8 tips for saving money on hobbies and pastimes

Lee wrote with an innocent question about photography equipment yesterday. Little did she realize I'd already been thinking about the broader issues of her dilemma. Here's an abridged version of her message:

A friend asked me about cameras. He went shopping last weekend and saw lenses that ranged from $200 to $700. He felt that the lower-end lenses would not work for him, but he wasn't prepared to spend $700, so he went home. Now he's reconsidering. Of course the one he liked was $700. He thinks he should go to a camera store for some professional advice. What do you think?

Ah, the lure of photography. About five years ago, I spent a couple thousand dollars on camera equipment. Before I started Get Rich Slowly, I seriously considered trying to become a professional photographer. (A dream perhaps best left unpursued.) I believed that by throwing money at the hobby, I could improve my results.

This year, I've discovered the joy of running. On the surface, it's a sport you can pick up with no equipment at all — you can just run in a pair of sneakers. As with anything else, I've discovered there are tons of things to buy: running shoes, special socks, water bottles, logbooks, and high-tech heart-rate monitors.

Which expenses are worth it and which are not?

When you begin pursuing any sport or hobby, it can be difficult to decide where to spend your money. The initial temptation is to buy the best gear now. But I've learned from experience that the best gear is worthless if I'm not skilled enough to use it. Before you spend money on a new pastime, consider the following:

  • Know your goals. What is your aim? What kinds of photographs do you wish to make? Or, if you're looking to purchase a bike, what is your objective? Do you want to commute five miles back-and-forth to work? Do you want to train to ride one-hundred miles? Are you just looking for something to putter around on with the kids? Be realistic. Be honest. Use your answers to help guide your decision.
  • Educate yourself. When I was starting out, I didn't like the quality of my photographs, so I did what many people do: I threw money at the problem. I bought expensive filters and lenses. I bought Photoshop. None of these things helped. My images still looked lousy. What did help was spending $150 on a community college photography course. An amateur photographer is going to get a much better return for her money by taking a photography class (or three) than by purchasing a new lens.
  • Practice, practice, practice. Too often people believe that the equipment is going to increase their skill at something — golf, photography, whatever — when actually it's practice that will help them improve. There's no sense buying an expensive driver if you can't hit the ball straight off the tee. Once you've hit a few thousand balls (or snapped a few thousand photos), then you might begin thinking about how new equipment might further improve your strengths.
  • Don't take advice from a salesperson. Yes, she knows a lot about the subject, but in general, her primary goal is to sell things. She wants you to buy more. Instead, find a friend who can give you advice on the equipment you're researching. Use Google. If you need advice, get it from somebody who doesn't have a vested interest in your purchase. Once you've done your research, then ask for a salesperson's help.
  • Borrow from a friend. Kris' sister thought she might want to learn how to knit. Rather than buying a bunch of equipment, Tiffany borrowed a few of Kris' knitting needles to give it a try. She did take up the hobby, but by borrowing Kris' stuff first, she was able to learn the ropes before shelling out her own money.
  • Consider used equipment. Check Craigslist or eBay. Find a dealer of used equipment in your town. You can often find high-quality items for cheap if you're patient and know what you're looking for. A friend of mine recently saved 33% off a fancy heart-rate monitor simply because he was patient and willing to buy used.
  • Rent! For many sports and hobbies, renting is a great way to get a taste of the high-end. How often do you scuba dive? Ski? Instead of buying equipment that will mostly sit unused, consider renting when you need it. This not only will save you space, but can actually be less expensive in the long run. Renting is also a good way to try before you buy.
  • Beware a hobby or sport that is driven by purchasing more stuff. Some hobbies are simply sales pitches in disguise. I've written before about my own obsession with the card game Magic: The Gathering, a game specifically designed to get suckers people to spend more money. Kris was once into scrapbooking. She loved it, but she came to realize it was more about buying new Stuff than actually creating memories. Like many scrapbookers, her supplies now sit in the closet, unused.

Fancy equipment is not a panacea. In most hobbies and sports, skill is more important. Don't get me wrong — good equipment can make your pastimes more pleasurable. But it's difficult to know which equipment is worth the expense until you've gained some experience.

My photography instructor used to tell us, “A professional photographer can produce amazing shots from a crappy disposable camera. But a $5,000 camera won't help a beginner make better photos.” This idea isn't just true with photography — it's true with knitting and biking, and even with running, too.

