A few days ago, a reader referred me to this Tweet by Maxine Ali that really left me thinking. In short, her point was that things like exercising in a home gym, having fresh produce delivered to your door, and having a private space to unwind when distressed are all examples of things that are promoted as part of a healthy lifestyle but are actually things that only wealthy people can really afford. It creates this false idea that “healthy living” is something exclusively for people with wealth or with lots of disposable income. She goes on in subsequent Tweets to make the point that many “wellness gurus” offer “wellness tips” that are actually more about showing off how much wealth and disposable income they have, because their “wellness tips” rely on having a lot of money.
The truth is that a healthy lifestyle can actually be really inexpensive and it can flex around a lot of lifestyle situations. Obviously, meditating in your own bonsai garden or having a full home gymnasium or having fresh organic produce delivered to your door every day isn’t frugal at all and is far outside the realistic spending boundaries of most people, but that doesn’t mean that people can’t live healthy on a limited budget. In fact, most of the things that people can do to live a healthier life cost nothing at all, and some of them even save money over other options.
What follows is a collection of tips on how to live a healthier lifestyle on a limited budget. Ideally, you’re already doing some of these things, and that’s great. Pick and choose from amongst some of the things you’re not doing. Similarly, you’ll probably find a few ideas that don’t fit in your life for various reasons, and that’s fine. Pick and choose from the other ideas instead. This is a buffet table of ideas, and just like how you don’t put literally everything on your plate at the salad bar, you don’t need to grab everything here. Just find the ideas that make sense for you.
Seven tips to living a healthy lifestyle, inexpensively
1. You don’t need stuff to be well.
This is the most important lesson of all. You don’t need to buy a bunch of products to be “well.” If any “lifestyle guru” is telling you that you need some particular product to feel healthier, then that person is functioning as a salesperson, first and foremost. You don’t need an elixir, essential oil or an expensive tea brand to live a healthy lifestyle. You don’t need expensive soaps and shampoos to look clean and healthy.
Feeling healthy and feeling good mostly comes from giving time and attention to things, not giving money to things. You’re going to eat a much healthier diet by just thinking a little about what goes on your plate, not buying the most expensive food items in the store. You’re going to feel better by eating a healthier diet and moving around more, not by buying essential oils and big bottles of vitamins.
Products won’t fix the problems in your life. In fact, buying products will probably make the problems in your life worse, because they’ll put you in a worse financial position, which is likely to amp up your levels of stress and anxiety.
There are a lot of great core ideas that many “wellness gurus” offer, but those ideas don’t require buying a lot of products or services. Most of the things that they recommend, when you tease away all of the sales pitches, don’t require much expense at all. They certainly don’t require lots of product purchases. The truth is that practicing a healthy lifestyle comes down to your own actions, not the products you buy. Your valuable investment comes in the form of time and attention, not in the form of money.
2. Exercising at home doesn’t require a home gym.
You can get yourself into very good shape within the walls of your own home with basically no equipment whatsoever and with very limited space. You absolutely do not need a home gym or a giant spacious room to do it. You don’t need tons of equipment, either. You basically just need enough space somewhere in your home that you can fully stretch out on the floor. If you have that, you can do this.
I recently wrote a lengthy beginner’s guide to exercising at home at minimal cost, offering strategies for figuring out what you want to do and tons of free resources to help guide you with home exercise. The only piece of equipment I even suggest throughout the whole article is a single paragraph where I suggest getting a jump rope.
What if you’re not up for hard exercise? Honestly, the most important thing you can do for your physical health on a daily basis is to just move around more. Go on walks, short or long. Stand up when doing tasks instead of sitting. Make these things extremely routine. If you get into the routine of a few daily walks or one long daily walk, that’s going to be a tremendous benefit for you long term versus not regularly walking at all. Similarly, switching to doing an hour or two of your work while standing rather than sitting will make a nice difference, too.
The truth is that you just need to find something you enjoy doing that makes you move around more to feel healthier, and something that makes you breathe heavy and sweat is a nice bonus. That’s really the key — focus on things you enjoy doing that make you breathe hard, make you sweat and make you move around. You will feel healthier if those things become a part of your life, and you certainly don’t need a home gym to do it. If your focus is on looking good, there are tons and tons of bodyweight exercises that can flatten your stomach and make every area of your body look better and stronger. If you want to look healthy, bodyweight exercises will do that; it’s only if you want to look like a ripped and sculpted bodybuilder that you’ll need more, and there are very few people that are really on the level that bodyweight exercises won’t help them look and feel a whole lot better.
3. Health diets don’t require perfect organic foods or a vitamin regime
Let’s get the science out of the way first. There are some limited benefits to eating organic foods, but those benefits are small compared to the value of simply making better dietary choices. Unless you are lacking in a particular vitamin — and blood tests can help reveal that — vitamins offer basically no benefit in most cases.
The real “low hanging fruit” in terms of eating a healthier diet that will make you feel better, make you healthier and move you toward your optimal weight is to simply eat a balanced diet that focuses mostly on unprocessed foods, vegetables and fruits. This doesn’t mean avoiding all processed foods, meats and dairy. But most of what you eat should be unprocessed foods, vegetables and fruits.
That’s all you really have to do, and it’s actually really inexpensive. If you simply stick with the produce section and buy fruits and vegetables that you like that are on sale as the backbone of your diet, supplementing that with things like rice and beans, you’re going to have a very low cost and very healthy diet. If you eat grains like bread and pasta, make a lot of it whole grain. Sure, you can eat some processed foods, meats and dairy items, but those things should be a smaller portion of your plate and a minimal part of your snacks.
