Like many of us, I have struggled with mental health for most of my life. And unfortunately, it’s likely that this problem is bound to get worse. The Canadian Mental Health Association warns that the number of Canadians reporting stress in their day-to-day lives has risen 30% since last year. This means that the integration of self-care is crucial in preventing health risks.
In my youth, I spent a lot of time on talk therapy and medication. I still hold the opinion that everyone should delve down those roads at some point if needed. But the caveat is you also need to be able to afford it. Where I’m at right now (on a student budget) I rarely have money for either. Furthermore, I personally found endless therapy sessions have been simultaneously all but useless and wildly expensive. However, throughout my years I have picked up a few tricks that can lead to better mental health on a budget.
Set aside money for mental health on a budget
Spoiler alert: you can’t budget for mental without budgeting for mental health.
One of the easiest ways to care for your mental health on a budget is to actually have a portion of your cash flow dedicated to mental health. Depending on your needs, this can be as large as putting away a few hundred dollars for therapy each month, setting a goal of a couple grand for a relaxing vacation, or as small as $25 per week to treat yourself on a bad day.
Whatever amount works for you, make sure to set up a dedicated savings account to catch these funds. Separating your self-care cash from the rest of your money will make sure you don’t accidentally spend it on something else. It will also make you less reluctant to spend on something that will really benefit you, like subscribing to a meditation app, because you now have dedicated means to do so.
Take advantage of health benefits for self-care services
A dedicated mental health savings account is particularly useful if you have access to any insurance benefits that will reimburse part or all of the cost of your self-care spending. Determine what amount you need and then open a high-interest savings account and start putting the money away. Withdraw it when you need to pay for a service, then replace the cash when your employer or insurance company reimburses you.
Double and triple check your insurance and benefits from your employer, to see if what’s covered in terms of psychological services and health services like massages or chiropractor care. Some employers will even cover all or part of extras, like fitness classes!
If your employer does not offer any money for mental health services, check if they provide personal days. Taking a mental health day is way less expensive if you’re not missing out on income to do so!
Schedule Your Self-Care
Something I’ve run into time and time again is a last-minute calendar panic. I usually end up canceling plans that would have helped me relax, had I not forgot about them until the hour prior. Write things in your calendar as plans are made, and run through the next week every night before you go to bed. Even tentative plans should be penciled in so that you’re prepared for that “We still on for drinks tonight?” text.
Not only does this help your professional schedule, but being consistent with planning tends to help you socialize more as well. If your time is already stretched to the limits, there is no hope for taking time to yourself unless you are able to organize your day. One of the things that have helped me the most with this is scheduling some alone time in my planner. Writing in “facemask” or “watch an episode of that stupid show that makes you laugh” will make the week ahead look much less intimidating!
Finally, splurge on a planner that feels nice to hold in your hands. Mental health on a budget doesn’t mean you have to rob yourself! A stylish planner will be easier to commit to. A few dollars at the beginning of the year, along with consistent motivation and revision, can do wonders once it becomes a part of your life.
The oldest therapy trick in the book is keeping a journal. Even writing down feelings on a scrap piece of paper can do your mind wonders. It took me years to start doing this because, in all honesty, it seemed ridiculous. For some reason, I felt that my mind was perfectly capable of compartmentalizing my thoughts on its own. But I’ve come to learn that journaling isn’t necessarily compartmentalizing as much as it’s allowing yourself to think through your feelings.
Once you start writing, it’s amazing how much you put down; most of which has never crossed your mind before. It’s essentially the same venting perks as a therapist, without the cost or effort. It’s ideal for mental health on a budget! And, of course, burning up particularly emotional entries has a certain emotional release (just be careful with the flames).
Take Care of Something
Here’s another tip offered to me by essentially every therapist I’ve been to, but again I’ve got to give them credit: it really works. At the risk of sounding too bohemian, having a living thing in your home that relies on you to survive as a way of mending your soul.
The best way to do this on the tightest of budgets is any form of an herb garden. Most herbs can grow anywhere: the windowsill in your kitchen is always a safe bet. Caring for these plants not only gives you a small sense of purpose in a chaotic world, but then you also have fresh herbs to use to amplify the quality of your cooking! If even this is too much commitment (I understand), it’s good to start with a fern or succulent next to your bed. They tend to be hard to kill.
Of course, the reward can be higher the greater the responsibility is. It all depends on your budget for mental health. My vice is fish. I try to always have a beta or two to care for. As silly as it is, having those ugly bulbous eyes staring at me when I get home at the end of the day makes getting by a little easier. Of course, this is more straining on the budget. But it still remains fairly low-maintenance, especially if you stick to classically easy fish, like beta or goldfish.
Something that I was lucky enough to learn early is that eating good food improves your health both physically and mentally. It’s actually surprising how big a difference it can make. Learning how to cook at home rather than ordering in or eating out is the first step in combining food with mental health on a budget.
Try to learn how to incorporate foods that are known for mental health. Luckily, most of these foods are really easy to throw onto a meal. Greens, like spinach or kale, tend to help me out the most. Spinach is so easy to throw into cooking! A stir-fry or chicken fried rice are easiest, especially since you can add scrambled eggs, which are also a great food for your brain. As far as breakfast goes, the antioxidants in blueberries make a huge difference for me. Add some on top of your oatmeal or cereal to take your morning routine to the next level.
A Safe Place to Unwind
As busy bees in a never-ending capitalist machine, we need a safe place in order to allow our minds to wind down. For those lucky few, this safe place is a sauna, or a Zen garden, or a hot tub in the backyard. Although most of us don’t have such luxury, it doesn’t mean we can’t come up with our own cheaper alternatives.
This tip tends to be much more personalized than the others. A safe place can vary according to opportunity, the budget for self-care, space, and preference. But the easiest way to incorporate something like this into a busy schedule is to amplify something that is already a part of your daily routine. For me, it’s my shower. A tub is great for this too, but in my long history of shitty apartments, a bathtub is a luxury rather than an expectation.
In any case, use this part of your day as an opportunity to relax for a little while. It’s a good escape from the world around you, and a rare place where you can feel totally disconnected. Take a few extra minutes to do some deep breathing and rejuvenation. Allow yourself to become more in tune with the thoughts that you had undoubtedly ignored throughout the day. In my eyes, the shower should be healing, as well as cleansing. This tip is all about the headspace, but once you can add a little more meaning to something as simple as a shower, you’ll be surprised how much better you feel!
I’ve spent years putting together this small list of cheap and easy tricks for mental health on a budget, and they’ve become an essential part of my day-to-day life. It’s important to keep your sanity in mind, even amidst your seemingly never-ending schedule. These are so easy to incorporate without taking too much time (or money!) out of your day. And in the long term, a few minutes a day can prevent an overloaded mind, which can be much more damaging than an hour-long shower.
Again, I’m not a therapist, but through experience, I can attest to this!