eventually feel drained and burned out. Self-care doesn’t have to take a ton of time; in fact, sometimes it’s the quick, simple things that are happening on a regular basis that keep us recharged."

Self-care doesn’t have to take a ton of time; in fact, sometimes it’s the quick, simple things that are happening on a regular basis that keep us recharged.

Dr. Farrah Hauke, Psy.D, a licensed psychologist, adds that self-care is "absolutely vital" to emotional well being. "It is incredibly important because it can decrease stress as well as anxiety and depressive symptoms. It also helps us to be more productive and mindful of our needs which helps us to proactively address problems.” She too agrees that self-care “does not have to be time consuming or expensive."

Here's a look at self-care moves we can make every day without spending a dime or taking much time.

Designate a meditation zone (and get an app or two)

If you have a whole room you can transform into a space for meditation, go for it, but for those of us maximizing our little apartments, we just need to pick a spot in our bedroom or living room where we can reflect.

“All you need is pillows or your favorite blanket and objects that make you feel calm," says Cynthia V. Catchings, LCSW, a Talkspace therapist. "Sit there for 15 min and let the magic of the space do the healing work." You may want to also incorporate some deep breathing exercises.

If you’re anything like me and find yourself antsy and distracted just sitting there, download a meditation app to help focus you. I’ve tried a few, and lately I’m digging Headspace as it provides short, guided sessions that I can tune into quickly whenever I’m feeling overwhelmed.

Bring mindfulness to routine activities like walking and washing the dishes

Mindfulness, which Dr. Sarah Gray, Psy.D, a clinical psychologist defines as “the practice of being in the present moment, non-judgmentally and with an open curiosity to what one notices,” is a wonderful way to practice self-care without changing your routine at all.

Mindfulness can be applied to virtually any activity that safely allows for it including walking, eating, drinking and even washing the dishes.

“Mindfulness provides many opportunities to recharge our mental, emotional and physical 'batteries,' especially if we're feeling depleted by life,” says Dr. Gray. “One can engage in the traditional practice of just noticing the breath — the feel of it, the temperature, the sound — and then continue to focus on the breath even as the mind becomes distracted by thoughts, emotions or sensations.”

Mindfulness can be applied to virtually any activity that safely allows for it including walking, eating, drinking and even washing the dishes, Dr. Gray says.

Make a gratitude list

Writing down things I am grateful for in a gratitude journal helps me get centered at the end of a busy day.

“This practice has been show to increase a sense of happiness and is a good reminder in the moment of all that we can be grateful for,” says Dr. Gray. “You simply make a list of things that you are grateful for in this moment. It might be something as small as being grateful for the feeling of warm sun on one's face, or that you are able to take a deep breath easily. Some people choose to write each one down in a journal to be re-read when they need a boost, or put each on a piece of paper in a jar and pick one out to read and reflect on at certain times.”

Add some quick-fix ideas to a ‘happiness’ jar

Got a few minutes? Take an old jar, clean it out and designate it as your happiness jar.

"The happiness jar is a simple activity we can keep at home,” says Catchings. “All we need is a jar or cup, a pen and some paper. Cut five pieces of paper and write things that make you happy on each one of them. For example, take a bubble bath, watch an episode of your favorite show, or listen to that song that brings good memories. Fold each paper and put it in the jar. When in need, pick one of the papers and enjoy the moment by doing what it says.”

Collect rocks and repurpose them as inspirational touchstones

What’s better than a pet rock? A pet rock with an encouraging message on it hand-painted by you.

“Step outside and look for light-colored rocks,” says Catchings. “With pens, markers or leftover paints, create a mindfulness platter or container. On each rock paint or write words of encouragement like strength, calmness, peace, etc. Once a day, go and grab one of the rocks. Read the word and think about how you can accomplish that state that day.”

Laugh — even if you aren’t in the mood

The happiness-making effect of the simple act of smiling has been proven, and laughter has similar value.

“The brain does not recognize the difference between real and fake laughter,” says Catchings. “A [laugh] here and there can be so contagious that you can make yourself happy just by laughing about you laughing. Google laughter yoga videos and start the show.”

Take care of something

Taking care of something else can be a great way to take care of ourselves.

“Taking care of something else can be a great way to take care of ourselves,” says Dr. Hooper. “Having a dog or cat at home is really rewarding and you get much more in return than it requires to take care of them. Just taking care of a simple potted plant or succulent can be really rewarding, too. Taking the time to water them and see them grow can foster feeling of growth and rejuvenation in yourself.”

This tip from Dr. Hooper is possibly my favorite because I can relate so well to how good it feels to take care of my two dogs. My most beloved sound in the world is the sound of them lapping up water in a freshly filled bowl. They also help motivate me to take a walk no matter how tired I am, and bring a smile to my face just by being their sweet, silly selves. Now, as I’m getting one of my pups, Josepher, in training to be a therapy dog, my puppy love is off the charts.

Decorate your office walls with pictures of your favorite places

When I had a cubicle, I pinned pictures of friends and family on the walls to keep me grounded, but I never thought to put up photos of places in my work space.

“If you spend most of your time in an office or cubicle, print out a couple of pictures of your favorite vacation spots and place them where you can see them during the day,” suggests Catchings. “Take a couple of minutes to look at the photos during stressful moments and transport yourself to those places. Imagine yourself there, feeling the breeze, hearing the sounds and let the beauty of the place reinvigorate you.”

The research is clear: the human brain and body cannot stay focused, productive and effective without taking breaks to recharge.

Any self-care methods are necessary to your strength

Whatever you choose to do, know that you’re doing it not because you should, but because you need to in order to stay strong.

“The reality is, without taking some time to engage in self-care, you’re burning the candle at both ends,” says Dr. Chris Friesen, Ph.D., C.Psych., BCN. “The research is clear: the human brain and body cannot stay focused, productive and effective without taking breaks to recharge. Stress levels can exponentially increase as the day progresses. Without self-care, productivity drops.”

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