More about...Frugality

Become A Money Boss And Join 15,000 Others

Subscribe to the GRS Insider (FREE) and we’ll give you a copy of the Money Boss Manifesto (also FREE)

Yes! Sign up and get your free gift
Become A Money Boss And Join 15,000 Others
guest
67 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Emily H.
Emily H.
12 years ago

One way to budget for hobby-related expenses is to create a separate account for them that you fund by working on your hobby. You could save 25 cents per mile you run towards a running GPS, or save a few cents per mile you bike towards a new bike, or save a half dollar per hour you practice your clarinet towards a better instrument. It’s a way to delay gratification, it’s a way to make sure you’ll actually USE what you buy, and it’s a way to keep your spending in line with your dedication and abilities.

Tony Dobson
Tony Dobson
12 years ago

Agree with what Emily said regarding separate accounts. They’re very helpful in putting money aside for fun stuff (although I don’t contribute to them on a per usage way, they’re just allocated a set amount each month when I get paid).

Also worth noting the old recommendation of library resources for educating yourself. Library books can help with just about anything you want to learn, and cost you a grand total of nothing.

Sarah
Sarah
12 years ago

As far as hobbies and past times go, we have instituted an allowance policy. We each get a set amount in cash each month for our individual discretionary spending. So far, this approach has helped to reduce a lot of resentment when it comes to the end of the month spending report. Essentially it controls the amount spent by each of us on our respective hobby and no one feels resentful because the other spent more.

brent
brent
12 years ago

wow, great tips! i just wish i had read these years ago before i spent thousands of dollars on music gear. what do you know, turns out i am not a brilliant producer after all. my music studio was just the latest in a long line of overspending, burning out, and selling of hobby related gear. i am at a point now where i just don’t spend anything because i know i’ll probably regret it a few months later. i do think i may have found a good cheap hobby though. drawing! pencils and paper is all you really need.… Read more »

Paul Williams
Paul Williams
12 years ago

“Don’t take advice from a salesperson. Yes, she knows a lot about the subject, but in general, her primary goal is to sell things. She wants you to buy more. Instead, find a friend who can give you advice on the equipment you’re researching. Use Google. If you need advice, get it from somebody who doesn’t have a vested interest in your purchase. Once you’ve done your research, then ask for a salesperson’s help.” JD, this is excellent advice!!! This is especially good advice when it comes to things like investing, insurance, buying a house, etc. Actually, it applies to… Read more »

saro
saro
12 years ago
Another tip for a photography hobby is to get a part-time job at a camera shop. I was surrounded by photographs, learned about processing (this is before the advent of the digital camera) and worked with aspiring professional photographers who are willing to offer their advice. I also got really great discounts (you’ll have to keep this part in check so you don’t lose money)
marci lambert
marci lambert
12 years ago

i’m a professional photographer (mostly of families) and i have two camera bodies and two lenses, a flash, a tripod and one set of lights. that’s it, and that’s all i want. my goal is to produce great work with a minimum amount of equipment. and it can be done. btw, i picked out my lenses by reading posts in photo forums. that was a great education.

J.D.
J.D.
12 years ago

Saro, that’s great advice. I seem to recall somebody telling me they worked at a yarn store to help subsidize their knitting habit, but can’t find the story. Great tip. Thanks.

Jenzer
Jenzer
12 years ago

I second the suggestion to take a class as a way to increase proficiency at your hobby. You’ll have access to an expert who can answer any specific questions you have–and who can give you feedback on your technique. Plus, you may get to try out nicer equipment than you have at home. Some hobbies just aren’t as enjoyable with cheap equipment (in-line skating comes to mind).

Diatryma
Diatryma
12 years ago

Wait, knitting is your example for ‘buying a bunch of equipment’? It’s a pair of needles! Yeah, you can get more complicated, but not when you’re thinking of learning in the first place.

Helene
Helene
6 years ago
Reply to  Diatryma

About knitting, it’s never about just one set of needles, believe me, I know… You usually end up with several set of straight needles (sometimes of the same size if you are doing more than one project at the same time), double-pointed, circular in every size available. The needle type (straight, double-pointed, circular) is related to the type of project: socks, sweater or shawl for example. The needle size is related to the yarn used to knit. And then, there is wood, metal, plastic, carbon needles, etc. And there is the not-so-secret stash since yarn could be find in any… Read more »

J.D.
J.D.
12 years ago

Ha! Good point, Diatryma. I had a different example at first, but changed it when Kris told me that her sister borrowed stuff from her to start. Still, the point holds true, even if the example is a little silly. 🙂

Richard
Richard
12 years ago

My wife was really into photography for a while. She decided to run a small photography business. It was never a gold mine, but it was enough to support the hobby.

