How to Create Fun, Inexpensive Challenges From Your Hobbies

Last year, I issued myself a challenge to read 52 challenging books I already owned. I made up the list in advance and made it my goal over the course of that year to read every one of them. I read Capital in the 21st Century by Thomas Piketty, Debt: The First 5000 Years by David Graeber, The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and a whole bunch of other books — 49, in fact — that I had accumulated in paper and e-book form.

A few years ago, I challenged myself to get 100% of the achievements in a couple of strategic computer games that I felt I was pretty good at. I managed to get to 100% on one of them and very close on the other.

Just last month, I set a month-long goal of getting my speed at solving a Rubik’s Cube down to 30 seconds — not just once, but an average over five solves in a row. I practiced this a ton throughout the month, which mostly centered around mastering a faster way to solve the cube than the method I was using previously, and by the end of the month, I was very close, with a 32-second average over five solves. (I did this in conjunction with my son, who is notably faster than I am.)

Two years ago, I made a list of every state park and nature preserve within a 50-mile radius of the house, found every map of each of those parks and preserves I could find, and made it a goal to walk every single trail in all of them. I didn’t even get close — there were a lot more than I thought — but I walked a lot of them and this is still something I’m making progress toward completing.

I’ve done things like attempting to make every recipe in a particular cookbook, watching every DVD/Blu-ray in our collection (and deciding whether each is worth keeping after watching it), making 12 different kinds of fermented foods in a year (for immediate eating as well as freezing and canning for future consumption), attending all of the different religious services available in my town to learn more about them, and on and on on and on.

I call these my “fun challenges,” and I do them for several reasons.

  1. I find them fun. These “fun challenges” are always related to things I enjoy doing and actually doing them seems like the journey itself will be really fun for me. I simply enjoy doing them.
  2. It’s a way to nudge myself to dig deeper into something I’m interested in. In each of those cases, the challenge was just a way to nudge myself deeper into a particular hobby or interest of mine. During the period of those challenges, the activity in question filled up a large portion of my daily hobby time.
  3. It directs me toward action, not consumption. Each of these challenges is oriented around actually doing something, not just accumulating things. I’m reading challenging books. I’m building a skill. I’m getting in better shape. These challenges aren’t just about buying and acquiring stuff, nor are they about paying for experiences.
  4. It usually builds some kind of skill or knowledge or something that’s useful in a broader sense. The reading challenge taught me about a lot of subjects and enhanced my understanding of quite a few classic novels. The strategic gaming challenge forced me to think strategically a lot. The Rubik’s Cube challenge improved my focus and my spatial reasoning and my short term memory. The trail walking goal definitely improved my fitness and health. Almost every challenge I choose, while fun, improves some aspect of my life.
  5. Each challenge intentionally keeps costs low. Each one of those challenges rests on using things I already have or things that are available for free in my community, thus those challenges are inherently inexpensive.

How to create fun, low-cost personal challenges.

Start by considering a hobby or interest that you really long to devote more time to. Everyone has different hobbies and interests. Sarah likes to crochet and knit, for example, and while I tried it, it just wasn’t my thing. My daughter plays the piano all the time. My oldest brother is an avid hunter.

If you’re like me, this is kind of like drinking from a fire hose. I have a lot of hobbies and interests and I often feel like I never have enough time to dig into them with the depth that I would like.

For your first challenge, choose the one hobby or interest that speaks to you the loudest. Settle on the one that makes you think, “Man, I’d love to do more of this!”

Now, consider what it is that you want to do within that hobby that doesn’t involve buying more stuff or paying for activities. Many hobbies and interests lend themselves toward doing something, even if they don’t necessarily end up expressing themselves in that way in your life.

I’ll give an example of what I mean. I love to journal. I write in a journal almost every single day, and have done so since I was in middle school (seriously). A good challenge that relies on what I have is to spend time improving my journal writing and writing better journal entries. However, my journaling hobby can easily turn into buying and thinking about nice journals to use — that’s a bad challenge. My goal should be to fill up the journals I have, not to acquire new ones.

