Are Your Hobbies Hurting Your Finances?

Is your hobby the best use of your time and — more importantly — your money? 

Whether you’re a fan of binge-watching TV or doing weekend camping trips, here are some answers to your burning questions about getting the maximum value out of your hobbies.

In this article

    1. Valuing a hobby that isn’t TV

    I put aside two hours for entertainment each evening after work. I usually choose to use it playing League of Legends with friends. Maybe one night a week I will watch something on Netflix on my laptop — I don’t own a TV.

    It seems like everyone in my family defines this as a horrendous waste of time, yet they all watch tons of TV programs and talk about them constantly. How are they all watching a ton of different TV shows if they are not investing hours each day watching television? Why do people judge leisure time so differently?

    — Jared

    Many Americans view a few hours of daily TV as the norm, something that they do and that everyone else does, too. Thus, when you mention that you spend significant amounts of your leisure time on something that isn’t TV, they assume that it must be on top of TV time and thus you must be spending a ton of time each day on outright leisure.

    [ Related: 12 Ways to Watch TV After Cutting Cable ]

    I get this feedback from my family members and friends sometimes. I’ll say that I haven’t watched some show, and they’re surprised that I haven’t watched it, even though saying I haven’t seen the current show of the moment is a pretty common response from me. Meanwhile, they often can’t believe that I manage to read 100 books in a year or that I’ve done this or done that. Where do I find the time? 

    The thing is, I just don’t watch much television, much like Jared. The time that the average family spends on television is time that I spend reading or going on hikes or doing any of a number of other things. It’s really OK to just not watch television and fill your evening hours with something else that is more fulfilling to you. If that means you don’t have a cable subscription and maybe just one streaming service, it’s a big money saver, too.

    2. How can I start camping for cheap?

    This summer my brother loaned us his hardbody camper and my family went on two camping trips. The camper was stocked with basically everything we needed besides food, wood and our clothing, so it was a really cheap way to have a socially distanced vacation. We loved it and want to get into camping ourselves, maybe going on camping trips with my brother and his family next year. When I started pricing stuff out, though, it is really expensive. Even the so-called “cheap camping” guides are ridiculous. How do people get into camping without spending a lot?

    — Terry

    From this description, it seems you’re interested in car camping. That means you drive to a campground somewhere, set up some sort of shelter, and enjoy the trails and other amenities of a campground while enjoying tons of outdoor time. My family does this type of camping several times a summer. However, the preparation for it is very different from, say, backpacking.

    [ More: 25 Ways You Could Be Saving Money Right Now ]

    The single most important thing you need for this type of camping is a good tent. If you’re in the shelter provided by a tent and it’s reasonably warm out, you can sleep well with your pillow from home and an assortment of blankets and comforters to make a nice bed inside. For your first tent, you can’t go wrong with a Coleman Sundome of the appropriate size for your family. It won’t last forever, but it’s very reasonable in terms of price, and if you use it enough that you’re actually wearing it out, you’re probably in a position to upgrade anyway. 

    You’ll also need matches, a pocket knife, basic cooking equipment and a lantern or flashlights.

    In other words, you really don’t need that much for basic camping. There are lots of useful things, but not really necessary. I suggest going on a short camping trip or two with just those basics and seeing what you would find really useful on future trips.

    3. What are some hobbies that make money?

    All of my hobbies are things that eat money. I’m looking for hobbies that return some value to me besides just enjoyment and relaxation.

    — Jarrett

    Any hobby that requires you to build a skill that is either useful in your field of employment or is a transferable skill is one that returns value to you. Hobbies that build your focus or improve your short-term memory are valuable for almost any career. Any hobby that involves building a general life skill is valuable, too. Hobbies in which you make things, particularly things that others might value, is valuable, as are hobbies that involve fixing or repairing things.

    [ Read: How to Make Money From Your Hobbies ]

    That simple step opens up many hobbies. Cooking is a great example. It’s a skill that reduces the cost of food and eventually builds into something that others value as well. Reading — particularly if you’re choosing challenging books or long-form articles — improves your focus and vocabulary. Even something like mastering a Rubik’s Cube to the point of being able to solve one quickly is a good hobby, as it requires serious focus and becomes a nifty party trick to boot.

