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Health & Relationships

19 free and cheap self-care ideas

Every now and then, it's so important to step away from your laptop, close your textbook and let yourself relax. Here are the best ways to treat yourself to me-time, without spending a fortune.

Woman hugging herself with candles in the background

Credit: WAYHOME studio, Syda Productions – Shutterstock

We all feel a bit overwhelmed with our work and schedules now and then. Whether you've got essays to write, exams to revise for or a part-time job to juggle, it can sometimes feel like there's barely time to think, let alone unwind.

However, working flat out without any downtime will only make you less productive and could even lead you to burn out. And now more than ever, with the added pressures of the pandemic, it's super important to take care of yourself.

No matter how busy you are, always make time for self-care. Here are some free and cheap activities to help you de-stress, relax and feel like yourself again. 💜

Uni can be a really stressful time – be sure to look after your mental health, and talk to someone if you ever need to.

Best self-care tips

These are the most effective ways to relax and take care of yourself on a budget:

  1. Start journaling

    notebooks and pencil against blue background

    Credit: Alexxndr – Shutterstock

    When your head's feeling busy, it can make a lot of difference to write down your thoughts in a notebook.

    Journaling will help you make sense of everything on your mind, and it's so relaxing to sit down with a cup of tea and write.

    If you haven't already got an empty notebook, we'd recommend getting one that you'll only use as a journal. That way, you can keep it completely separate from your uni work and it will become a dedicated space for you and how you're feeling.

    It's a good idea to get into the habit of writing in a journal regularly, like for 10 minutes at the end of each day. This will help you process however you've been feeling that day, good or bad, and give you time to switch off before bed.

  2. Go for a long walk

    Breaking up the day with a long walk will do wonders for your mental wellbeing, making it one of the best free things you can do to boost your mood.

    Staying in your room too long (particularly if you're working from home a lot) can leave you feeling slightly drained and cooped up.

    Each day, try to schedule in time for a walk around your local area. The fresh air will help to clear your head and the change of scene will mean you can return home feeling refreshed.

    Struggling to motivate yourself to go out for walks? One good self-care technique is to set yourself a challenge before each walk to look out for a certain colour.

    For example, you might decide to look for yellow things, which leads you to notice golden leaves on the trees, or a mustard-coloured jumper, or a dog with a yellow lead. Then, the next day you could look for blue things, then pink things, and so on.

  3. Call friends or family

    Happy man on the phone

    Credit: mimagephotography – Shutterstock

    Sometimes, a call with your nearest and dearest is exactly what you need.

    Catch up on what you've been up to, talk about whatever's on your mind and have a good old gossip.

    If there are there any friends you haven't spoken to in a while, give them a call and see how they're doing. We're sure they'll appreciate the chat, and it can be such a great feeling to revive an old friendship.

  4. Try a free meditation or mindfulness app

    There are so many free apps available that offer guided meditation and mindfulness tips.

    They can talk you through breathing exercises and help you take some time out of your day to have a proper break and ground yourself. If you've been feeling a bit stressed and overworked recently, mindfulness apps could really help.

    If you have an American Express card, you could get a free year's subscription to Calm Premium. Plus, any students with Spotify Premium can also get full access to Headspace for free. But, if you don't have Amex or Spotify, don't worry –  both Calm and Headspace have free versions, too.

  5. Have a bath or shower

    candles by a bath

    Credit: Brian Goodman – Shutterstock

    There's something about a long soak in the bath or a hot shower that is so relaxing.

    It's a part of the day where you don't need to study – you don't need to do anything, in fact. You can just chill.

    If you have any nice-scented toiletries, a self-care bath or shower is the perfect time to use them. You'll get out feeling (and smelling) lovely.

  6. Watch your favourite film

    If there's one film that you come back to time and again when you're in need of a pick-me-up, this would be perfect for a self-care film night.

    We've got a couple of guides to help you save money on Netflix and find cheaper ways to stream TV shows and films on different platforms.

    So get curled up on the sofa, grab your blanket or duvet and treat yourself to a quiet night in – you deserve it.