Your challenge should center around using supplies that you have or freely available public resources (like the library or hiking trails). Your challenge shouldn’t involve lots of acquisition. Sure, you might need some more consumable supplies to finish your challenge, but those should be minimal and secondary to the challenge.

Another example: if I spend a lot of time making fermented foods, I naturally need some basic ingredients to start with. However, those basic ingredients are much less expensive than the end product, and I mostly rely on things I already have (like glass jars). For example, to make a ton of sauerkraut, all I need are a few really inexpensive cabbage heads and some salt, all of which I can get at the store for a couple of dollars, and the value of sauerkraut I make is much more than I would spend.

It’s a good idea to set some reasonable limitations on your challenge. For example, if you have a large collection (like our family’s collection of books), going through the entire collection is not a realistic challenge. It would take you years upon years to do it.

Here are some good tips for reasonable limitations on your challenge.

Set a timeframe for your challenge. I usually find that a month or three months is a good timeframe, though year-long challenges can be really fun if you’re willing to stick with them. Start with a month-long challenge if you’re unsure, as you can always go back later on and revise it to make it longer.

Consider how much time you can really spend per day — or per week — completing this challenge. I like to think about all of my leisure time and free time in a week and then consider that I will spend half of all of that time on the challenge while it’s active. I don’t want to spend every second of my free time on the challenge, but I want to give it plenty of time to be successful.

Then, consider what you could do if you used that chunk of time effectively toward your challenge. Let’s say you decide that you have twenty hours of time you could devote to the challenge each week. You’ll drastically cut your television watching and social media surfing and some of your other hobby activities. What could you do with twenty hours per week devoted to that challenge?

For example, if your goal was to read some challenging books, you might figure that you can read a challenging book in 15 hours, so you might challenge yourself to read five big challenging books this month (that would take about 75 hours). If your goal is trail walking, you might be able to devote two weeknight evenings and a weekend day over the next month walking trails, so how many parks could you completely cover in that timeframe?

Make a list. I find it really enjoyable to start off a challenge with making a list of all of the specific things I want to do during the challenge.

For example, if your goal is to read five challenging books in a month, pick those five books out at the start. Make a list of the books you’re aiming to read, chosen from your shelves or from the library’s offering.

If your goal is to walk as many trails as you can in a 50 mile radius during the summer, make a walking plan, identifying where you’ll go on each day you are able to go. When I did my trail walking challenge, I identified places I’d go and trails I’d walk on shorter weekday sessions, and identified bigger parks to walk on weekends.

I find that making this list is a great way to really build enthusiasm for the goal, and it also sets in place what you’ll do throughout the challenge so you can just focus on enjoying the activity as you go along. It’s also a way to figure out how realistic your goal really is.

Here are 20 fun challenges to choose from.

Need some ideas for your own challenge? Here are 20 challenges oriented toward 20 different hobbies or interests. Choose one that lines up with what you enjoy and dive in!

1. Read a series of novels you’ve wanted to read in the next month or season. If your library has the series on the shelves, you can usually walk right through a series if you can get ahold of the first book. Aim to read one book a week, to give yourself a timeframe.

2. Crochet a blanket a month this year to give away as gifts. This lets you build up your crocheting skills and burn through any yarn that you have built up. (I know my wife has lots of yarn stowed away for various intended projects.)

3. In the next month, master memorizing the order of a shuffled deck of cards. This is an amazing party trick, and the process of learning how to do it will really help with your focus and your short term memory prowess. You’ll probably need an hour a day to pull it off – I found that two separate shorter sessions a day work really well for this kind of thing. All you need is a deck of cards and a couple sheets of paper. Here’s a guide to memorizing an entire deck of shuffled cards.

