Poverty and Self-Care: What if I Can't Afford Self-Care?

The concept of self-care has been around for a while. Since the pandemic started, it’s become an even more relevant and important practice. It seems everywhere you turn someone is talking about self-care and what you can do. But your ability to practice self-care is often tied to your finances.

Your economic status has an incredible impact on what self-care looks like. If you live in a position of stability, buying yourself a special treat, taking time off work when you need a break, seeing a therapist or mental health professional when you need help, and planning a few weekend get-aways are normal boxes on your self-care checklist. But if you live in a position of poverty or limited financial resources, none of those things are possible. Not because you don’t need or want them. Because you can’t afford it.

If you live in a position of stability, saying you need to eat three nutritional meals a day doesn’t sound like a big deal. Yes, perhaps you need to find some new recipes and it’ll take more time, but that’s about the end of barriers to fulfilling that self-care box. But if you live in poverty, you may not have a choice as to what you eat. Often you’re at the mercy of the prices at the grocery stores, which usually means eating a lot of heavily processed boxed foods because they are cheap. More than 34 million people in America struggled with hunger in 2019. You read that right. 34 million American’s, one of the wealthiest countries in the world, didn’t have enough food to eat. And with a national disaster like the pandemic, it’s very likely that that number shot up by millions.

An article in the Journal of Mental Health Counseling notes that Self-care and wellness are important components of overall mental health." Living in poverty has a dramatic impact on mental and physical health. Living in poverty creates an environment of toxic stress, because the focus is only on surviving. This means that the people who need self-care most are the least likely to do it. Part of it is due to the cost of self-care, which isn’t attainable for most living paycheck-to-paycheck, but also because poverty inhibits cognitive thinking.

Related | Toxic Stress’ Effect on the Mind and Body

One single mom describes her struggle to access self-care this way “Whenever I talk to friends about this, they have a lot of suggestions, ranging from ‘Go get a massage’ to ‘Have you called that therapist I suggested yet?’ But these activities are too indulgent, too expensive. They require child care, and if I have child care available, then I need to work. End of discussion.”

So what can you do if you can’t afford self-care? Self-care doesn’t always mean spending money or taking time off work. The core concept of self-care is doing things that support your physical, mental, emotional and financial health. Since the needs of each person are different, the practice of self-care will look different for everyone. And if you’re already stressed out by trying to survive, adding more