  7. Do a yoga challenge

    girl doing yoga on mat

    Credit: Stacey Green – Shutterstock

    Yoga is an amazing way to chill out after a long day. And the best part? You can do it at home for free.

    YouTube is full of great yoga tutorials.

    We recommend 'Yoga with Adriene'. The channel's hosted by someone called Adriene (as you may have guessed) who is full of energy and enthusiasm, and her yoga classes are good for beginners and more experienced yogis alike.

    Her 30-day challenges are especially worth a go as they'll help you get into the habit of doing yoga each day. But just be warned, they're harder than they look...

  8. Make your own facemask

    For a low-cost pamper day at home, you could try making your own facemask – it's so easy, when you know how.

    We have a guide to homemade beauty treatments that includes some lovely facemasks, like a strawberry and honey mask, as well as an avocado and pineapple one.

    Cut up a couple of slices of cucumber, put on some ambient tunes and you've basically got the full spa experience.

  9. Start drawing or painting

    Paint on a palette

    Credit: Elena Efimova – Shutterstock

    If you've ever felt like "you can't draw", we promise that you can – it just takes practice, patience and a bit of confidence.

    It's so worth it when you give it a go. Maybe light a scented candle, put on some chilled music and get started on your drawing or painting. Try not to overthink what you're making, and you'll soon find yourself fully absorbed in it.

    Remember that you don't need to create a masterpiece. Nobody even needs to see your art unless you want them to, so draw or paint whatever you wish, and let yourself enjoy it.

    A blank page can be daunting, so for anyone who's unsure where to begin, have a look online for some art tutorials or join an online drawing class (there are some great ones on Meetup).

  10. Listen to a relaxing playlist

    Music platforms like Spotify and Apple Music have loads of pre-made playlists to suit just about any mood. For a laid-back playlist, you could try acoustic songs, or maybe classical music if you'd like to listen to something more delicate and instrumental.

    Or sometimes making your own playlist can in itself be really relaxing. If there are any particular songs or artists you listen to on self-care days, collect them all together and make your very own collection of feel-good music.

    Then, as your self-care activity, you can just take it easy while listening to the playlist – you could maybe get some snacks, make a hot drink and snuggle up in a blanket, letting yourself think about little else other than the music.

  11. Eat good food

    Tomato soup with toast

    Credit: Alice Day – Shutterstock

    Food really is good for the soul.

    Warming dishes like homemade soup are ideal for self-care – they're comforting, tasty, cheap and easy.

    You could also think about whether there's a meal that reminds you of home and try making that. This would be perfect for any time you're feeling a bit homesick and missing home-cooked food.

    Or if you'd like to bake something sweet, you'd get the added benefit of getting to eat freshly baked cakes, brownies or whatever else you fancy afterwards. This chocolate fondant cupcake recipe is definitely worth a try.

    Alternatively, if you want good food but you're not in the mood to cook, you could always treat yourself to a takeaway – just be sure to have a read of our tips on how to save money on them first.

  12. Get lost in a good book

    At uni, you might feel like you spend your life reading. But how often do you read purely for the joy of it?

    Every now and then, it can make so much difference to put down the academic essays and journals and pick up a book that you can really get lost in.

    This would be great as a free self-care activity if you already have a book lying around at home that you'd like to read. You could also see if any of your friends are interested in doing a book swap if you both have similar reading tastes.

    If you do decide to buy a book, it's worth having a look for second-hand ones on sites like AbeBooks as these should be cheaper.

    Looking for book inspiration? See our list of the best books about money.
  13. Do a home workout

    woman doing exercise indoors

    Credit: Goran Bojicevik Shutterstock

    General exercise has been found to be really good for mental health and wellbeing.

    As well as going for walks and doing yoga as we mentioned earlier, you could also try a home workout that's a little more intensive.

    There are loads of videos on YouTube with HIIT workouts (High-Intensity Interval Training).

    As the name suggests, HIIT workouts can be pretty intense, but one of the best parts of doing them from home is that you can pause or stop the workout at any time.