4. Bake a loaf of bread each day for a month. You can try making different styles of bread, of course — sweet bread and regular white bread, round loaves or rectangular ones, white and wheat and rye loaves. You can make them for your own consumption or give them to friends. The cost per loaf is really cheap, and by the end of the month, your baking skills will be sharp.

5. Defeat a computer or video game you love on the hardest setting. This will take a lot of attempts and retries — trust me. Give yourself a reasonable deadline to do it, like a month or so, and give it daily effort. This will really hone your focus and attention to detail, if nothing else.

6. Dress up as nicely as you can and take one selfie each day for a month. Some people simply enjoy the feeling of dressing in nice clothes or dressing in costumes and putting on makeup so that they look perfect. This can be a great way to evaluate the clothes you have in your closet and really hone your fashion and makeup skills.

7. Solve a set of really challenging puzzles this month. For example, one month I attempted to solve a cryptic crossword puzzle book (I succeeded, the book was like this one and I received it as a gift), and another month I tried to solve The Maze of Games (not so successfully, though I made good progress). If you have some puzzle books stowed away, make finishing the whole book a month-long challenge.

8. Make a different home-cooked meal for dinner each night for a month. If your schedule will make this difficult some nights, lean into using a slow cooker or learn how to mostly prepare a meal the night before so you can just finish it off when you get home.

9. Take 10 photographs of your community each day for a month and post the best one each day on social media. Modern smartphones can take amazing pictures and many people have fallen in love with photography as a result. This is a great way to channel the tools you have and try to capture some great photographs.

10. Write an interesting computer program this month that explores something you’ve always found intriguing. For example, you might try to write a program that implements a Bitcoin-esque blockchain, or a program that plays one of your favorite board games.

11. Write a 1,000-word journal entry each day this month. Record everything of interest that happens to you each day, then simply “brain dump” by writing down what comes to mind with whatever you’re concerned about.

12. Fold an elaborate origami figure each day for a month. All you need is some interesting paper, which you likely already have, and some time. Aim to make things that might serve as interesting decorations.

13. Paint your nails with an elaborate pattern each day for a month. If you have a bunch of nail polish and like to have interesting fingernails and/or toenails, put aside some time each morning to put a really interesting pattern or design on your nails each day for a month.

14. Learn how to play one of your favorite songs well on a musical instrument you know. This will help you refine your skills and get sharper at that instrument, plus you might find that it would be fun to play that song at a small gathering in the future. (A friend of mine spent a month or two working on a popular song on the piano, then went to a local shop with a piano and played the song to the enjoyment of many and the utter surprise of his friends.)

15. Write and record a three-minute rap or poetry reading per day for a month. It doesn’t have to be a great one, but it should stretch you to consistently write poetry or lyrics and learn how to efficiently record and edit them.

16. Sketch a different spot in your home each day for a month. Get out that sketchbook and those pencils and just sketch a particular spot in your home each day. At the end of the month, you’ll have an interesting look at the place where you lived at this time in your life.

17. Join Wikipedia and submit an improved version of a neglected short entry each day for a month. This is a great one to take on if you really enjoy writing and research, as the results help everyone.

18. Write a good first draft of that novel idea you’ve had for a while in the next month. There’s actually an annual program called National Novel Writing Month that provides support for doing just that.

19. Find five geocaches a day for a month. If you like exploring a variety of areas, whether urban or suburban or rural or parks or whatever, geocaching is a hobby you’ll probably enjoy, and a goal of 150 geocaches in a month is a wonderful one to aim for.

20. Identify 10 trees or other plants in your area in 30 days. This is a wonderful way to learn more about the natural environment you live in. The iNaturalist app is incredibly useful in helping you identify plants in their natural environment.

There’s no better time than today to pick out one of these challenges that speaks to you — or come up with your own — and give it a shot. It’s a great way to enjoy some high-quality leisure time inexpensively while digging into something that’s always interested you.

Good luck!

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.