When Does Self-Care Turn Into Splurging?

Making smart financial moves is good self-care, too.

In the past few years, “self-care” has popped up everywhere. Women are told that we don’t do enough of it, so we’re encouraged to buy another massage, get a manicure, or treat ourselves to something nice. The problem is that all that self-care spending can have a big impact on our bank accounts.

Striking the balance between giving ourselves some much-needed TLC and making savvy spending choices can be tricky, something I know firsthand. Each week I see a personal trainer, and I visit the chiropractor biweekly. I love to reward a month of hard work with a Friday afternoon pedicure. Although all of these leave me healthier and happier, they also come with a hefty price tag. I recently began wondering: has my self-care become an excuse for splurging?

“For working women with families especially, we work all day, and we work at home too,” says Jane DeLashmutt O’Mara, CFP®, and portfolio manager with FBB Capital Partners in Maryland. “We have to carve out something for ourselves.”

The key to responsible self-care, she says, is being perfectly clear about your financial situation and how your self-care spending will affect it.

“If you can really drill down to figure out, ‘This is what I make, this is what I have to pay bills, and this is left over,’ you know what seems reasonable to spend on manicures or lunches with friends,” DeLashmutt O’Mara says.

The basic financial planning rule is that housing costs shouldn’t take up more than 30 percent of your monthly income, groceries and personal items should be around 10-15 percent, and utilities around 10 percent.

Self-care should take up much less than that — about five percent of your budget, maximum. What’s most important is to make sure that your self-care habits aren’t having a negative effect on your finances.

“If your self-care starts to manifest in the form of credit card debt that [is] growing or balances that are rolling over, you’re probably spending too much,” DeLashmutt O’Mara says. After all, the whole concept of self-care is that you’re taking some time to breathe easy, so creating financial stress in order to do that is counterproductive.

That said, it’s important to indulge yourself on some level. Even if you’re just getting your finances under control by doing things like saving and paying down debts, you’ll still want to designate a small amount of money for fun.

“It’s similar to being on a diet,” she explains. “You don’t want to [withhold] the treats for so long that all of a sudden you find yourself binging.”

And self-care doesn’t always have to cost a lot of money: go on a walk, take a bath with bubbles and candles, or see a matinee movie. Dedicating even a small amount of time and money to enjoying yourself makes being on track financially a lot more fun — and realistic.

If you’re feeling really ambitious, you can retrain yourself to think of managing your finances as the ultimate form of self-care. After all, maxing out your retirement savings and having an emergency fund will do more to reduce your stress in the long term than any massage or dinner out.

“Similar to exercise, it’s very rewarding and gratifying to see your credit card balances go down and your savings grow,” DeLashmutt O’Mara says. “That becomes the source of enjoyment.”

It may not sound as fun or as relaxing as a wine night with friends, but planning for a bright financial future can be addicting.

I’ve started a habit of using the $30 or so a week that I used to blow on lattes or lunch out to pay down credit card debt. Watching my balance drop and my credit score increase gives me lasting joy that’s much greater than the happiness I would get from that caffeine jolt.

That being said, I’ve also figured out the types of self-care that are most important to me. The money I spend on the personal trainer each week is instrumental to my physical and mental health, so I won’t cut back on that. I now stretch out time between pedicures, but getting one somewhat regularly is just the thing I need to motivate myself — both to be successful and to stay on track financially.

Knowing when to spend a little money spoiling yourself and when to scale back is essential to keeping your mind — and wallet — happy and healthy. After all, securing financial freedom just might be the ultimate form of self-care.