Updated on 11.24.07

The Tug of War Between Frugality, Hobbies, and an Emergency Fund

Trent Hamm

Quite often, I admire my cousin and his wife for some of the frugal things they choose to do in their lives. They buy late model used cars and drive them until they need replaced, eat out only on extremely rare occasions, and know cold which generic products are basically the same as the name brands. They’ve replaced almost all their light bulbs with CFLs and have actually disconnected their cable because they don’t use it much.

That’s why I was shocked recently to find out that they’re actually in a frightening debt situation. Why? They take that money that they save from frugal choices (and more) and then spend it on incredibly expensive toys. They have several ATVs, a huge array of hunting equipment, a taste for nice clothes, and their children have virtually everything they ask for.

The end result? Frugality isn’t helping them with their financial situation. They’re already doing it in some avenues of their life, but in other ones, the spending is so overblown that it undoes the buckling down. Often, the argument offered by people in this situation – including my cousin – is that the nice stuff they have is what they work so hard for, but if you ask them what happens if they were to lose their job, a deep look of fear pops up in their eye.

What can you do if you’re in this situation, where your basic needs are actually well below what you’re making, but you find yourself spending everything you bring in – and more? Here are some suggestions for putting yourself in a safer financial situation.

First, don’t give up your expensive hobbies. This might seem like shocking advice, but I’ve found that if you give up something you’re really passionate about, it works about as well as an “all-salad” diet – you do it great for a while, then relapse with crazy splurging.

Look at my cousin’s situation. He spends almost all of his free time with his family doing outdoor activities: riding around on their ATVs, hunting, fishing, and so on. It makes natural sense that he wants to spend his entertainment money on these things – and he should. Life is boring if you don’t have an outlet for your passions.

For me, my hobbies are reading and writing and some video game playing (and a little bit of music). My biggest expense is games for my Wii and DS and occasionally a computer upgrade. While I’m tempted to buy every interesting Wii or DS game I see, I’m pretty careful to not do this.

Instead of spending extra money on hobbies and entertainment, though, set up an automatic savings plan that takes some of the money out of your reach. That way, there’s no money sitting there to tempt you to spend. Take, say, $100 a month out of your checking and into your savings, and don’t touch it until you desperately need it.

You’ll find that your spending adapts to this new available amount. Maybe you’ll move from two new outfits a month to three every two months, or maybe you’ll hold off a few months on your next ATV upgrade. You still get to enjoy your hobbies and have those things that really drive you, but you also get to start putting away money for the future.

What I’ve found for me is that buying one video game, making a very earnest effort to master that game, and then move on to another one is a great way to keep my video game hobby alive with a lot of enjoyment but without much spending. Similarly, I hit the library and PaperBackSwap when I have a desire to read a new book (right now, for instance, I’m reading through most of John Steinbeck’s novels, all of which I could get through PBS or the library).

Over time, slowly increase the amount you’re withdrawing into savings. This works very well in conjunction with discovering new avenues of frugality or increases in salary, or if your interests begin to change.

You may also want to start making extra payments on outstanding debts. Now that our emergency fund is built up well, we have started making extra payments on our student loan debts, and it feels very good to watch them melting away. Once that’s done, we’re going to tackle our home loan with extra payments. This is a good move to make once you have plenty of money socked away to cover any emergency.

Soon, you’ll find yourself in a safer financial situation, and that’s exactly where you want to be.

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  1. We have saved six months worth of expenses and have now pushed the money we were saving for an emergency fund into more fun things like fixing up our house or maybe a little nicer clothing (those burlap bags were chafing my skin!). My wife feels extremely safe with this and it takes the stress out of losing your job.

  2. Jean says:

    When ever I see something about the importance of paying down debt, I always want to add the caveat of “but not at the expense of savings”. It’s very possible to do both, and in my opinion, even wiser. Don’t neglect savings and investing just to pay down a house. While it’s a worth while thing to do — and I do put a little extra to my mortgage because I want to get a certain amount back when I sell, so I can pay off my next house should I wish — my investments have netted me far more than paying off my house could ever.

    As for credit card debt — pay that off as soon as possible. Credit card debt nets you nothing… and paying it off is a very good thing indeed.

  3. Aaron Stroud says:

    Trent, That’s good advice for someone who isn’t ready to get their act together. Sometimes small steps are better than no steps.

    But I would take issue with your advice on not giving up expensive hobbies. It sounds like your cousin’s outdoor interests can be as expensive or as thrifty as his budget needs. I’d say sell the ATVs and stick to more affordable hobbies like hunting, fishing, and camping.

    Of course, if they’re not interested in making big changes yet, maybe they’d be better off following your advice, losing their jobs, hitting rock bottom, and then they might finally be ready to take your advice more seriously.

