Updated on 10.16.14

Don’t Buy Stuff to Try to Create a New Habit

Trent Hamm

Jennifer writes in:

I’m getting very frustrated with my husband. Every few months he will come up with some new personal project he wants to work on. He tried woodworking a few years ago. A few months ago he tried cooking. Now it’s exercise. As soon as he gets into that mindset, he goes and spends hundreds of dollars on equipment for the project and will be really gung ho about it for about two weeks. After that, it just tapers off and a few months later he’s not doing it at all. This repeated cycle really eats into our annual budget. Help!

The title of the article says it all, but let me elaborate a bit.

The Honeymoon

When you stumble across something new that you’re passionate about, you go through a “honeymoon” period with it. You dive into the enjoyable side of it. You find yourself filling a lot of your spare time with it. It fills quite a few of your spare thoughts.

During that period, because your focus on the new thing is so intense, it’s easy to think that you’ll be doing this for a long time. It’s also easy to think that you should outfit yourself well for this journey right off the bat so you can do it “properly.”

In truth, though, you’re far better off going through that “honeymoon” period with low end equipment.

There are two big reasons for this.

First, it’s often hard for a novice to really understand why the “better” equipment is actually worthwhile. If you don’t have chopping skill, for example, the difference between a great chef’s knife and a cheap chef’s knife is almost nonexistent. It’s only when you can chop quickly and efficiently do you see the subtle ways in which a good knife can improve your cooking productivity.

Second, it’s impossible to tell whether or not you’ll stick with a new passion after that honeymoon period. It might feel great to run every day right now, but in three months, are you going to get up at five in the morning on a rainy day to run? Are you going to stick with it when the new wears off? You can’t know until you cross that threshold.

Diving In

So what’s a better way to attack a new passion? For me, I attack any new interest of mine with as little cash up front as possible. This way, if it doesn’t last, I’m not out very much, and if it does last, I can replace the equipment a piece at a time as I need it.

Take my recent dive into piano playing, for instance. I’m using an old used keyboard to practice at home and visiting a local church a few times a week to practice on a real piano. The keyboard was a freebie; the church piano is free, too. For instruction books and sheet music, I’m using more books picked up for free, either off of book swapping sites or as gifts.

If I keep up my current level of playing over a year or two, I probably will invest in a piano. For now, however, at my current level of skill, the equipment I have works well in helping me build additional skill. There will come a point when a piano in my home will help me greatly in making further progress, but I’m not there yet and I still don’t know for sure if my current passion will sustain me to that point.

Whatever your new passion is, look for ways to channel it and dive in without emptying your wallet. Check out the library. Check out Craigslist or consignment shops or Freecycle. Ask around your social circle. Look for community access to the equipment and facilities you need, whether through a city department or a shared workshop space.

Once you’ve found that inexpensive source for deepening your passion, dive in. Chase that passion as hard and as deeply as you want. If that passion still burns within you after six months, then I would argue that you’ve reached a point that it’s reasonable to begin upgrading your equipment when you can articulate clearly what that upgrade will gain you.

At the six month mark, you will either have found that the passion is sustainable over a long period or that it didn’t fulfill you like you initially thought that it might. In either case, if you didn’t invest a lot up front, you’re in better shape than you would be if you had invested a great deal up front.

Don’t let the stuff lead the passion – it almost never works. Instead, let the passion lead the stuff. See if the passion is deep and true before you throw money into it.

Good luck!

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  1. Nicole says:

    My husband does hobbies like that… generally they last at most 3 months.

    He has an allowance (that we agreed upon at some point, but he gives it to himself– I don’t remember what it is) and has to save it up for those kinds of expenditures if he doesn’t have the money on hand. If the hobby is still around by the time he’s saved up for it, he gets the thing he wants, even if deep down he knows he’ll step away from the hobby a month later. Sometimes he picks hobbies back up months or a year later (euro-games being one that comes back regularly… my favorite are the cooking-related hobbies). He gets depressed if he gets between hobbies for too long.

    There’s some increase in stuff, and he’ll get rid of stuff once a year or so (which seems like a waste to me, but whatever, it’s his money, his stuff). But the allowance keeps expenditures down to a manageable level and keeps me thinking his hobby jumping is sweet and amusing rather than annoying.

  2. kat says:

    Nicole’s comment seems like a good idea for more than just hobbies. couple I knew set a budget that allowed so much each for WHATEVER they wanted to spend it on. The other person was not allowed to say anything about it no matter how frivolous it seemed to them

  3. Ellen says:

    Maybe you could get him to agree to sell off or trade in the just-abandoned hobby equipment and use the $ toward the new interest.

  4. Ellen says:

    Also, you say this is ruining your budget – IMO if you are setting up annual budget, it should include whatever amount the two of you agree up front is reasonable and affordable for him to pursue his interests (& for yours, per Nicole & kat), taking into consideration cash flow (whether he can spend the entire amount at once or has to accumulate a given weekly or monthly amount over a period of time).

  5. Nicole says:

    Yeah, DH also uses his “allowance” on fancy coffee and meals that he takes out without me (meals out with me come out of general funds). Really anything he wants, but generally he spends on his hobbies. Most recently was Judo, but he just ditched that one (before buying stuff– we still have a ton of gear from his kendo semester)… he’s currently back to jogging and calisthenics and has been making board-game noises again.

