For this Money Microstep Challenge series, we challenged Thrive staffers to test some financial Microsteps — small, science-backed actions you can start taking immediately to build habits that significantly improve your life — and write about their experiences. The result? Some very honest and encouraging reflections, like this one.
As a journalist earning a decent income for decades, spending money on small daily indulgences wasn’t something I worried about. When I wanted a cappuccino or felt like going out to dinner with my late husband, Stephen, I did it without much thought. We raised two daughters, funded college for them (the younger one still has a year to go), and we were always been disciplined about paying our bills on time. I felt like I deserved to treat myself!
Everything changed dramatically when Stephen was diagnosed with brain cancer. From that moment on, my priorities were focused on doing whatever I could to help him recover. He couldn’t work anymore because the tumor left him disabled in a wheelchair, with slurred speech, double vision, swallowing difficulties, and a numb left arm.
In addition to the constant concerns about his health, there were financial concerns too — which many families going through illness can relate to. The costs of hiring caregivers, buying medical equipment, and filling prescriptions for a slew of medications added up. Almost overnight, spending on splurges — big and small — stopped. There were no more vacations, romantic dinners, or new clothes. It was time to recalibrate my entire approach to money by doing some serious budgeting. And quite honestly, I didn’t even feel like buying anything for myself. I just wanted my husband to get better.
The onset of COVID-19 compounded the challenges we faced (as it did for millions all over the world, with so much suffering and loss). While Stephen tested negative for the virus, it was during the crisis that he developed further health issues, and life now seems unduly difficult.
And yet, perhaps counterintuitively, I decided that spending a little money on myself might be a good thing — a reminder that life is worth living and that I deserve treats. We all do! So I started trying out this Thrive Microstep:
Here are the key insights I came away with:
1. Practicing self-care doesn’t have to cost a lot.
I discovered that spending even a small amount of money on something meaningful to me can lift my spirits and give me a boost. For example, I like to jot down thoughts and reflections before going to sleep, so I bought a pretty journal to keep by the bed. It was well worth the 15 dollars, cheering me up every time I put pen to paper. Another luxury: I enjoy reading the print version of our local paper, the The Los Angeles Times, so I decided to spring for a physical subscription instead of just a digital one, which makes mornings more pleasant (and screen-free).
2. Spending intuitively is the antidote to spending impulsively.
While out grocery shopping, I picked up a bottle of sage body wash and loved the fresh scent. At $12 for a small container, it was pricey, but I knew instinctively that it would make me happy every time I showered. And I was right. I’ve been honing my “intuitive spending” skills — which means taking a pause and listening to what you truly need. When I see something I think I would like to buy, I breathe deeply, access my intuition, and ask myself whether I really want the item that’s caught my attention. Will it bring me joy, or will I regret it and feel guilty later? It takes practice to tune in and choose wisely, but it’s worth it.
3. Treating others — and supporting businesses I care about — feels just as good.
Our 21- and 25-year-old daughters were at home with us at the time, helping to take care of their dad while also working remotely. Spending money on them — whether it’s a new duvet cover and sheets or some beauty products — has always brought me joy. I also bought small presents for Stephen’s caregivers, and friends who were so supportive.
Lately, however, motivated by everything going on in the world, I was more discerning about how and where I’m spending my money. There are so many fantastic Black-owned businesses I was discovering, like the Harlem Candle Company. Each of their scented candles tells a story. I bought the Ellington candle, dedicated to the iconic jazz musician, Duke Ellington. A New York friend introduced me to the Sister’s Uptown Bookstore — a treasure trove of books dedicated to Black history and culture. In Santa Monica where I live, I was supporting local businesses hard hit by the pandemic. I bought cards from Paperlove, a great stationery company, and sending them to friends. I also ordered dinner from Il Forno, a wonderful Italian restaurant down the road, where we went as a family since our daughters were born. Knowing that my spending is helping people and businesses going through a difficult time made me happy.
4. Flowers never fail to cheer me up and help me stay present.
Flowers always brighten up my day. Their impermanence adds to their beauty. I love them before they open, when they’re in full bloom and when the petals are browning at the edges. They remind me that everything changes in life and that it’s important to stay present. Having a bunch of sunflowers, tulips, peonies, or hyacinths around helped me connect to the abundance of the world. Flowers bring me unaccountable joy. And on that note, here’s a verse that always cheers me up — at no cost at all.
If thou of fortune be bereft,
And in thy store there be but left
Two loaves — sell one, and with the dole
Buy hyacinths to feed thy soul.
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