  4. Michael says:

    Your cousin and his wife are good at being frugal on necessities. They need to apply this knack to their hobbies. There probably are cheaper ways to buy the same clothes, equipment, and ATVs. There probably are yuppie locals who have ATVS in their garages that have barely been used and could be fetched at a good price, for example.

  5. Donna says:

    Trent – Why don’t you simply join GameFly? For not much cash you can swap your games as often as you want? We joined, the kids pay for it with their own allowance, and it is SO much cheaper than buying games…

  6. Tom says:

    That’s some great advice. The thing with hobbies too is you have to think down the road as well. If you’re saving all of your money and don’t have any hobbies, what are you going to do when you retire?

  7. vh says:

    If they’re diddling away their money on hobbies, can they really be called “frugal”? All that’s happening here is the same thing that happens to the rest of us when we slide into debt: we have to short ourselves on necessities to cope with the costs of self-indulgence or emergency.

    My friend The Emperor of Cheap is an avid outdoorsman, but he extends his frugal practices to his outdoor enthusiasms. Camping gear, skis, bows & arrows, even guns can be had at yard sales and estate sales. He gets his ice skates at Deseret Industries and has found tarps, tents, and his all-time favorite camping cookpot at yard sales and thrift shops. And as Michael points out, second-hand ATVs are to be had at considerable discount — say, on Craig’s List or E-bay.

    Uhm, I don’t suppose your cousin has though of how unfrugal it is for ALL of us that he and his family are tearing up the forests and deserts with those contraptions? Maybe some of the rest of us would also like to enjoy the outdoors, possibly even an outdoors unspoiled by noisy, polluting, destructive machinery?

  8. Mrs. Micah says:

    At least you have the common ground of frugality to approach this from. So if you want to talk to them, it should be easier than if you tried talking to people who haven’t made a frugal choice in their lives.

  9. Wayne says:

    Good example of my grandmothers expression

    “Penny smart, pound foolish”

  10. Elizabeth says:

    Trent —

    Interesting post. Totally off the frugal topic, don’t forget to read Steinbeck’s Arthurian tale — “The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights.” It’s not very well known but the best version of the Arthur legend that I’ve ever read.

  11. Sandy says:

    This is a tough one, easier for some, harder for others. At some point, though, if we don’t make the shift from spender to saver, then we are dooming ourselves to poverty or having to work forever. Everyone reaches this realization at a different time in their lives.

    To create a margin between ourselves and the financial edge, we have to live below our means –we have to choose a lifestyle we can pay for with the money we have and still have some left over. But we are in a buy now, pay later society, so it’s hard to do and does take strength of character.

    Some people have always been aware of this and manage their money, while others have to hit rock bottom, and live that pain for awhile first.

  12. dawn f says:

    My husband is in the gaming industry & most of them rent the Wii or Xbox 360 games from Blockbuster, game crazy or if really lucky, the library. usually they can finish a game in a weeks time & then they aren’t out the 50 for a game. or trade ina few & get some used is another option. My son (12) rents them first & only 3 games has he “had to have” after playing it for a week & so we have a few but not all the latest/greatest. Just a thought I haven’t seen mentioned here in the past.

  13. Ms. Clear says:

    I am a very frugal person, and this allows me to pursue my rather expensive hobby–figure skating. I spend quite a bit on skating, about $75 each week for coaching and about $20 per week of ice time.

    I extend my frugality to my hobby in the following ways:

    1) I skate extremely early in the morning (6 am or 6:30) for each of the three days that I skate.

    2) I invested in one custom made skating dress last year. It will last and I will wear it for some time.

    3) I do not buy “skater’s toys” which are really more directed at the child skater anyway.

    4) I only enter a few events.

    Last year, we were a two income family and were more than able to cover all my hobbies expenses. At the moment, my hubby is back in school F/T and I am the earner. Frugality has helped me a lot. Even with this expensive hobby, my cuts in spending have made it pretty much on budget. We did save for this period in our lives and I have a back-up account specifically to tap for skating.

    Hobbies are really important to me and I think everyone should have a hobby, even if its expensive. Consumerist mentalities are not healthy, but hobbies are. Humans need to have passions and interests, or else, what is the point of life? It’s all a matter of finding a balance between pursuing a passion and going too far.

  14. “First, don’t give up your expensive hobbies.”

    Frugal Bachelor questions this, for he once participated in a very expensive hobby, which resulted in his second financial ruin. There was no way he could have picked up the pieces if he continued to participate in said hobby. There are tons of very expensive hobbies (of which, Wii is not really even in the same league) out there, where your “success” is largely dictated by how much you spend and where there is competition among the participants to spend big. Think something like auto-racing, globe-trotting, classic car restoration, sailing, or almost any type of collecting – or on the more ‘vice’ side, gambling, strip-club patronization, drug-taking, drinking, etc. These may cost several thousands of dollars per month just to keep up; being involved in an expensive hobby where you interact with others can be an ENORMOUS source of peer-pressure to spend, ESPECIALLY if you are already a “star” participant.