    4. Should I save old magazines?

    I have subscribed to a number of magazines for many years and I have always saved the back issues for reference. I have a closet full of them. But I realize that I simply don’t look at them again once they go in there. Thinking about tossing them but I feel like it is such a waste. But then what value do they have just sitting there?

    — Vicki

    Many people subscribe to magazines that have some degree of archival value. Food magazines may have value as a future recipe reference. Maker magazines may have value as a future project reference. The problem is that once you archive these things away in a closet, it’s really hard to get value out of them once again. Hunting down a specific recipe in 20 years’ worth of food magazines is a task that few will ever want to deal with.

    My solution to this challenge for many years has been that, once a magazine is leaving our magazine rack in our living room, I go through it and take pictures with my phone of any recipes or other articles I might ever want to refer to and add them to Evernote. This makes the articles text searchable, so I can find them with a quick search in the future. At that point, I then either give the magazine away to someone who might still want to use it or recycle it. I don’t keep physical magazine archives anymore.

    I find that I use digital archives of old magazine articles fairly often, whereas when they were just physical issues stuffed in a closet, I never looked at them.

    5. How do I start photography inexpensively?

    Do you know any deals on digital SLR cameras? I spent the last three years doing a lot of photography for yearbook and the student newspaper where I could use a digital SLR but I want to pursue it as a hobby and maybe as a photography business. But everything is so expensive!

    — Mark

    Rather than worrying about the gear, worry about the photography techniques themselves. I would get a smartphone with a good camera on it and use that as my primary camera for a long while. Rather than focusing on getting a high-end camera right now, focus on learning how to properly frame and stage photographs and how to edit them.

    At this point, unless you are deeply immersed in the hobby and have easily disposable income to afford a high-end digital SLR camera or you’re actually doing this professionally, a smartphone and some good photo editing software is really all you need for pretty excellent photography. A really great digital camera is probably 10%–20% of the equation.

    If you do decide that you need a digital SLR camera for this, I would spend a ton of time researching them and save slowly to get the right one rather than just buying whatever one is a bargain. Figure out which camera really meets your needs, then bargain hunt for that specific model.

    6. The value of the social element of expensive hobby

    I love to ski and have a bunch of friends who are into it. We go to ski resorts a bunch of times a year. I sat down and figured out how much I spent on skiing and related expenses in 2019 and I couldn’t believe it. We haven’t done it much in 2020 but I miss it so much and I miss my friends. But then I look at how my finances are so much better right now. I am honestly more afraid of losing those friends if I don’t hop right back into skiing when we can.

    — Tuesday

    It feels as if, to me, that what you love about skiing at this point is more the social aspect of it and the circle of friends than the skiing itself. Yes, you probably enjoy flying down a slope, but that experience is not what draws you back. It’s the social circle that you’ve built.

    [ Related: The Best Savings Accounts of 2020 ]

    My advice to you is to find something else — anything else — that speaks to you on its merits that’s less expensive than skiing, then move from that to finding others that are into it as well and build a new social circle around that new interest. I mean, I could list thousands of suggestions here, but it really needs to come from you. What sounds interesting to really dive into? Make a list of things and start exploring them.

    Right now is a great time for this, since you’re not actively involved in skiing. Use that time that you would have been doing skiing-related things to explore some other things on your own to figure out what clicks with you, and if you find something, start considering how you might find friends within that new hobby, particularly as things begin to return to some form of normal in a post-COVID world.

    This is probably the best moment for self-exploration that many of us will have in our lives. Use it well.

    Do you have any questions? The best way to ask is to follow me on Facebook and ask questions directly there. I’ll attempt to answer them in a future mailbag (which may also get re-posted on other websites that pick up my blog). However, I do receive many, many questions per week, so I may not necessarily be able to answer yours.

    We welcome your feedback on this article. Contact us at inquiries@thesimpledollar.com with comments or questions.

    Trent Hamm

    Founder of The Simple Dollar

    Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.

    Reviewed by

    • Courtney Mihocik
      Courtney Mihocik

      Courtney Mihocik is an editor at The Simple Dollar who specializes in insurance, personal finance, and loans. Previously, she wrote and edited for Interest.com, PersonalLoans.org, Ballantyne Magazine, Thread Magazine, The Post, ACRN, The New Political, Columbus Alive and the Institute for International Journalism.