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How To Be Happier Without Spending a Lot of Money

Michael Keenan
·8 min read

There’s an old saying that money can’t buy happiness, but it can often feel like more money would make everything better. With social media feeds flooded with exotic getaways, even a well-planned but cheap staycation can feel underwhelming.

Fortunately, there are plenty of tips on how to be happy that don’t involve doling out large sums of money. Click through to learn how to find happiness without breaking the bank.

Last updated: Sept. 29, 2020

Strengthen Bonds With Family and Friends

You can’t buy true relationships, and true relationships can bring a lot more happiness than a bigger bank account. “Studies show that having close relationships is one of the most important elements of a happy life,” said Gretchen Rubin, author of “The Happiness Project” and “The Four Tendencies.” She recommended group activities such as inviting your friends over for brunch or starting a book group.

Create a Gratitude Journal

Reminding yourself of the things you’re grateful for helps you live a happy life, and journaling helps your memory.

“Imagine you carry around a BAG that collects all of your emotions, experiences and things throughout your day,” said Cara Maksimow, LCSW, CPC, a New Jersey-based licensed clinical therapist and social worker. “At the end of each day, take a moment to rid yourself of all the negativity by taking a deep breath and visualizing yourself dumping the contents of your BAG that may be holding you back from feeling happy, motivated and energized.”

Use the acronym “BAG” to remind yourself (B) what was the best and brightest part of the day, (A) what you accomplished during the day, and (G) what you are grateful for and why it is important, she said.


Go for a Walk

You don’t need an expensive gym membership or a fancy treadmill or elliptical — just take a walk outside to improve your mood for free.

“Turn off the TV, put down that magazine, turn your phone off and go walk,” said Charlie Jones, a life and business strategist, coach, speaker and author. “Just 10 minutes is enough to begin to change your mood and experience more happiness. So, head out to the local park and back, go round the block or just down the street. If you can stand it, don’t even take your phone with you.”

Define ‘Fun’ for You

Fun can mean different things to different people, so it’s important for you to know what brings you joy. “Ask yourself — and be honest — what’s fun for you? Fishing, bird-watching, travel, hunting through flea markets, experimenting in the kitchen, skiing or scrapbooking?” Rubin recommended. If you’re seeking happiness, it might be better to use your money for enjoyment than to acquire more things, she added.

Start a Pay-It-Forward Line

The next time you find yourself at a drive-thru for breakfast or coffee, pay for the order for the person behind you. It won’t cost a lot of money, you’ll be happier for doing so and the person behind you will get a nice surprise. And, if it takes off with each subsequent person paying for the next one, you can take pride in knowing your inexpensive act of kindness helped make a lot of people smile.

Say ‘No’

It might sound counterintuitive, but sometimes you need to say “no” to establish boundaries and make sure you have time (and money!) for yourself. Though it can feel good in the short term to say “yes” to make the other person happy, it can come back to bite you later on. Practice being assertive in low-stakes situations, such as a stranger trying to sell you something, so you’ll be more comfortable when you have to tell someone you care about “no” in the future.

Smile Even If You Don’t Feel Like It

Most people smile because they are happy but often forget that the reverse is also true: When you smile, you improve your mood. Researchers have proven that just by the physical act of smiling, you can trick your brain into feeling happier.

Strive for Serenity and Security

Use your finances to make life more secure and more peaceful. “Peace of mind is critical to happiness, so use the money to pay down your debts or add to your savings,” states Rubin. For example, a big expensive house might sound wonderful, but if you don’t need the space, the effort you have to put into cleaning and the sleepless nights spent worrying about how you’re going to pay the mortgage isn’t worth it.

Schedule Fun

It’s easy to fill up your calendar with things you have to do but don’t necessarily like to do, to the point you have no time for fun.

“Make it a point to schedule out the things that make you happy so you’re sure to do them,” recommended David Bennett, a certified counselor, relationship expert and author. Plus, you’ll have those activities to look forward to in the days leading up to them.

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Physical activity improves your mood and brightens your day. You don’t need to pay a personal trainer to teach you all the latest fitness tricks. Instead, go for a jog, play soccer with friends or take a bike ride with your spouse or significant other.


Engage in Cultural Activities

Attending cultural events has been associated with decreased anxiety and better life satisfaction, according to a study conducted in Norway. You don’t have to shell out big bucks to go to large and well-known festivals. Instead, find free or low-cost cultural events in your area such as plays, concerts or ethnic festivals.

Spend a Little Money on Someone Else

A great way to be happy is to bring happiness to others, said Rubin. “Think about ways you could spend the money that would make a big difference to someone else — whether someone you know or a cause you support,” she said. She recommended looking into things such as donating new books to add to the shelves of the local children’s library.

Set Realistic Goals

When you’re setting targets for yourself, whether for sports, work or social purposes, make sure you’re not being too hard on yourself. Consider using a three-tiered goal system to get a long-term perspective. Make your first tier a good result and one that you can attain without too much difficulty; your second tier a more challenging result that you can attain if everything goes according to plan; and your third tier is your moon shot — the goal you’d love to attain but doesn’t seem quite realistic right now.

Get Some Sun

The sun gets a bad reputation for the damage it can cause, including sunburns and cancer. However, sunlight also triggers the chemical process by which our bodies produce vitamin D, and it can help reverse seasonal affective disorder. So catch some rays — within reason — to improve your mood.

Buy Experiences Not Things

When you do go to spend money, focus on paying for experiences that will make great memories rather than buying stuff that will just clutter your life. For example, going to dinner with friends once a month will bring you more happiness over the long term than buying an expensive vehicle. Plus, being social has been shown to lead to less stress.


Though most people know the importance of sleep, far fewer people actually get enough. Surveys have correlated getting more sleep with being happier. In addition, sufficient sleep has been connected with lower stress and better health, including improving your immune system and warding off diabetes.

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Write a Thank-You Note

The next time someone does something that you appreciate, write them a thank-you note. You’ll be happier as you write the note, and you’ll make someone’s day when they receive it. Plus, people often keep notes on their desk or in a prominent place, unlike an email that gets read and deleted, so they’ll be reminded of your appreciation in the future.


Reward Yourself for Progress

Executive coach and psychologist Dr. Perpetua Neo recommended that you don’t wait until you’ve completed every part of a goal or task before rewarding yourself. Instead, reward yourself after accomplishing the substeps.

“Rather than wait for ‘the big result,’ honoring every step counts,” said Neo. “This way, too, your dopamine system gets activated, and the sense of reward you feel will make you want to keep doing it!”

Eat More Fruits and Vegetables

Add another benefit to the list of reasons you should eat fruits and vegetables: A 2016 Australian study found that increased consumption of fruits and vegetables correlated with increased happiness, life satisfaction and well-being. According to the study, an increase to eight portions per day of fruit and veg led to the same physiological gain you would get from becoming employed again after a period of unemployment. It’s also a great way to save money on food.

Focus on Intrinsic Motivations

Everyone has different motivations for doing the things they do, but motivations fall into two categories. Extrinsic rewards are something outside of the activity, and intrinsic rewards are related to the activity. Although extrinsic motivations help you get an activity done, such as working overtime to save for a house or going to the gym to lose weight, you won’t enjoy the activity as much. If you focus on the intrinsic motivations — improving your skills or the health benefits — you’ll be happier.

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This article originally appeared on GOBankingRates.com: How To Be Happier Without Spending a Lot of Money