Passions, Obsessions, Time, and Money

Recently, I listened to episode #161 of the Pen Addict podcast, which featured a long discussion on the topic of buying with intention. For those unfamiliar with the Pen Addict, it’s a podcast about pens and notebooks, a topic of which I have some degree of interest.

The hosts and the guest on that episode talked about the huge assortment of pens and paper and inks that they own and how they each struggle with being smart when it comes to further purchasing decisions within those areas.

This podcast really rang true for me for a number of reasons. While I don’t share the passion for pens and pencils and inks that they share, I do enjoy having notebooks around, particularly pocket notebooks. I have a drawer with several dozen of them in there unused that I’ve picked up in various places, though I do go through them at a pretty steady clip.

More than that, though, this podcast reflected onto my other, larger passions. Two in particular: books and board games.

I’m very passionate about books and board games as a participatory experience. I love getting lost in the chapters of a fascinating book, and I also love gathering around the table with like-minded friends for a lighthearted event or an intellectual challenge.

Yet, in both cases, and as is the case with many hobbies, there’s an accumulation part to the hobby. Both books and board games are items that you can buy and bring home to put on your own shelves, to read or to play at your own convenience. (With books, you don’t even have to commit physical space to it – you can just buy ebooks.)

Right now, in my office, I have two sets of wire shelves that houses 90% of my board game collection, with the rest on a bookshelf that also houses a number of books. Over my desk are two wall-mounted bookshelves that are basically full, and there are at least ten other bookcases or shelves in our house with books on them.

In short, I have a big book collection and a big board game collection.

But is that enough? Quite often, I convince myself that it isn’t. I spend money pretty much every month on both of these hobbies. In fact, they’re the primary outlet for my non-essential spending.

Everyone needs an outlet, right? There’s nothing wrong with having a hobby or two and spending some money on that hobby, as long as that spending doesn’t interfere with other aspects of life.

Here’s the catch: I recognize that spending too much on those hobbies is a pretty big detriment to my life, for several reasons.

First, the more stuff I have, the less time I have for each item. If I have a game night once a week where I can play three games and I own ten of them, then I can theoretically play each of my games once or twice a month. But what if I own a hundred of them? At best, I can only play each game once every eight months – and that’s if I never double up any plays along the way.

Second, the more stuff I have, the more space it takes up. Those shelves do take up square footage in our house. That square footage adds to our heating and cooling bills and it adds to our property taxes and it adds to our insurance, meaning it has a real cost, too.

Third, the more stuff I have, the more money and time I’ve taken away from other life goals. $20 or $30 spent on a board game is $20 or $30 not used on saving for early retirement, for example. $10 spent on a book is $10 not used on our other life goals.

Finally, the more stuff I have, the more time it takes solely to organize and maintain it. With hobbies, that can sometimes be a fun experience, but sometimes it’s a chore. You spend more time finding the book that you want to find. You spend more time finding the game you want to find. When things get out of order, it takes more time to put them back in a sensible order. You get the idea.

So, where’s the balance? What are some good tactics for spending money on a hobby without the collection becoming overwhelming?

I’ve found that most of my strategies come down to two main principles. One, the more I encourage myself to “do,” the less I feel like I should “collect.” My “collecting” nature – which is expensive – tends to pop up more when I’ve spent less time lately participating in the actual hobby. Two, I use simple easy-to-abide-by principles for adding to my collections. They aren’t so tight that I feel restricted and feel a desire to break them; instead, they feel smart and sensible.

Here’s how I do it, for both of my major hobbies (and some minor ones, too).

Have a Hobby Budget

Each month, I have a spending cap on all of my hobbies and forms of entertainment. It’s a tiny fraction of our income, but enough for me to be able to buy a board game or two, a book or two, and maybe another item or two for my minor hobbies if I’m smart with that money.

I try very hard to keep my spending within the limit of that “hobby budget.” Most months, I come in on the low side, in which case I put money aside for future months or for particular big expenses that I may want to spend my money on in the future.

My system for keeping track of all of this is simple. I use You Need a Budget to track my hobby expenses throughout the month and use that information to decide whether I can reasonably afford a particular item or whether I should wait. This keeps me on track quite effectively and ensures that I don’t routinely overspend.