The thing is, that’s actually out of line with how most people in America eat. The “American diet” is very heavy on meat, processed foods (including things like candy, microwaved meals, potato chips, and so on) and dairy products. The real challenge of eating healthier is to cut back on those things and increase your proportion of fruits, vegetables and unprocessed foods. That’s it.
Compared to that shift, the much higher expense of buying organic foods is secondary at most, and vitamins offer little benefit beyond supplementing areas where you’re actually vitamin deficient.
If you want to eat healthier, focus your energy on where the benefits are highest. Just buy more vegetables, fruits, grains and unprocessed foods, and fewer meats, dairy products and processed foods, and make those same changes to the meals you eat. That’s a big change, one that’s challenging for a lot of us, but it’s a cost-effective change, and you will be healthier and feel a lot better.
The expense of organic foods is a good “next step” if you’ve already got a diet in line with those guidelines and you can easily afford it. You should take a similar approach to vitamins, if you deem them important — they’re secondary at best, so hold off unless you can easily afford them. Unless you are wealthy and financially stable, the money spent on the extra cost of organics is better off being spent elsewhere in your budget.
4. Meditation only needs a little time and some floor space.
Things like meditation and prayer are often depicted as being done in some kind of backyard paradise, sometimes with a mat and candles and other decorations. None of that is necessary at all to enjoy the benefits of prayer or meditation. All you need is some time set aside for it and a comfortable chair or a spot on the floor, nothing else.
I meditate/pray (I actually see the two as heavily overlapping practices) each day because I figured out, particularly after reading 10% Happier by Dan Harris, that it helps me subtly keep my anxiety and stress in check while also subtly helping me focus, and it works better and better the more I do it.
Most of the time, I do it in a comfortable chair in my home, a chair I also often sit in to read. I don’t have a beautiful backyard garden to sit in (we have one, but it’s a humble vegetable garden). I don’t have a mat, candles, incense or anything like that. All of that is unnecessary. I just sit there, close my eyes, and focus on my breathing for a while, breathing in and breathing out, and if I lose focus, I just bring the focus back. I do this for roughly 15 minutes, roughly twice a day, with some variance (not every day is the same, and I’ll sometimes skip the evening session on busier days, and sometimes on weekends the morning session will be longer).
If you want to turn it more into a prayer, which I’ve done sometimes, simply memorize a short prayer and say it over and over in your head and focus on that instead of the breath. I have found that the Serenity Prayer is good for this: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.
That’s it. You don’t need products for this. You don’t need special “meditation apps” for this (I like Calm and Headspace, but they’re not necessary and I feel no need to shell out cash for them). You don’t need a mat or meditation rocks, you just need a comfortable spot and a few minutes.
5. Go to sleep earlier.
Again, “wellness gurus” will often suggest all kinds of things to help people feel more relaxed and rested, from white noise machines to perfect pillows, from luxurious blankets to sleep monitors.
You don’t need any of it.
What you need is a dark room without screens to look at, with plenty of time in there so that you wake up naturally instead of at the nudging of an alarm. A decent mattress and pillow are nice, as are blankets and open windows as needed to keep yourself at a reasonable level of comfort while sleeping.
If you are finding that you are having trouble sleeping under those conditions, talk to your doctor, as there may be an actual medical issue at work that needs addressing. Humans have been able to effectively sleep under such conditions since the dawn of time.
That’s it. You don’t need sleeping products. You don’t need apps. You just need a dark room and a reasonably comfortable bed.
6. Financial stability is a very powerful way to lower your stress.
If you’re stressed out and are spending lots of money on wellness products to feel better, using low-cost strategies to directly address wellness while using that money to address your financial situation is going to end up delivering much lower stress and anxiety in your life.
Why? Money is the No. 1 source of American stress. Not health. Not politics. Money.
What’s the surest way to reduce money stress? Spend less money on non-essential things, then redirect that money toward paying off bills, establishing an emergency fund, and taking care of your future. At the same time, work toward improving your income, whether through getting more hours, getting a raise, getting an additional job, starting a side gig, or even going back to school for training in a new career path.
Those aren’t easy steps, particularly in challenging economic times, but they’re meaningful steps, ones that drive directly toward reducing the main element of stress in the lives of many Americans.
7. Remember, products won’t solve your problems.
In the end, everything comes back full circle to the point made at the beginning of this article: buying products won’t solve your problems and won’t make you healthy.
Almost everything you need to do to be fundamentally healthy -—and, honestly, the core ideas spread around by wellness gurus, once you dig through the products they’re selling and the lifestyle they’re displaying — is free or a low-cost alternative to something you’re already doing. You don’t need to spend to have a fitter body. You don’t need to spend to eat a healthier diet. You don’t need to spend to clear your mind. You don’t need to spend to get better sleep.
Underneath all of this is a desire for easy answers. We want to believe that there’s an easy answer to a fitter body, and a product provides that easy answer. It just means spending a bit of money, when the real sustainable answer is going on lots of walks and getting exercise. We want to believe that there’s an easy answer to a healthier diet, and buying foods with the organic label provides that easy answer. It just means spending some money, when the real sustainable answer is thinking about our food choices and consciously choosing to eat more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains with less meats, dairy, and processed foods.
This repeats itself over and over again. We want a good life, and we want easy answers that will provide that good life, and well-promoted products seem to provide those answers. Yet, over and over again, the good life we want is more reliably found by making small but sustainable lifestyle changes and sticking with them. Changing our behaviors, not buying products, brings the lasting changes we want.
If you want to have a healthy lifestyle, the basic steps of getting fitter, eating a better diet, moving around more, getting better sleep, and calming your stress and anxiety are all great strategies. However, buying products won’t cause those things to happen. They’ll only happen if you make changes to your actions, and the products will barely help with that change. In fact, buying unneeded products will just exacerbate a big source of stress.
The solution to a healthy lifestyle is you, not products.