Today is "Blue Monday," allegedly the most depressing day of the year. It's become an annual meme even though it’s not scientifically based. Cliff Arnall, the man who came up with the "formula" for figuring the deepest emotional trough of the year, apparently did so as a publicity stunt for a travel agency.

Even so, the idea makes sense. Mix together consumer debt from holiday spending, reduced light levels, cold weather (in many places), post-holiday letdown and failed New Year's resolutions, and you've got a formula, all right -- a formula for winter blues that could send you to the fridge and then to the couch.

Or to the mall. Winter is the time when 36% of us say we'll seek "retail therapy" as a mood elevator, according to a recent survey from

Another fun fact from that survey: Nearly half (45%) of the 2,166 people interviewed had gone shopping in the past year solely to improve bad moods.

Think of that: They didn't necessarily need anything, or maybe even want anything (except to feel better). But they were willing to throw money at an emotional issue in the hopes it might make things all right again.

Now that's depressing.

Positive (and cheaper!) tactics

Retail therapy is not the answer, especially since one of the problems many people face this time of year is a pile of bills related to holiday overindulgence.

Image: Worried Man (Corbis)

Instead, try a frugal mood enhancer. In a post called "20 cheap ways to make January special," Wise Bread writer Andrea Karim includes strategies that don't cost anything at all: volunteering, starting a journal, writing letters, watching a movie at home every night for a week, reconnecting with a long-lost friend.

Or how about getting a head start on spring cleaning? Not only will your living quarters feel more inviting, the work could spur you into getting rid of stuff you no longer use. Taming the chaos will let you "start out the year fresh and uncluttered," Karim says.

Perhaps one or more of these free or nearly free tactics will make a difference in your life:

Go outside.
Every day, even if it's only for a little while. Fresh air -- even if it's cold or snow- or rain-laden fresh air -- is a good change of pace, as is the chance to soak in such natural light as is available. Walk around the block three times, or to the local store for a small treat (think "hot chocolate" rather than "six-pack of craft beer"). If there's snow, use it: Make a snowman, have a snowball fight or shovel an elderly neighbor's sidewalk.

Get solvent.
Use free budgeting sites like or Adaptu to figure out your finances. That can mean creating a rapid debt repayment plan if you went off the rails during the holidays, but it can also mean getting a clearer picture of where your money is going and making short- and long-term goals. Note: Create a money goal at and be eligible for one of two $500 prizes awarded weekly through Jan. 31.

Social life or self-improvement
Have people over.
Fun at home can be really cheap. Play board games. Host a wine tasting: You provide cheese, crackers and glasses, and your friends bring their favorite inexpensive wine. Make a batch of cookies and serve tea. For more tips on frugal fun, see "8 cheap, extraordinary entertainments."

Or go out with people -- cheaply.
Look for places with free hors d'oeuvres at happy hour. Search for discounted social buying vouchers on the secondary market; some of them come in as low as $2 or less. (See "The cure for a Groupon goof.")

Get an exercise buddy.
Walking, cross-country skiing, Pilates at home with a DVD -- all are good ideas, but only if you actually do them. One way to make sure is to set up exercise dates with a friend. It would be rude to keep him or her waiting because you couldn't pull yourself out of bed on time.

Do a $0 makeover.
Tired of staring at the same four walls? Give your interior a fresh look. It can be as simple as moving the furniture around and switching art objects from room to room. If there's a chapter of The Freecycle Network in your area, have a look at what people want to give away -- maybe that cobalt blue vase is the splash of color your living room needs.

DIY spa night.
Put on your favorite music and have a warm soak with bath salts. Use a loofah on winter-dry skin and follow up with lotion. If your heels are really dry, rub them with petroleum jelly and wear socks to bed; it feels a little gross at first but you'll get used to it quickly. Look for recipes for facials using items like oatmeal and honey. (Quick aside to men: There's no shame in exfoliating.) A glass of water with lemon or orange slices will help further the day-spa image.

Got any ideas for midwinter motivators?

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