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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 thatSelf-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.

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 to-do's to your list can be more harmful than helpful. So to prevent that, we’ve curated some free self-care suggestions. Not all of these will be easy, in fact the most impactful self-care is rarely easy, but remember that the goal is long-term improvement in your health. It may be hard now, but these suggestions have the potential to change your life for the better.

Free Self-Care Checklist for Broke People

  • Say three things you’re grateful for

  • Forgive yourself for mistakes or shortcomings

  • Walk for 10-20 minutes everyday

  • Say “no” to things you don’t want or need to do

  • Ask for support when you need it

  • Spend time with people who care about you

  • Clean the space that you spend the most time in

  • Spend time in nature whenever possible whether that’s a hike, going to the park, taking a scenic drive or walking on a greenway

  • Find ways to let your mind rest by participating in a hobby, meditating or clearing your mind, yoga, or any other activity that helps you stop thinking

  • Drink at least four glasses of water a day

  • Do your best to get 8 hours of sleep each night

  • Find a reason to laugh perhaps by watching something funny on Youtube or a streaming service

  • Allow yourself to play perhaps by spending time with friends, playing board games or video games

  • Stay curious and learn something just for fun

  • Make something useless out of a piece or garbage or recycling. Allow yourself to be creative.

  • Reduce or stop your use of tobacco, nicotine, alcohol or other drugs.

  • Listen, read or watch something that brings positivity into your life

  • Find your sense of purpose and/or connect with your spirituality

  • Allow yourself to let go of things you cannot change or have no control over

  • Accept help when it’s offered

  • Remove people from your life that bring more stress or negativity to your life

  • Make a new friend or reconnect with an old relationship

  • Set 5 minutes aside every day just for you time, even if that requires locking yourself in the bathroom or bedroom

  • Recognize the good qualities you have and the good things you do each day

  • Try a new recipe using ingredients you already have

  • Tell someone how they have positively impacted your life

  • Compliment yourself, then someone else

  • Dress up in your best outfit, even if you don’t go anywhere, and appreciate how good you look

  • When possible, volunteer in the community

  • Allow yourself to dream and write down those dreams

  • Set a goal for yourself that you can accomplish

Want to Help People in Poverty?

  • Donate | We use your money to help run our programs, and provide training that helps organizations and individuals make their way to self-sufficiency. You can donate on our web page or find an agencies local to you.

  • Volunteer | We can’t do this alone. Join us! Find one of our agencies in your county and check out their website for volunteer opportunities.

  • Become a Member | Did you know you can become a Community Action Member? Membership provides discounted tickets to our various events, an inside look into our organization and more. Membership fees start at only $25 a year for an individual, or $300 for an agency.

  • Partner with Us | We are humbled by the many non-profit and for-profit organizations that partner with us to bring services, educations and events to North Carolina. If your organization is looking for a non-profit to partner with, please consider us. Email us at We would love to hear from you!

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