11 Essential (and Mostly Cheap) Tactics for Weathering Winter’s Worst

Snowstorms, ice storms, freezing rain, or even just 43-degrees-and-drizzling days in Seattle. Iced-up windshields, slick-as-tofu roadways, drafts that stubbornly resist whatever the furnace throws at them. Week after week of leaving for work in the dark and coming home in the dark.

Winter can be pretty, but it isn’t always pleasant.

Even those who ski, snowshoe or skate can get fed up with some of the seasonal side effects. And those who don’t like walking in a winter wonderland often struggle to get through the coldest, darkest months of the year.

An obvious solution is to move to a warmer place. But if you can’t afford to do that, or if you’re place-bound for family- or job-related reasons, there’s no reason to dread four (or more) months of challenging weather. Instead, find ways to make your life more comfortable and nurturing.

You may already have some of the things you need. Others don’t cost much or can be obtained inexpensively thanks to frugal workarounds.

I live in Alaska, and I approve of these tactics.

1. The Frugal Heating Pad

Fill a sock or small cloth bag with uncooked rice, and heat in the microwave for a warmth that keeps on giving. Trent Hamm, who founded Money360, makes small ones to put in his family’s coat pockets. It beats throwing away those disposable hand-warmers.

For a sybaritic end to the evening, heat a rice sock and run it up and down the bedsheets so they’ll be toasty. Then put the rice sock where your feet can touch it. Ahhhhh.

Frugal workaround: If you don’t already have a big sack of rice from the warehouse club, go buy a bag at the dollar store. The cheap grain works just fine.

2. Hot Drinks

Warm yourself up from the inside! Coffee, tea, cocoa, broth, cider, a cup of hot water with a slice of lemon, a mug of hot Tang – all can do the trick.

Keep a thermos of hot beverage nearby while you read, work, or watch television. Or go on a cup-by-cup basis, exulting in the comfort of wrapping chilly hands around a nicely warmed porcelain mug.

Frugal workaround: Buy on sale, of course. Avoid the prefab frou-frou flavors (which can be expensive) and dress up drinks on your own, such as adding a chocolate-covered peppermint to cocoa or stirring spices and a bit of maple syrup into black tea. Search for “flavored hot beverages” and you’ll get a slew of recipes.

3. Wool Socks

A builder once told me, “When your feet are warm, your head is warm.” Walking around the house in wool socks ( slippers or slip-ons, if you have them) means you’re less likely to nudge the thermostat upward. Outdoors on a cold day, you’ll be grateful for warm toes. (Pro tip: Rather than throwing the socks in the laundry, hand-wash them – it takes only a minute – and hang them to dry. They’ll last longer.)

Frugal workaround: Cash in some rewards points from a program like Swagbucks or MyPoints and buy the socks that way. (This workaround applies to a bunch of other tactics, too.)

4. Strategic Area Rugs

Keep your feet off that cold, cold bathroom floor by putting a throw rug in the spot where you stand to brush your teeth, comb your hair, or apply makeup.

Put a rug or mat where you do most of your meal prep, too. Again: If your feet are warm, then the rest of you has a fighting chance at comfort.

Frugal workaround: Make your own rag rug from strips of old sheets and/or clothes, or with sheets/clothes from the thrift store (preferably bought on half-price day) or from yard sales. Plenty of tutorials exist, some of which promise “no-sew” rugcraft. This could be a family project; if the first one turns out well, it could also be a good holiday gift.

5. Flannel Sheets

Do you dread diving into a pool of icy percale every night? Get flannel sheets: These things are gold when it’s cold.

And if you’re one of those folks who tends to sleep a little hot? Try jersey sheets, aka “T-shirt sheets.” They’re softer and much cozier than typical bed linens.

Frugal workaround: Right after Christmas, the holiday-themed flannel sheets will go on sale for 50 percent off. True story: I bought a set of these lovelies for $3.98 last year, thanks to a combination of the after-Christmas sale and a $10 Target gift card I got for free from Coke Rewards.

6. Heated Throw

Ours is light and velour-like, and it’s a lovely thing to drape across my legs on particularly chilly evenings. It came from Costco, but they’re available lots of places.

My 12-year-old nephew tried it while visiting – and promptly asked his mom to take him to Costco, where he spent $30 he’d saved on a blue heated throw. Now he drifts off to sleep each night with a warm torso. (The throw shuts itself off after a few hours.)

Frugal workaround: A rice sock on your feet or your lap, an afghan or blanket you already own.

7. Slow Cooker or Instant Pot

Both appliances have their ardent fans. The former is cheaper than the latter, but both produce the same result: delicious (and often frugal) meals with relatively little effort.

The aroma of hearty stews, roasts, casseroles,and other comfort foods will greatly improve a gray winter day or a cold, dark night. This is especially true if you come home to a place that smells like dinner. You’ll get the comforting feeling that someone has been cooking for you all day long.

