What Happens When You Can No Longer Afford “Self-Care”?

Being granted permission by the self-care movement to put my needs first was momentous and liberating. But now you can justify anything in the name of self-care. I was justifying about $1K a month. Here’s how I reined it in.

The cost of self care

2018 was a big year for me. It was the year that I finally jumped on the self-care bandwagon and put some real effort into helping myself first before my family, friends and work. I was looking great and feeling great—until I realized I was basically bankrupting myself by justifying every purchase in the name of self-care.

The cultural self-care shift was exactly what I needed.

In the beginning, I needed everything I could get. After a year of battling through an emotionally and physically draining divorce in 2017, I was a shell of myself. I entered the new year determined to feel good, look good, and live better.

As timing would have it, my year of self-discovery coincided nicely with “self-care” as a concept becoming ubiquitous. There was a wide array of new experiences, techniques, philosophies, and—of course—products available to help me get there. Because the actual definition of self-care is quite vague, it can be turned into anything you want. And a lot of marketers are doing just that. Virtually any product, business, or nutritional plan can be neatly packaged as self-care.

I, for one, openly embraced this cultural shift. As a mother, I devote so much of my time, energy, and emotional capital to the care of others. Being granted permission by the self-care movement to put my needs first seemed momentous and liberating. It was like someone giving me a big hug. It was a small, calm voice whispering in my ear, “You deserve it.” Well, of course I do!

Over time, I began to justify every purchase with a little “Well, I deserve it!” Meal delivery services, cosmetic products, nutritional supplements, alternative health treatments, interior design updates, clothing, social activities, memberships, therapy, accessories of every kind, apps to achieve goals in any of the essential categories of health, nutrition, peace of mind—all of these things were fair game. And necessary. I needed them.

But as the year started to wind down, and I actually took a good, hard look at my personal finances, I was shocked to see how much I had spent during the previous twelve months. I had a hard time accounting for where the money had actually gone.

As, I dug deeper, I realized that I’d spent a great deal in the name of self-care—like, close to $1,000 a month kind of a deal. Clearly, something had to change.

Lessening the financial toll of self-care takes some reflection.

I realized that the financial impact of all my betterment efforts was starting to erode some of the positives. The time I’d gained by ordering groceries for delivery or meal kits didn't mean much by the end of the month—not compared to the financial worry when I saw the amount I had spent. Any potential health benefit of a supplement or wellness add-on was fleeting when I measured it against the sense of dread when I saw the auto-ship charges piling up on my credit card statement. These weren't lasting changes to my sense of well-being—they were quick fixes that had no lasting effect on how well I felt.

I had to get a better plan for taking care of myself that didn’t include simply throwing money at all the problems. This plan started with being honest with myself about how I defined self-care, how much I could realistically devote to this area of my life, and some hard questions about why these expenses mattered.

Being granted permission by the self-care movement to put my needs first seemed momentous and liberating

Self-care, I realized, is something you do on purpose to make yourself feel better. Or, better yet, things you do that allow you to have time for yourself. Keeping that in mind, I came up with five actionable ways to get a handle on it in the new year.

Decide what self-care means to you.

Figure out what purpose it serves, stay true to that definition, and say no to anything that conflicts with that. If the modality for satisfying your nutritional goals blows up your financial goals, that’s not a sustainable strategy.

Sometimes we need self-care to give ourselves a break, feel better about ourselves, be healthier in various areas of our lives. When we overspend on self-care, it actually creates the reverse effect, so it’s important to define this for yourself.

Once you have decided what it means to you, it will be a lot easier to decide if a purchase is actually making a difference in your life, or if it will give you a momentary sense of well-being and not actually sustain you in any way.

For me, I needed to define what self-care meant within the too-broad definition of anything that makes you feel better about yourself. I was able to identify key areas that are powerful for me. They included physical and mental health, in combination with social and financial wellness. Nutrition, exercise, creativity, and mindfulness are important aspects of these for me, but none quite so powerful as feeling empowered in my finances and decision-making.

Use up what you already have.

Whether that’s a half-used container of night cream or a fitness app you bought and forgot, use it before you buy another one.

Going into tidying mode at the beginning of the new year fits perfectly with that philosophy. I have an assortment of samples, half-full bottles of cosmetic and beauty products, and nutritional products that might have been a good deal or a promo offer. For whatever reason, I didn’t stick to them, or they didn’t work. Maybe I lost interest and moved on to something else when the immediate gratification wore off.

I have challenged myself to use up everything I have already purchased, and then I can really assess whether it had an impact for me or was just something that made me feel better in the moment.

Make a budget and stick to it.

Specify clearly how much you will spend on self-care instead of thinking of it as an add-on. Let subscriptions run out and start fresh to evaluate what you actually need and use. Use the free versions.

The first step I took was to freeze my credit card—like actually put it in my freezer—and detach from any accounts, subscriptions, services, or “free” trials. This allowed me to see the immediate impact of any purchases on my overall finances, instead of them being hidden.

Having a clear and specific plan for how I spend my money (and how much I’m devoting to self-care) is giving me a better sense of what is worth my money and what isn’t.

Use your network for trades.

I know so many talented moms who have expertise in areas that I don’t. I have started connecting with other moms to let them know what I have to offer and also to ask for help.

I’m always so impressed with the underutilized skill sets of moms, whether they are working in their areas of expertise or not. I would much rather get a recommendation from another mom than give my money to a total stranger, and in return, I can offer advice or support in the areas I know best.

If you don’t feel like you have an even trade for what you need help with, offering childcare goes a long way.

Start with what you already have at home.

Habits, rituals, or routines that you can start doing regularly, right before bed or first thing in the morning, can go a long way in the realm of self-care. Instead of looking for solutions elsewhere, start with what’s right in front of you.

A simple journal entry and expression of gratitude is how I end each evening, writing at least a few lines of reflection about my day and ten things I am grateful for. The morning begins with a similar expression of gratitude and a simple exercise to get my body warmed up. This allows me to set my intention and costs absolutely nothing.

I will not find the answer somewhere else if I can’t take care of myself in the few quiet moments I do have to myself. Mothering yourself is as much about being kind to yourself as it is about external factors.

I recognized that true self-care means having more time, energy, and money.

Self-care can mean anything you want it to. For me, the definition had started to get very nebulous and turned into “You deserve it” or “Go for it,” and even “This will change your life.”

The products, services and options that really pulled me in were those promising to save me time, to give me more time for myself and my children.

The more I thought about it and really broke it down, I realized that so many of these things were simply impulse purchases. Their allure wore off very quickly, and soon I would be spending on something almost identical. Now that I have stayed true to the changes that I started in January, I feel like I’m more in control, more deliberate about my spending, and this gives me a greater sense of calm and wellness than buying the newest cure-all out there.

Meighan Merono is a solo mom and career gal raising two children in San Francisco. She is a contributing writer for Woman Born and has been featured on the podcast Big Little Choices.