Want to get the best bang for your mental health dollar? Here are the top low-price, high-reward recommendations for overall mental well-being.

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Have you, too, recently found a handful of "mental health" coping strategies you never knew you needed? Things like streaming services, a wine subscription, or online "retail therapy"?

Mid-pandemic, many of us leaned into any activities that brought us a bit of comfort—despite their price tags or whether they truly supported our mental well-being. But how much are we really spending on items masquerading as "self care" versus actual mental health services? And how can we cut back on our overall "mental health" spending in order to support our actual mental health by leaning into sustainable, long-term support, services, and healthy low-cost habits?

Fintech company Self Financial asked 1,000 Americans what they pay for mental health. Surprisingly, the average price was over $3,000 a year or $287 per month. Even more intriguing were some of the things people spent their "mental health" money on. Many were directly related to mental health, of course, including counseling, therapy, and apps such as Calm (which offers a premium subscription for $69.99 per year or $14.99 per month) for de-stressing and meditation. 

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Credit: AdobeStock

But others were things people felt keep you "mentally well" such as streaming services, music, and even hobbies like puzzles; 19% of those surveyed considered their spending on exercise or sports as helping keep their mental health up, while a quarter of survey-takers said they spent on alcohol as a way to look after their mental health. 

 Of course, there are numerous free or low-cost ways to promote good mental health—good sleep habits, time in nature, positive relationships, and practicing kindness, for instance. So remember: Making large purchases—especially those you can't afford—in order to feel good in the moment is only going to do damage to your mental and financial well-being long-term.

Ahead, find out ways to cut back on your wellness spending in favor of, you know, your actual wellness.

Spending to beat the blues often makes things worse

The aforementioned study also found that $51,111 was the annual salary survey-takers said they required to stay "mentally positive." 

More than half of those surveyed said the COVID-19 pandemic had made their financial situation worse or much worse; 33% said they spent money on things to make their mental health better. The most popular emotional spending done in the name of feeling happier came from browsing stores, both virtually and in-person, to the tune of $6,000 a year or $114 per week. What's more: 

  • 52% said they had anxiety over money worries 
  • 40% said they were depressed over their financials 
  • 34% attributed their insomnia to financial woes 

Put your money where your mental health is

"There are many options when it comes to supporting your mental health, and while some are free, many cost money," says Natalie Bernstein, a clinical psychologist, and mental health coach.  

Bernstein says one thing to consider is how you feel before and after making a certain purchase. Ideally, anything you invest in financially for your mental health should have an emotional benefit. "If you find yourself feeling guilty or experiencing regret after the activity—like bingeing hours of Netflix or downing a bottle of wine," she tells Health, "you may want to try a different solution next time."

Here are more ways to get the best bang for your mental health bucks.

Start with therapy

Whether that's one-on-one counseling with a tele-therapist, an in-person provider, or some form of support network, getting therapy for any type of mental health struggle is usually the best money you can spend on your mental well-being. Individual therapy costs can range from a co-pay of a few dollars or $50 (if it's covered by insurance) all the way to $100 or even $200 per session (if it's not covered), according to the Austin Trauma Therapy Center.

"If someone doesn't have a lot of cash, then group therapy, low/no-cost therapy at a clinic, or becoming a control case at a psychoanalytic institute are options," says Cadyn Cathers, PsyD, a psychotherapist and the executive director at The Affirmative CouchBetter Help offers affordable online counseling, and GoodTherapy.org provides resources for free and low-cost therapy in your area.

Work in exercise

We know that depression, anxiety, and other mental health challenges improve with regular exercise, but rather than spending money on an expensive gym membership or Peloton, try free online classes or these other hacks to cutting costs on mental health-boosting workouts.

Play with pets

Animal lovers, rejoice: Pets are an important part of your happiness and positive well-being. But rather than shelling out for a specific breed, adopt a rescue from a local shelter; The Humane Society site can help you search. Then, feel free to think of the vet and food costs for your precious fur babies as good mental wellness spending. 

Do crafts or hobbies

Here's where those puzzles come in. We all spend on things we enjoy, from crafting to cooking. Just make sure you're finding low-budget ways to make those hobbies happen—from budget recipes to free online craft tutorials. And if your relaxing hobbies are inherently low-cost or free—hiking, running, cloud-watching—all the better.

Take care of your physical health

Prioritizing physical health and preventative care can save you a ton of money down the line by warding off illness and injury—and staying physically well also works wonders for mental health. In addition to prioritizing exercise, hydration, nutrition, and of course getting a good night's sleep, try holistic health practices such as acupuncture, chiropractic care, or even massage if it's covered by your health insurance. If not, there are affordable community-based options; try the People's Organization of Community Acupuncture to find locations near you.

Don't forget to play

As adults the things we do to find that sense of "play"—whether it's actually playing with our kids, or hanging with friends, or having a game night, or even having sex—all help our mental wellness. And they don't have to cost a dime.

"This is a broad category, as there are many ways people play as adults," says Cathers. Think sports, art, date night, and any brand of letting loose. Suffice it to say that if you consider it "playing," it's likely good for your mental health. 

The bottom line

Cathers says to be sure that your mental health spending, however much you choose to spend, makes you feel good and aligns with your values. "Does it help you long-term or is it a quick dopamine fix when you click the purchase button?" he asks. You might think a new 4K TV or living room furniture will make you feel better, but will it really ease depression or loneliness, soothe anxiety or help you sleep? Probably not. 

It's also good to know that coping strategies can change, and what worked in the past may need an update in the future or that the activities you do at present may be temporary. "Check in with yourself and evaluate whether you're spending your money in a way that works for you," says Bernstein. 

And while it's important to look for low-cost wellness tools (including ways to access therapy that you can actually afford), if something brings you joy and connects you to yourself, others, nature, or a higher purpose, then it can be a truly great mental health purchase. Now, I'm off to work a "mental health puzzle." At least they're not expensive.