Nine Frugal Strategies for Tackling the Winter Blues

Time for a confession: I get hit hard by the winter blues. Sometime in November or early December, I hit an absolute wall when it comes to my personal energy levels. I start just feeling exhausted and all I want to do is sleep, sleep, sleep.

I noticed it from time to time earlier in life, but I began to notice it even stronger when I started working from home in 2008. In fact, the winter of 2008-2009 was absolutely miserable because I didn’t understand what was going on with me. By the end of the winter, I began to figure out what was going on and over subsequent winters I began to develop some strategies to deal with it.

What follows are nine strategies I use every single winter to minimize and largely avoid the winter blues. Only two of them involve any kind of purchase and one of them is a one-time purchase of an item I’ve been using for six years now and found invaluable.

Strategy #1: Go Outside

This is really the best strategy of all for avoiding the winter blues, at least for me. Simply go outside. Try to spend at least an hour each day doing something in the outdoors.

Most days, I go for a walk for about an hour. Yes, it involves bundling up when it’s cold out, but once I’m out there, it feels pretty good. I usually dress in a lot of layers and find that the bottom one ends up sweat-soaked by the time I get home.

Simply being outside in a bit of sunlight and getting a bunch of fresh air seems to make a huge difference for me.

walking in snow
No matter the weather, bundle up and get some fresh air to stave off the winter blues. Photo: Hartwig HKD

Strategy #2: Use a Light Box When Working at a Desk

This is the one significant purchase I’d recommend for anyone trying to deal with the winter blues. A light box is just a small box that has full-spectrum bulbs in it that simulate sunlight. The bulbs are backed with mirrors that direct the light forward. The lights are fairly bright, but not so bright that it feels like they’re producing a blinding beacon or anything.

The trick is to sit the light box on your desk off to the side so that you can see it as you work but that it’s not blocking your view. For me, this seems to trick my mind into thinking it’s a bright and sunny day. I find it particularly effective in the early morning hours, so I use it when I first sit at my desk during the day.

The light box I use is this NatureBright SunTouch light therapy box. During the winter, it finds a home on the right corner of my desk and it really helps.

Strategy #3: Get Some Exercise

Exercise is a spectacularly effective way to raise your energy level, but it comes with a catch: It only works if you do it regularly. If you exercise on an irregular basis, it won’t be nearly as beneficial and may actually have the opposite effect because of the physical stress on your body when it isn’t used to it.

I use the Lifetime Fitness Ladder, which consists of a collection of bodyweight exercises that are pretty easy to do anywhere, whether it’s simply some open floor space in your home or a hotel room when you’re traveling for the holidays. It’s enough to get me panting and sweating for a while, which is the point of the whole thing.

The point is to make exercise a regular part of your day. Over time, this becomes an energy level booster as your body adapts muscles and hormones to account for this, which naturally raises your energy level throughout the day. It’s why people say they feel different after starting an exercise regimen and pushing through the difficult days at the start.

Strategy #4: Use Bright Lights and Turn Them All On

It’s not exactly a secret that it’s harder to go to sleep when the lights are on in a room. A dark room makes it far easier for most people to go to sleep.

That phenomenon extends to your full house and keeping the winter blues at bay. If your home is brightly lit, then the light becomes a bit of a stumbling block for the tiredness that is a big part of the winter blues.

This can cost a bit of money on the ol’ electrical bill, but I simply turn on the lights all over the house so it’s not dim anywhere. We use LED bulbs so the energy cost is pretty low – running about 75 LED light bulbs for an hour costs about a dime, so it’s well worth it.

Strategy #5: Establish a Strong Daily Routine

I already have a pretty strong daily routine where I work on various projects for certain periods of the day. Without that routine, working from home would be an utter failure!

Having said that, I find that sticking to a routine well into the evening keeps me from sitting down and deciding that I’m tired and going to bed early, which I find can sometimes turn into a downward spiral when it comes to the winter blues, where I want to sleep more and more.

I have a routine of evening activities that keeps me up until at least ten in the evening each night so that I don’t allow myself to sleep too much.

Strategy #6: Open the Curtains and the Shades

As I mentioned earlier, I keep the lights on all over the house during the daylight hours in the winter, but I also open the curtains and the shades, especially on the side of the house where sunlight is hitting the house.

This makes the house even brighter than before, plus some of the light is truly natural sunlight. It makes the house bright and lively, which really helps to make me feel lively. Not only that, direct sunlight helps with keeping your house warm in the cold months.

Just be sure to close the shades and curtains again around sunset in order to keep heat inside during the night.

Strategy #7: Go to Social Events in the Evenings

One key part of my evening routines on some nights is to simply get out of the house and do something social. Not only does this keep me from going to bed early, it also has the benefit of interacting with other people face to face.

I find that when I’m around other people doing something, I feel far more energetic than I normally do simply because of the nature of a social situation.

If you’re looking for something social to do, start by checking and look for something that seems interesting to you! There are many, many different things out there to try.

Strategy #8: Take Vitamin D Supplements

One minor medical issue that has some direct connection to the winter blues is vitamin D deficiency. Most of the time, your skin makes vitamin D when exposed to direct sunlight, but many people don’t get enough sunlight, especially in the winter, to make the vitamin D that their body needs.

The linked article above suggests specifically using vitamin D3 supplements and skipping vitamin D2, which doesn’t specifically help with this situation.

As always, give your doctor a call before starting a new supplement regimen. For most people, it’s not a problem, but for some it might be an issue. Also, follow the directions on the package as exactly as you can.

Strategy #9: Listen to Upbeat Music

Uptempo music has a tendency to lift people’s moods, get them to move around a little bit more, and contribute a bit to alertness. Thus, one great tactic I use to fight the winter blues is to listen to uptempo music during the day.

Personally, I like uptempo music that I can sing along to and know well, as I can both pay attention to it and sing along and also have it flow easily into the background.

If you want some good uptempo background music, this YouTube video is a good place to start, as it provides two hours of uptempo instrumental music that works as great background music when you’re working on other tasks.

Final Thoughts

The winter blues are never fun. You feel tired and completely lacking in energy and you begin to wonder if there isn’t something truly wrong with you. However, if this is something that arrives like clockwork during the late fall, it’s probably the shortened cold days of winter that are the real culprit.

For me, the simple steps listed above help a lot with keeping the blues at bay. Most of the steps are really easy to execute and have a profound impact on my mood and energy level in the winter.

Perhaps they’ll help you out, too! Good luck!

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.