Do I feel constrained by that budget? Not really. I have enough each month to buy something hobby-related that I want, and if I want something more than that, I know that if I just wait a week or two, I’ll have more money in my hobby budget. Simply knowing that I can have it in just a short amount of time really helps with the desire aspect.

Go “Shopping” in Your Own Collection

Every once in a while, I go through each of my collections and “shop” for new things to enjoy. This does a fantastic job of creating a sense of having something “new” to explore and enjoy without spending any money.

It’s really simple. Every few months, I just go through my collections and look for anything that jumps out at me as “interesting.” I literally pull those things out and bring them to the front of those collections.

If it’s a book, I put it on the shelf right above my computer in my office, where I’ll see it constantly. Usually, these “fresh” books inspire a big burst of reading over the next month or so.

If it’s a board game, I put it in my “game box” that I take to community game nights. That same box is the one that I often draw from when choosing games to play with my family, so it tends to simply be full of the games that I’m most interested in playing. As with the books, these “new” discoveries really encourage me to actively participate in the hobby rather than just passively “collecting,” which is really a huge benefit.

You can do this with any kind of collection. Dig through the recesses of your DVD collection to see what movies you might have forgotten about or not even watched yet. Dig through your music collection for great albums that haven’t popped into your head in a while. Dig through your closet for outfits you haven’t worn in a long time. You’ll find stuff you already had that excites you all over again.

Avoid the “Cult of the New”

The “cult of the new” is a subject I’ve written about before. It’s the sense of always wanting to have the newest and greatest thing in an area of your interest and, at the same time, having a sense that you’re being “left behind” if you aren’t at least familiar with that new thing.

For example, many conversations about books that I have with my friends, as well as many of the websites I might read regarding books, will revolve around the newest releases. While there might be some references to older books, most conversations tend to talk about the new thing, partially out of a certainty that the discussion won’t be a re-hash of an old one because it can’t be a re-hash, but also because it’s enjoyable to discuss something new and fresh.

Often, hype drives this. Whenever a major author releases a new book, it gets lots of attention. The same is true for major board game publishers and designers. When book (and board gaming) awards are announced, they’re well publicized. Some book awards pop up in mainstream media, while many others are covered in depth in book-focused media. The same is true with board gaming awards, though they rarely break out of gaming-focused media.

Those awards are not only pushed as being relevant, it’s usually true that the winners of those awards do actually have some real merit and are enjoyable to read (or play), plus they become a topic of conversation within hobby social circles. All of this creates a pressure to want that hot new thing.

Simply being aware of this is one step. A bigger – and probably better – step is to avoid it entirely and simply not buy any book or game (or anything else) that’s been released for the first time in the past, say, twelve months. I also find it useful to avoid a lot of the hobby-related media, as a lot of that seems to be driven towards continually buying new stuff.

Sure, you won’t have the hot new thing most of the time, but you gain something else. Generally, the items that are still being talked about and lauded a year after release are truly worthy of your attention. Turning off the “cult of the new” actually serves as a pretty good filter for quality.

Use a “Smart” Buying List

I won’t buy a book or a game unless it’s on my buying list. That’s a pretty bold statement… so, what’s my buying list like? It’s a list that consists only of books and games that I’ve had a continuous interest in for a significant period of time.

Let’s say I have heard interesting things about a particular book or game and am thinking about buying it. I’ll add that item to my Amazon wish list. Every few weeks, I’ll go through that list and ask myself whether I’m actually still interested in that item and, if I’m not, I’ll delete it.

Then, if I ever decide to buy a book or a game, I look at that list and look for the oldest item on there – the one I added months or even years ago. If I’m still interested, that’s the one I buy.

What’s the advantage of this approach? It keeps impulsive buys at bay, which is a great thing for a participatory hobby because those impulsive buys are usually not so good. Instead, it steers the focus to items that I have a continued interest in over a period of months or even years. Those items have survived my own changing interests, my reading of many reviews and other articles, and my own experiences and yet still I have an interest. That’s a sign of a worthy purchase.

Clear Out the Untouched Parts of Your Collection Regularly

Every few months – often at the same time that I go “shopping” within my own collections – I go through my collection and look for items for which my interest has waned. Is this book one that I’ll ever read again? If not, why keep it? Is this game one that I’ll ever play again? If not, why keep it?