    Sometimes the best way is to just walk away from your expensive hobby without looking back. There are hobbies which just aren’t sustainable, and which just don’t make economic sense. Realizing this helped Frugal Bachelor break the chains of his expensive hobby, maybe it can help others also.

  15. Dave C says:

    Does the Frugal Bachelor think he’s The Rock?

    Anywho, this is quite the retort coming from me, but those denouncing this guy’s “expensive hobbies” might want to ponder that one a bit. Remember that even for (most of) us frugalists, the goal isn’t to die with the most money. Being a mindful consumer in all areas of your life so that you can ENJOY the things that are truly important to you IS frugality. If this guy truly loves the outdoors and how he partakes in them, who are we to say “tsk tsk”? Well, because he’s in debt, I’ll give you that. But if someone can right the ship via other avenues, don’t be so quick to throw the “no fun for you!” rocks. I like home theater and video games, I have thousands invested in this area. But you can add that to my housing, furnishings, food, services, etc costs and I’ll still come in much, much lower than anyone else on the block. Putting money aside and fully enjoying what I find fun, best of both worlds.

  16. Margaret says:

    If they already have ATVs etc, then they can still enjoy their expensive hobby, since it seems that the biggest cash outlays have already occured (although I suppose they might be paying off loans on the machines), but FROM NOW ON they should consider NOT buying any more expensive toys, and just using the equipment that they already have. Then their expenses are just the fuel/maintenance and presumably trail or rally fees.

  17. PiFreak says:

    On video games – I hate the people that buy a game, hack all the codes, earn 50,000,000 points, and toss the game aside because they finsished.

  18. Carol says:

    I like to read and do crafts. I get my books from the library and get lots of hints from other people on what books are good eg. Steinbeck’s Arthurian tale — “The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights looks like something I would like. I have looked at Paperback Swap for books and someday will list mine and get some but right now the library is enough for me.

    I go to estate sales because lots of older people have craft items that I can get cheap. I greatly added to my yarn stash recently.

  19. Sunny says:

    A lot of the “frugal” things that I do are simply because those things aren’t important to me. I don’t have cable or even a TV for that matter because I would rather spend my time outdoors. DH and I live well below our income.

    We really enjoy camping, backpacking, hiking, hunting, and all things outdoors. It would be easy to plunk down $3000 or more on backpacking gear.

    We live in a tiny, low rent apartment, use CFL’s, drive 1 car (although we own 2), bike or walk as often as possible, etc. We do all that so that we can spend our money on the things that are important to us.

    I am frugal not for the sake of hoarding money, but so that I can live. I tell my money where to go instead of it just slipping through my fingers.

    The important thing is, Don’t buy things you don’t have the money for.

    We won’t get the super nice backpacking gear (right away), or all the guns DH wants, but we won’t go deeply into debt either.

  20. Minimum Wage says:

    If they owned ATMs instead of ATVs they’d have another stream of income rather than another stream of outgo.

    There’s a guy who owns a ton of aTMs including the machines where I work. All he does is drive around stocking the machines with cash and collecting fees.

  21. Golfing Girl says:

    Obviously, as my name implies I’m an avid golfer. My membership costs $555 and I spend roughly $75 each week in cart fees and side bets (between May and October). My husband once harassed me about the amount of money I was spending on golf, but when I asked him if he could see a difference in my level of happiness, he agreed it had been a wise investment. I then encouraged him to pursue a hobby so he wouldn’t feel slighted by the money I was spending on my passion (and former career). He chose landscaping, so I encouraged him to sign up for a few classes and he also purchased several plants and trees.
    All this being said, I can justify these “fun” expenses since we have no debt other than our mortgage (we regularly make extra payments) and are quite frugal when it comes to dining (rarely eat out), clothes (buy used or hand me downs for daughter and rarely buy anything for ourselves) and cars (both paid for older models).

  22. Mule Skinner says:

    Compare riding an ATV to figure skating. Sitting on your butt making noise burning gas and tearing up the environment vs toning up your body while doing an aerobic exercise and doing something beautiful. Even if you skate on a lake the most damage you can do is to scratch up the ice.

  23. Mike says:

    I gave up ATVs a couple of years ago and now hunt solely on foot. The rest of my hunting equipment combined is less financially demanding than a single ATV by far and I have top shelf stuff. Packs, rifles, tents and etc. need little in the way of ongoing maintenance and tend to last well in light of hard use. If I camp so much I wear out a tent or hike so much I wear out boots, so be it- it was a great investment.

    It was the best decision I’ve made to date for me health, the environment and my wallet.

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