  6. marta says:

    I agree that one should avoid going overboard with fancy equipment before knowing for sure the hobby will last… on the other hand, some hobbies will never truly kick off if you are too cheap. Running, for a example: it’s not a good idea to just use a pair of any old shoes, as that can lead to injury. Buy a proper pair of shoes right away.

    I can’t think of any particular hobby I spent a ton of money on and then quit. I tried lots of sports-related activities, but even for the more specific ones, such as scuba-diving, my investment was minimal. I took the classes and got certified but I didn’t buy anything beyond a snorkel, a mask and a pair of fins. Everything else, I rented. Good thing I did because I eventually found that hobby not to be very practical for me, so it’s something I do only once in a while. Other people went nuts right away and got the wetsuit, the regulator, harness, the information console, you name it. Not all of them have stuck with that activity.

  7. lurker carl says:

    Several months immersed in a new hobby is seldom enough time to master anything other than basic skills. Jumping from one “passion” to another every few months makes me wonder if something else is driving these fleeting whimsies. Lust, rather than passion, comes to mind.

    Shouldn’t the title say HOBBY rather than HABIT?

  8. Nicole says:

    lurker carl– I am fairly sure I have mastered a fairly high level of novel reading (30+ years) and anime watching (15+ years)… which are my long-term hobbies. I’m also a highly practiced web-surfer. Some people spend X years getting a black belt, some people are homebodies, and some people like trying new things.

  9. rosa rugosa says:

    I was with my sister in Brewer,ME last year when she spent FIVE HUNDRED DOLLARS in a bead shop – she probably personally raised the GDP of Brewer that weekend! But she is far more devoted to buying beads than actually crafting with them. And Mom has all the best equipment for calligraphy and all manner of crafts, that I will probably end up donating somewhere after she is gone. I would have to say that I have some major money invested in gardening equipment, but that’s been over the course of many years, and it all sees a lot of use. So the point of this post is a point worth making.

  10. almost there says:

    I sell things not needed on ebay in order to generate funds to buy other things. Lucky I have parents that have about 60 years worth of stuff in their house and I never want to be like that so when I no longer use things I declutter. My spouse has been on the bead trip for about 5 years now and has to check out the bead shops everywhere we go. It is a pretty expensive hobby for her. My hobby is pretty cheap now, One netlix dvd at a time and streaming to my tv for the online movies.

  11. I think that key here is to determine your real interest in any particular “hobby” or “project” you might be interested in.

    If not, you’re likely to end up with piles of barely used stuff in your house.

  12. Joan says:

    Trent: In the case of you having a piano in your home; I can just see the children trying to pick out a tune on it after watching and hearing their dad play. It could be the beginning of an interest in music. With three very young children in the family, good music is Priceless.

  13. Jeannette says:

    Hobbies can be a passion or a (sometimes expensive) diversion. People need to think clearly about why they are putting time, energy and money into anything and what their expectations are.

    Some hobbies are about relaxation and vegging out, some are about mastery and learning, some are about simply getting away from someone or something.

    Understanding your motivation before you invest any amount of time or money is critical. Some people have personalities that require “new things” and new experiences almost constantly. These are the folks who have to be most aware and mindful before they succumb to their urges, regardless of their budgets.

    Sometimes it helps to speak to others who share an interest to find out what is required. But every whim, interest, desire does NOT have to be indulged.

    Discipline is important here because most of us simply cannot afford all the things that interest us. We need to choose, and do so mindfully and carefully.

    Sometimes, in exploring the attraction to an interest or hobby, we learn something about ourselves. Then we can apply it without wasting money and other resources.

    The other aspect is how pursuing a hobby or passion increases the quality of your overall life. Is it something that takes you away from your family for extended periods? THat distracts you from work you must accomplish at home or elsewhere? Does it leave you refreshed and more desirous of sharing what you’ve learned? Or does it find you indulging shadow desires and such?

    Understanding why you are interested in, attracted to or even compelled to do something along these lines is very important. It’s not JUST the money spent.

  14. Jules says:

    Gotta start somewhere, though…my first serious digital camera was $350 (I was a late adapter, I still used film as late as 2005). Got a lotta mileage out of it, but 3 years and 2000 shots later, I knew: time to graduate.

    Whoever said photography is an inexpensive hobby clearly didn’t care to get very good at it…

  15. Bobbi says:

    I totally agree with mentioning such interests to friends and family. When we built our house in ’03, we made an album to show our friends. The living room was relatively empty, but had a caption mentioning that eventually we wanted to put a piano in there. (I had taken lessons for about 10 years when I was a kid). A couple months later a casual acquaintance called and said that they were moving, their kids were grown, did we want their piano? We only had to pay the piano movers! And the fun continued because it didn’t have a bench, but my grandmother had one in her basement that my grandfather built in high school shop class! Oh the history and stories that piano (and the crayon marks on the side from the other family) :-)

  16. This is a trap that I used to fall into quite a bit. I’d buy the things to do projects with and sometimes would never finish even the first one. My mom has been telling me for years exactly what you outlined in your post. Start a project with just a few things, and work your way up.

    That advice really stated to stick with me when I read on a photography blog, or perhaps heard on TWiT, that it’s not the camera that makes the photographer. It’s the skill. Gradually buying higher quality tools also helps to figure out what will actually be used. It also helps to cut down on the clutter sitting around.

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