We’ve now got a couple of good lenses, a good flash, a reflector and a couple of other ‘toys’, which were all paid for from the money she made taking pictures.

OTOH, with how much I like doing small business taxes, it might have been less of a hassle to just let her buy the stuff and not run a business. 🙂

mbrogz3000
mbrogz3000
12 years ago

I’ve come to learn that hobbies can literally consume lots of money. Computer building was one of mine right out of school. Its started out as building the first computer, and quickly transpired into overclocking. Once I realized that going for a high benchmark score was pretty pointless, I stopped spending money on incremental upgrades. I didn’t spend too much, but I realized that it would have potentially turned into an expensive hobby. At the time, it was reasonable to sell used components on ebay and receive a pretty descent return on what was originally spent, but its not like… Read more »

Caitlin
Caitlin
12 years ago

This is SUCH good advice. But it applies to collecting as well as hobbies. You touched on it with Magic, but really, having a collection can suck up so much of your time, money, space . . .sanity. I’m currently getting rid of 99% of one of my *collections* and I’m wishing I had never started in the first place. What a waste. One of the things I noticed, is there is always more out there to collect and if you happen to stumble on a collecting community, there is always people with bigger collections, or who are willing to… Read more »

Sherilan
Sherilan
12 years ago

Knitting…..yes – the yarn stash. The sock yarn in particular is very easy to acquire – so many colors, so many patterns. I haven’t counted lately but probably have enough sock yarn for 15 pair? That may be low. I have seen comments in knit blogs of knitters with enough yarn for as many as 78 pair? Can’t remember where I saw that. Then there are the patterns, and books, and needles in every size in straights, circulars, double pointed and perhaps more than one needle in a size due to multiple projects in process. Then you may decide to… Read more »

brad
brad
12 years ago

Actually while knitting itself might only require a couple of needles, it can get expensive…oh, I really want some of that organic Alpaca wool for this big sweater I’m knitting, etc. Plus it can be the first step down the road to more expensive fabric-related hobbies, like cross-stitch. You would think for cross-stitch all you need is the fabric backing, a needle and some threads, but in fact when you go to the thread stores you see all kinds of paraphenalia for cross-stitch aficionados, including very expensive stands, lights, and magnifying glasses, as well as carrying cases for all the… Read more »

t
t
12 years ago

When it comes to running the only items I think you need are a stopwatch and good shoes. GPS watch makes distance calculation especially when random roaming easier and tech clothes are nice once you start running over 6 miles. I wouldn’t sweat buying a bunch of special gear for running… just get out there and run!

Kate
Kate
12 years ago

Just a reminder for those folks who talk about only needing a set of needles or only a good pair of running shoes to start a hobby – a good pair of running shoes will run you about $80-100 and should be replaced at least a couple of times a year; knitting is cheaper as new needles and decent wool can run up to $30 for a project. Still, that will add up over time and if you’re on a really strict budget can still be expensive. I like Emily H’s suggestion for budgeting very much. That’s how I support… Read more »

Katrina R.
Katrina R.
12 years ago

Everything J.D. advises here is so true. I also shelled out a lot of money — around the $3,600 figure for lens, insurance, camera base (Canon EOS 30D), external drive to store pix. I’ve used each of the items mentioned and I’ve made a good amount of money for some photo jobs (I’m a freelance writer who took on some photo work for a client), but not what I feel is a decent capacity on both accounts. I mostly feel stuck with equipment I just cannot understand correctly. Now I’m thinking about selling it on eBay (and using the funds… Read more »

Kristen a.k.a. The Frugal Girl
Kristen a.k.a. The Frugal Girl
12 years ago

A hearty amen to your last paragraph! In addition to other things, my hobbies are scrapbooking and photography. So far, I’ve managed to do both with very little monetary outlay. I got some very cool shots even on my point and shoot camera(with a lot of practice) and while I now am the proud owner of a DSLR, I still don’t own any lenses other than the kit lens. As far as scrapping goes, I produce a ton of scrapbook pages while spending only a small amount on supplies and tools. It just takes some creativity, I think, to do… Read more »

Tom
Tom
12 years ago

I think it is kind of ironic that you brought this up. I spent over a thousand dollars on a new camera with an additional lens and a new UV filter and polarizer. I thought my pictures would look spectacular. Come to find out my pictures from my cheaper $100 point and shoot camera was much better. It just filtered light better. I was so disappointed. I wish I hadn’t purchased so much equipment. Now it just sits in my closet and gathers dust. What a waste!