    Not only is it cheaper (free, even!), but it can feel like there's less pressure when you do exercise at home compared to in a gym class, as you don't need to worry about what anyone else thinks.

    If you decide HIIT workouts aren't for you, have a look through YouTube and try different exercise tutorials until you find the perfect one for you.

  14. Learn a new craft or hobby

    If you find that you spend most of your time thinking about little else other than your degree subject, it could be so beneficial to try a new craft or hobby.

    It would be a great distraction, and you may end up discovering something which is fun, productive and great for your wellbeing.

    For self-care activities, we recommend trying things that have the right balance of being challenging enough to keep your mind engaged, but also easy enough to not feel like work. Perhaps try a cross-stitching kit, an adult colouring book or maybe even a soap-making set.

  15. Have a clearout

    lights on brick wall plant room

    Credit: Africa Studio – Shutterstock

    When you're stressed, tidying your room might sound like the last thing you want to do, but it can actually be super therapeutic to have a clearout.

    Your bedroom should be somewhere that you feel at your most calm. If it's filled with clutter, it could be impacting your mood and making it harder for you to fully switch off.

    You could take inspiration from Marie Kondo and identify which of your belongings no longer bring you joy. Get rid of whatever you decide you no longer need or want, leaving you more space for the things that you genuinely do care about.

    Once you've picked out the items to get rid of, you could consider donating them to a charity shop, or even selling them online.

    To really make your room feel homely, try these cheap ways to decorate your bedroom.
  16. Turn off your phone's notifications for an hour

    For loads of us, our phones basically live in our hands. Without even thinking about it, when it buzzes and lights up, we look and respond. Being so connected all the time can be great, but it can also be exhausting.

    Sometimes, the best thing you can do to help yourself feel better is to pause your phone's notifications for an hour or so.

    In that period, it won't matter who's said what on social media, what meme your friend's sent you or who you've matched with on Tinder – these things can wait. What matters is that you have time to yourself to rest.

    If you really struggle to ignore your phone for long, maybe try an app like Hold. It will reward you for not holding your phone for certain periods of time by giving you freebies like Costa Coffee and popcorn at the cinema.

  17. Try a new podcast

    Man on laptop listening to music

    Credit: Mooshny – Shutterstock

    There are so many podcasts to choose from, and when you find a new one that you can get stuck into, it's such a treat.

    Lots of podcasts are focused on self-care and self-love, aimed at helping you feel better, calmer and happier with yourself. Maybe listen to them when travelling, while cleaning or even just in bed with a cuppa.

    If you haven't already, you could try the Happy Place podcast by Fearne Cotton, Oprah's SuperSoul Conversations, How to Fail With Elizabeth Day and so many more.

  18. Do something kind for others

    Doing a kind act for someone else is good for a lot of reasons.

    You have no idea what others are going through, so even if you do something that seems small to you, it may mean the world to them. Sometimes, just showing someone that you care and you're there for them is enough.

    As an example, if you know someone in halls or in your class is very shy, you could open up a conversation with them and see how they're doing. They'll no doubt appreciate you making the effort, and it could well be the start of a beautiful friendship.

    Helping others has the added benefit of giving you a little boost too, helping to improve your self-esteem and general mood. It feels good to be kind to others – and be sure to keep the next point in mind too...

  19. Be kind to yourself

    happy chihuahua in a blanket

    Credit: Jagodka – Shutterstock

    One of the most important self-care tips on this list is an easy one to forget: be kind to yourself.

    We can all be a bit hard on ourselves at times. It can feel like there's a lot of pressure to always do well at uni, and always say the right thing and do the right thing, but the truth is we all make mistakes – and that's okay.

    To help yourself feel happier and better about yourself, try not to compare yourself to other people who you think have it all sorted out.

    As we mentioned earlier, it's impossible to know what others are going through – and they may even be comparing themselves to you, and feeling the same way!

    Just try to be as kind and forgiving to yourself as you would to those around you, and you won't go far wrong. Take care. 🤗

Did you know that spending time with dogs can actually improve your mood and your uni work? What wonderful animals.

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