Doing this serves two purposes. One, it reduces the size of the collection, which makes it easier to maintain and organize and makes it take up less space. It becomes easier to find items when you have fewer items to browse, after all.

More importantly, it gives me the opportunity to sell off those extra items. When I do this, I take the proceeds from those sales and add it to my hobby budget.

Let me give you an example. Let’s say I buy a board game for $50 and play it 25 times or so. I then grow tired of it and don’t play it for several months, then decide to sell it. Someone online offers me $25 for it and pays for shipping. I box up the game and ship it off, pocketing $25. That $25 is now available as a “bonus” to my hobby budget.

Effectively, I turned that game into a long-term rental. I rented the game for $25 for a year, which meant that I got to play it at my convenience for that time and was able to pass it on. To me, that’s a better deal than having invested $50 in that item, only to have it sit on a shelf taking up space and gathering dust.

Focus Your Time and Energy on Participation, not Accumulation

Both books and board games – and most other things people collect as an outgrowth of a passion – are physical items that are meant to set the stage for some sort of activity. Books encourage reading. Games encourage playing. They encourage you to do something, not just collect them.

So, focus on “collecting” the activity. Instead of keeping track of the books you own, keep track of the books you’ve read. Instead of keeping track of the games you own, keep track of the games you’ve played. Instead of keeping track of the DVDs or Blurays you own, keep track of the films you’ve watched. You can do this with virtually any hobby you might have. Focus on the participation far ahead of the stuff.

If your passion and energy are genuinely focused toward the process of collection, find something free to collect. I enjoy collecting unusual rocks, but those are ones that I find and bring home and clean up and put in the front garden. Sarah enjoys collecting heirloom seeds, most of which were gathered via trading and by growing her own plants.

Adopt a “One In, One Out” Principle

This one’s easy to explain. Let’s say I have a cap of 200 books in my book collection. Before I acquire a book, I have to remove one from my collection first to make room for it. If I receive a book as a gift, my collection cap temporarily goes up by one until I’ve read it, then I have to decide whether to keep it (and thus remove another book from my collection) or pass it on.

Again, this works for almost anything you might collect in relation to a hobby. If you have a smartphone, you need to get rid of one before acquiring another, and the same is true for tablets and other things like that.

This does become trickier for items that don’t take up physical space, particularly those that have no resale value. I basically ignore this rule for things like Kindle books.

Still, it works really well for any physical object that might have some degree of resale value. It keeps a collection to a reasonable physical size and ensures that you have to make some hard decisions regarding any new purchases or acquisitions.

Block off Hobby Time as a Priority

As I mentioned earlier, active participation in a hobby tends to dull one’s desire to actually acquire new things. Often, that desire to acquire is a manifestation of a pent-up desire to participate, one that isn’t being fulfilled in your daily life.

Don’t let that happen. Wall off some time in your life devoted solely toward your hobby. Allow yourself to have time in the evenings to read or an afternoon once or twice a month (or even weekly) to go to a meetup related to your hobby.

Make that time immovable. It is important. Time devoted to active leisure – which is what this is – is some of the most valuable time we spend. It keeps us joyful and makes some of the more challenging parts of our life more tolerable.

If you truly believe in the idea of “working to live” rather than “living to work,” then this concept should be a given. Devoting time to actually living your passions is just part of life.

However, many people have burdened themselves with responsibility to the point that they feel like they have no time for their hobbies or passions any more. That’s a dangerous point. It’s one that brings about unhappiness and often causes rampant hobby spending on things that are largely unused and unfulfilled.

Block off time for your hobbies, even if that means giving up on another responsibility. Work to live, don’t live to work.

Final Thoughts

Our passions often give way to collecting rather than doing for a number of reasons: hype, a lack of time, a desire to feel relevant. Addressing those things head on rather than just letting them guide your hand directly into your wallet will not only increase the joy that a hobby brings you, but it also helps keep your financial situation healthier.

If you have hobby spending and collecting that seems to be running out of control, take these strategies to heart. Try them out in your own life and see if they help you to start trimming some of those excesses while, at the same time, increasing your actual enjoyment of the hobbies you participate in.

As for me? I’m going to go read a book rather than hovering over the “Buy it Now” button on Amazon.

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.