RaginCajun
RaginCajun
12 years ago

If it is possible to rent the needed equipment before you dive in to your new hobby to test the waters do it. About five years ago I wanted to start kayaking and I had my heart set on this one particular kayak that was about $1200. I rented the model I had my heart set on during a vacation and liked it. Once we returned home from our vacation I was ready to purchase the kayak that I had rented on vacation. My wife convinced me that I should try out a few more kayaks before I purchased one… Read more »

Tom
Tom
12 years ago

By the way, I would be more than happy to sell you my Magic the Gathering Cards 😉

KC
KC
12 years ago

I have 2 hobbies that consume money – one is baseball and the other is tennis. I play tennis and I can tell you that even the best equipment doesn’t necessarily make you a better player. Fortunately with racquets you can demo before you buy. But with shoes its just more experience and relying on reviews, same with clothing. Baseball is another matter. I don’t actually play. I prefer to attend games, collect cards, and collect autographs. The card collecting can get costly, but often I’ll buy a case of something I want, open it up and sell off the… Read more »

kick_push
kick_push
12 years ago

i have the same problem.. i’ve always wanted to get an SLR camera (i’m a point and click guy and don’t know squat about photography) but i do realize this is an expensive hobby (lenses, upgrades) which makes me hesitant to even begin my latest hobby (has been for the past year) is madden! yes madden.. i’ve played over 250 games online in 2008.. 2009 just came out last week and i’ve played almost 40 games already.. the only initial payment was $60 for the game itself.. and of course high speed internet which i’m already paying for anyway.. the… Read more »

Daniel@youngandfrugal
12 years ago

This post is EXCELLENT, and extremely true. I tend to have this problem as well. When I jump into a new hobby, I feel the need to buy all of the best equipment right off the bat; my reasoning is that I really do end up using them, and learning to use them to their full potential. However, I have too many friends and family members that will try to jump into a new hobby and do the same thing, then don’t use them. I have a good friend who buys a new wakeboard every season because he has this… Read more »

Elisa
Elisa
12 years ago

When I asked my friend (accountant) if I should lease a car since I own a small business, he replied: “don’t let the tail wag the dog”.

Now I apply that advice to my hobbies as well:

I won’t buy a better racquet in hopes of getting better at tennis, but I’ll get better at tennis and then reward myself with a better racquet.

Sarah
Sarah
12 years ago

1) You’ve probably already heard this, but your RSS feed is broken. 2) As a knitter, I can say with confidence that knitting is generally an expensive hobby if you do it the way most people do. Yeah, acrylic yarn is cheap, but very few serious knitters knit with acrylic – it feels awful on your hands, and the finished products are not particularly comfortable or attractive. Depending on your preferences, higher-end yarn can cost OVER $40 per skein. Not per project, per skein. My preferred needles (Lantern Moon Destiny rosewood circulars) cost $30 per pair. I only have one… Read more »

KC
KC
12 years ago

Like Daniel says “he has this idea that a new board will make him better, when in fact that $5-700 a year would be better spent on lessons.” That’s funny!! And true!! Maybe I need to take that $200 a year I spend on a new tennis racquet and just get lessons – I’d probably get a lot better.

DeeBee
DeeBee
12 years ago

My hobby is soapmaking, which is cheaper than some hobbies but does require an upfront investment in molds, fragrances and supplies. The path I took to learning is one I highly recommend. I second the idea of community colleges, but there is a cheaper option – if you have access to the Learning Tree, the Learning Annex, or some other non-profit institution that provides adult classes, they are excellent value for the money and allow you to “try out” a new hobby for generally less than $60 per class. In my area, you can learn cooking, crafting, foreign languages, dancing,… Read more »

