5 ways to invest in yourself

With the markets unstable and guaranteed investments not performing as well as they used to, it’s often hard to tell where we should be putting our money. In a tough economy, we’re hesitant to spend — especially on ourselves. However, investing in “you” might just yield the best return. Here are some ways your time and money will pay off in the long run:

Build your skills

It’s tempting to put off professional development, but employment experts will tell you this thinking is backwards. Learning new skills will keep the mind sharp, but it’s also a good way to stay employable when times are tough. Here are some important areas to focus on:

Communication skills. Writing, editing, presentation and public speaking skills will all serve you well in the workplace because you’ll have more confidence and the ability to get your ideas across more effectively.

Computer skills. Employers are looking for people who are willing and able to learn new technology. Most employers require the basics (word processing, spreadsheets and email), but other applications are valuable too — like web design, desktop publishing or XML and HTML.

Marketing. A sound knowledge of marketing principles is an asset to any business, especially if you happen to know a thing or two about online marketing (like search engine optimization and social networking).

Business administration. Team work, leadership, project management, customer service — these skills are just as important (if not more important) in a tough economy.

Invest in the right tools

Okay, so a new computer or a set of tools is the last thing you want to spend money on right now. However, having the right tools — and good quality ones — is essential for performing any task well, whether you’re building something or running a business.

Many people are putting off big purchases and big projects until the markets pick up again, so retailers have had to respond by offering attractive discounts and promotions. Now may be the time to spend a little cash on tools for your home, hobby or business. Ask yourself: “Do I have what I need to get the job done?” If you don’t, you could be losing money through lost time, frustration and lower quality workmanship.

On the other hand, you could be earning money or saving money with the right tools, like software to manage your business, equipment to automate a task at work or make hands-on work faster and easier. Even investing in a filing system to better manage your finances will pay off in the long run. You’ll have a better idea of where your money is going and you’ll be able to put your hands on important documents in a hurry.

Make new connections

We’re all familiar with the adage that “It’s who you know, not what you know”. Developing a professional network has many advantages, but the one that will benefit you the most in a tough economy is employment opportunities. Experts note that one of the first things you should do if you’re looking for work is to inform your network. After all, you never know where a lead is going to come from. Even if you’re not looking for work, you can store up some good karma by helping someone else with a recommendation or referral.

On the personal side, solid relationships with family and friends can be a source of support when coping with difficult times. Taking steps to manage stress is good for your health in the short and long term because it reduces the risk of many ailments. Socializing is also good for the brain, and may help preserve cognitive function in the future. Personal and professional connections aren’t mutually exclusive — they often overlap in ways we can’t anticipate — and to our benefit.

Lucky for our wallets, it need not cost a lot to keep connected. Some things will have an initial cost — like joining a professional organization, taking a course, attending networking events or joining a club — but many are free. Look for opportunities in your community, like volunteering with a local charity or joining a church group.

Update your look

Does your outward appearance reflect all that you have to offer, or is it undermining your skills and qualifications? Like it or not, how we look not only influences what other think of us, it often affects how we feel about ourselves. Naturally, we want to play up our best features. Here’s where to start:

Your wardrobe. It’s time to take a long, hard look at your closet. Do your clothes still offer a flattering fit? Are there items that are noticeably out of style? Do you have something appropriate for work, church or an evening out? Determine the where the gaps are and you’ll know where to target your spending.

When you hit the stores, keep in mind that quality shows — you can see it in the construction and tailoring of the garment and the choice of fabric. Cheap items will look cheap, but an expensive look doesn’t have to be costly. No one will know if you bought an item on sale or used, or got it at a clothing swap. In a pinch, borrow an item from a friend for an interview or date.

You can also work with what you already own: alter clothes to get a better fit, update the buttons on a jacket, or pick up one trendy item that works with the classic pieces you already own. Something inexpensive like a scarf in this year’s hottest colour will play into current trends without breaking the bank.

Your make-up. Our faces, like our bodies, come in all shapes and colours and they change over time. In order to play up your best features, you need to know what products, techniques and colours work best for you. For instance, if you have hooded or deep set eyes, you’re not going to line your eyes or apply your shadow the same way as women who have more prominent eyes.

A second set of eyes (preferably expert ones) can help you update your colour palette and application techniques. Make sure the person has the right expertise to assess your face and eye shape as well as the properties of your skin rather than relying on one-size-fits-most formulas. And don’t be shy about asking them to show you how to do it yourself.

Your hair. You’ve heard the saying “If you do what you always done, you’ll get what you’ve always got”. A change in style or colour can instantly boost your appearance. Look for a cut that suits both your face shape and the properties of your hair. For a style that’s as fuss-free as possible, cooperate with your hair rather than fighting it. That might mean compromising with your cowlick, or letting that impossible curl have its own way.

Whether you go natural or decide to highlight or dye your hair, make sure it suits your skin tone. Just like with clothing, some of us simply aren’t meant to wear certain colours. Sometimes warm or golden tones work better than red or ashen ones. Highlights are flattering on most people, they add texture and bright your complexion without a drastic change.

Your underwear. Let’s be blunt: properly fitting undergarments can provide the right support and shape and make our outfits look good — but ill-fitting ones can actually create more bumps and bulges.

First, get rid of anything that’s stretched out, worn out or isn’t doing its job properly. Next, go for a professional fitting at a lingerie shop. The garments may be pricier, but they’re often better quality and a better fit than what you might find in the department store. Even if you don’t buy anything, you can still glean some useful secrets about fit — then keep your eyes out for the sales.

Overall, the key is working with what you are, not trying to conform to some future or past ideal. (For more tips, see 5 ways to create a positive image).

Seek expert advice

We can’t be experts in all areas, and sometimes hiring a professional is cheaper in the long run than trying to do things ourselves. There are many different kinds of consultants out there, including:

Business consultant. Need a little help with marketing, problem solving, communications or building your business? For short term help or one-time solutions, you don’t need to add another staff member to your roster. Business consultants can show you how to grow your business and make more money (or in this economy, how to run more efficiently).

Image consultant. Not satisfied with the advice you got in the clothing store or at the cosmetics counter? Call in someone who has the necessary expertise to tell you what works best for you . Image consultants can help you choose the right clothes and advise you on hair and make-up as well.

Personal coach. Need help with your career path or relationships? A personal coach can act as a mentor and a guide, and help you resolve issues that are holding you back. The fees may seem steep, but it will save you a lot of time and mistakes in the long run.

Personal trainer. Are you getting the most out of your workouts? A personal trainer can create a special routine to accommodate your goals and any health conditions you have. He or she can also teach you how to set up a routine and properly use machines and equipment for maximum benefit.

We know it’s hard to think about spending right now. If you consider even one or two of these steps, you could give yourself an advantage over people who are waiting for things to get better before they invest their time and money in themselves and their career. In the end, the old cliché holds true: the worst thing to do is do nothing at all.