These appliances are not limited to one-pot meals made with cream of mushroom soup. Look online for recipes for international dishes, yogurt, bread, desserts and more.

Note: “Instant Pot” is a brand name, but as with names like “Band-Aid” or “Xerox,” it’s come to represent the product in general. The appliance is actually a programmable pressure cooker.

Frugal workaround: Thrift stores are full of slow cookers; plug it in before you buy it, though, to make sure it works. Programmable pressure cookers are likely on sale right now, for the holidays – and they might end up in thrift stores later, too.

8. Full Spectrum Light and/or Dawn Simulator

We have both! The dawn simulator gradually brings up the light in the bedroom; the sleepers, in turn, gradually wake up. Much more pleasant than a blaring alarm clock.

I’ve owned a full spectrum light box for a couple of decades and can attest to their usefulness. In as few as 20 minutes, you’ll feel more focused and energized.

It’s a good idea to talk to your doctor if you have symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder and ask if light therapy would help. The dawn simulator, however, is simply a kinder, gentler way to wake up every morning.

Frugal workaround: The Mayo Clinic notes that being outdoors for 30 to 120 minutes can make a big difference, mood-wise. Since not everyone can do that, research the costs of a light box and, if possible, cash in some rewards toward the purchase price. The Mayo Clinic also offers tips on choosing the right equipment.

9. Trying New Things

It’s so tempting to hole up with a bag of cookies and binge-watch until bedtime. Put down the remote, hide the sweets, and look for something you’ve always wanted to do but never tried: model-building, learning a foreign language, knitting, genealogy, breadmaking, or whatever sounds good to you.

Get your partner, kids, or roommates involved as well. Do an online search for projects you can share, whether that’s “furniture made from pallets” or “how to grow sprouts at home.” Such projects have a way of getting us out of our own heads and into a creative mindset. Best-case scenario: You wind up with something to eat, wear, sit on, or nurture.

Frugal workarounds: Look for free courses online. Use coupons at places like Jo-Ann Fabrics and Michael’s to get discounted crafts supplies. Secondhand stores may have the embroidery hoop or knitting needles of your dreams. I’ve found skeins of yarn at the dollar store.

10. Join Something

Yet another way to get off the couch, and maybe to make new friends. Join a club, a service group, a political organization, the PTSA, the local historical society.

Community theaters are always looking for new members, even those with stage fright. You’ll be welcomed with open arms if you have experience in construction, sewing, or makeup/hairstyling.

Not sure where to start? Check out sites and apps like Meetup, Smacktive and NextDoor. You’ll likely find group options you’d never considered, from board games to snowball fights.

Frugal workaround: A lot of this stuff is free or nearly so. If a group or organization wants a bunch of money to join, keep looking.

11. Go Outside

Sounds counterintuitive, right? You’re trying to escape winter, after all.

Do it anyway. Being indoors all the time isn’t good for our heads. Bundle up well and take a walk. Look for the beauty that’s surely there: bright snow on dark evergreens, bird tracks, the frost that coats each individual twig of the front hedge. Enjoy the, uh, bracing fresh air, too; if you’re wrapped warmly enough, the cold air could actually invigorate you.

Take your kids skating if there’s a pond or a rink in your area. Or take them sledding. (Pro tip: A flattened cardboard box will do if you don’t have a sliding saucer or Flexible Flyer.) Have them help you put birdseed into a feeder and hang it in your yard. Make snow angels – they’ll find it hysterically funny to see grownups flat on their backs, flapping their “wings.”

Don’t let winter scare you. Embrace it! Besides, going back indoors afterward feels really great – especially if the slow cooker is full of something that smells delicious.

Put Them On Your Gift List

Do relatives and friends ever complain that you’re hard to buy for? Maybe you’ve resisted making a gift list because you don’t really want more Stuff in your life.

But these items are great things to have – and they don’t become clutter. The heated throw stays folded over a chair, the wool socks ball up neatly in a dresser drawer, the flannel sheets go right back on the bed after being washed.

So now you know what to say when your significant other or BFF asks what you want for the holidays (or your birthday, even). Sure, they might look askance when you chirp, “wool socks, please!” or when you ask earnestly for a set of full-sized flannel sheets. But who cares? Some gifts aren’t frou-frou or funny or fabulous. They’re utilitarian, which means they’ll get used – and appreciated! – long after the gag gift or ugly Christmas sweater has been donated to the thrift store.

Award-winning journalist and veteran personal finance writer Donna Freedman is the author of “Your Playbook for Tough Times: Living Large on Small Change, for the Short Term or the Long Haul” and “Your Playbook for Tough Times, Vol. 2: Needs AND Wants Edition.”

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