“I am going to treat myself to this because I deserve it!” How often do you say this? 

It’s late, you’re tired, and you don’t want to cook. You pick up your phone and order a $25 dinner, or you don’t bother walking to the grocery store when there is Instacart — never mind the service charge and tip for delivery. You buy yourself a new gadget or outfit to get over a bad day at work. You mindlessly fill up your Amazon cart because you can.

Of course, you work hard — for many reasons. But be careful of thinking that working hard means that you deserve nice things.

Money shouldn’t be used as a constant reward or consolation prize. I’ve been there, too. I worked a stressful job with long hours.

Come the weekend, I felt entitled to a good restaurant or a spa treatment. But after a while, I realized I wouldn’t need those splurges if it weren’t to relieve the pressure from work.

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Treat Yourself Without Breaking the Bank

Part of the spending was reducing my real wages, my ability to save. I could earn less at a less demanding job and be just as happy without all the expensive treats.

Over the long term, those little “I deserve it” expenses really did add up. Between the nights out, the bottles of wine to unwind, the massages, and the new clothes, my overspending came to well over $500 a month.

My thinking “I deserve it” resulted in major lifestyle inflation for an hour of relaxation or items of convenience that I could do without.

Think about it: Invest $500 a month at 5 percent over the 40 years of your active life compounded monthly, and you could have $763,010 saved for retirement.

So how do you change the spending habit without feeling down? In his bestselling book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg talks about how habits are formed. They always follow the same pattern: First comes the trigger that will start the behavior. Then, there is the action you take as a result. Finally, there’s your reward, or the benefit that you gain from performing said action.

In this example, for me, the trigger is the stress I feel at work. I go through it, thinking that I really deserve something to make me feel better. As a result, when I leave work, l overspend. The reward is, I feel better because I treated myself.

Though the trigger will remain the same, for as long as you are employed, you have the power to change the consequences of that trigger. You still need a reward; otherwise, you’ll feel deprived.

But you can change what the reward is, and try to find other ways to reach the same level of satisfaction. Or you can moderate your indulgences by setting aside $XX of fun money a month — after you have put something toward your debt reduction and retirement, of course.

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And by the way, there are lots of free or cheap things you can do to treat  yourself:

1. Take a hot bath. There’s no better way to relax after a long day than immersing yourself in a soothing body of water. Add some nice smelling salts or bubble bath to make it perfect.

2. Have a special dinner at home. I love making sushi. With a $10 piece of salmon, plus rice and a few other ingredients, I can feed four people for under $20. Pizza is also an inexpensive, fun meal.

3. Ask your significant other for a massage. This is a completely free way to treat yourself to a nice relaxing break, though you may need to then return the favor another night.

4. Do your own nails. I find self-manicure to be a relaxing activity. It requires focus and frees my mind from other worries.

5. Meditate. While this is not a routine of mine, sometimes when I am stressed, I just lie on my back, take deep breaths, and think about something pleasant.

6. Read a book. I love reading with a hot beverage in hand, while curled up under a comfy blanket.

7. Invite friends over. There’s nothing better to take your mind off things. Have each friend bring a drink or a dish and you’re in for a good laugh all night.

8. Go for a run. As tired as you might be when you start, I bet you will never regret working out. The endorphins will energize you, and you’ll sleep like a baby.

9. Learn to garden. Gardening is a great way to liven up your yard and maybe even find a few new ingredients to incorporate into your diet. And who knows — maybe you’ll even get interested in cooking.

10. Try an art project. As cheesy as it sounds, sewing is actually a great hobby. It is quite inexpensive to pick up a needle, some thread, and cheap fabric from the crafts store. Your friends will be impressed when they find out that your one-of-a-kind skirt was actually made in your living room.

11. Take a virtual exercise class. We’re all tired of Zooming, but who can pass up something free? There are lots of free virtual yoga classes like the ones from Do Yoga with Me. Yoga is a good way to destress and move your body after a long day of sitting in an office chair.

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12. Hit the beach. If you live near the water, hanging out by the waves is extremely relaxing and completely free. There is nothing more peaceful than hearing the surf crash onto the sand.

13. Visit a museum. Even if you know nothing about art, it can be energizing to admire the work of artists.

14. Start a club. Flex your inner competitive side and host a monthly poker night. How about a book club? Or maybe a movie watching group? Depending on what you and your friends are into, a weekly or monthly event is a great way to avoid the high price of going out.

15. Go to the library. It is easy to get lost in the shelves of a library for hours reading little bits and bobs of books of all genres. Sometimes it is more compelling to read a book if you spent time picking it out rather than ordering it online.

16. Ride a bike. There’s nothing like feeling the wind hitting your face while cruising around town. If you don’t own your own bike, you can rent a metro city bike for very cheap.

17. Take a walk. Almost every city has scenic or lively areas to explore on foot. Check out the Freedom Trail in Boston or the many murals in Venice Beach, California.

18. Learn a new language. Thanks to the internet, it’s cheaper than ever to study a foreign language. There are lots of YouTube channels and even apps like Duolingo to help you get started. Allons-y!

19. Start a journal. Writing and even doodling in a journal is creative and relaxing — as well as a great way to process your feelings after a long day.

20. Listen to a podcast. If you have Spotify or Apple Music, there are thousands of podcasts to listen to from murder mysteries to love life tips to political news.

21. Clean out your closet. Sure, this isn’t the most exciting way to treat yourself on this list. However, cleaning is very rewarding, and you will feel so accomplished when you are finished.

22. Create a new playlist. It is always fun to make playlists to blast in the car. Browsing through artists and their albums on Spotify or Apple Music can  provide inspiration for your next one.

23. Make a scrapbook or photo album. Reminiscing about good times is a great way to treat yourself. You can easily print out photos and tape them into a journal!

24. Learn a new card game. If you do not have anyone to play with, teach yourself solitaire. But if you have a group, there are dozens of new games to test out.

25. People watch. There is nothing more entertaining than witnessing all kinds of unique people walk by.

The Bottom Line

And last but not least, picture your goal.

In my last year as an employee, my goal was to save enough money to never have to work in an office again.

I was so stressed that I had back pain and was clenching my teeth at night. It was really tempting to swipe my credit card for some temporary way to treat myself. But I had my goal in mind.

Every $100 spent was one more day that I would have to work in an office instead of being free — that alone kept me from overspending.

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Additional reporting by Olivia Shrager.