Kaye
Kaye
12 years ago

Slightly off topic, but also very true…my daughter was going nuts wanting to take dance class. It’s $45 per month, which isn’t expensive for this area, but that adds up quickly. A friend of mine (who is in good financial shape) had a daughter who also wanted to take this class, but couldn’t because she had nobody to drive her to and from class. I volunteered to drive if she would pay and she was delighted. We both feel like we got the better end of the deal. She doesn’t worry about her daughter, knowing that I’ll get her safely… Read more »

kick_push
kick_push
12 years ago

daniel and KC.. you could probably say the same thing about golfers.. i’m sure there are alot out there that spend big money on the best golf clubs but have never taken lessons before in their life lol

it’s funny how common sense goes right through our head sometimes

doctorS
doctorS
12 years ago

Totally on point. You must research your hobby and figure out your goal before you get involved, otherwise, you may end up chasing something that was unrealistic from the beginning.

Elisa… I love the “don’t let the tail wag the dog” reference, its so true!

bethh
bethh
12 years ago

Tee hee. “Diatryma” clearly isn’t a knitter. I wasn’t either, and resisted for years, but joined their illustrious ranks in January. I’m aware of the slippery slope of expenses a new hobby can start, and have been pretty mindful in my shopping (haven’t bought a lot of stash yarn, just because it’s pretty), but I’ve still spent a few hundred dollars and have purchased .. let’s just say a goodly amount of stuff. But it’s fun and I love it, so there you go. I have found needle sets that are less expensive than buying individual needles (a set of… Read more »

db
db
12 years ago

A few years ago I took up the seemingly innocuous hobby of OneStroke painting. I was in serious debt-repayment mode at the time and really couldn’t afford this. Yet I justified it thinking “how expensive can it get to buy a few $1 tubes of paint and a set of brushes”? I further justified myself with the thought that I could get good enough to sell my crafty painted items. WRONG! There were the class fees. There was the special water tub made especially for OneStroke painters. There was a progression of books on OneStroke painting. There was the special… Read more »

db
db
12 years ago

P.S. — Does anybody have suggestions on how to get unused/unwanted craft supplies into the hands of people that can use them?

I don’t want to give this stuff to Goodwill.

Early Retirement Extreme
Early Retirement Extreme
12 years ago

Oh oh oh, you too played Magic 🙂 It does not need to be a money sink. I came out about even (+-$20, I forget whether it was plus or minus) by buying off lots from people who had stopped playing and selling off some of their more expensive cards. I traded a lot of cards. At one point I had the entire list of Scrye or whatever that magazine was called memorized and would usually come out on top of every trade. That’s how I got my good stuff. Eventually that became boring and I started constructing decks made… Read more »

topazsfp
topazsfp
12 years ago

db – There are a LOT of groups that do charity crafts out there. For example, if you have unused yarn or fabric, Project Linus and WarmUp America are two nationwide nonprofit charities that have volunteers make blankets for infants and people in need. (They both have websites listing local chapters.) You might also try contacting local senior centers (who frequently do craft projects for seniors), libraries (who frequently do craft programs), hospitals (who often have volunteers do craftsy things for hospitalized people), schools (who can always use donations if the craft supplies are useful for the children), or daycares… Read more »

PDXgirl
PDXgirl
12 years ago

db, are you in Portland? There’s a crafty thrift store called… Knittin’ Kitten that takes lot’s of different craft supplies and resells for a low low price (but not free, which might be what you’re looking for?).

I was about to say, don’t forget Goodwill for hobby supplies! Especially good for crafting supplies and books, if hunting through racks and bins to find hidden treasures brings you joy… well I guess you probably already shop there then 🙂

RDS
RDS
12 years ago

Great advice. With some hobbies it is possible to sabotage yourself if you go too cheap. If you buy the cheapest set of golf clubs at a department store or a super cheap guitar, regardless of your ability and the amount of practice you will never be able to play golf well or impress yourself with your guitar playing. At some level, theses super cheap “intro to the hobby” packages are nothing more than toys. By borrowing or renting equipment first, you can figure out if you like the hobby and if so, what the minimum requirements to do it… Read more »

Abby
Abby
12 years ago

I love a lot of ideas in both the article and contents — Emily, I’d never thought of the “pay yourself” idea for things like running. Not that I’m a runner, but the idea still tickled me. J.D. you know this makes the second article I’ve read about expensive hobbies that includes tips on Magic. But both fail to mention one of the most basic forms of affording hobbies like MTG: trading/selling. My husband knows we’re on a budget. So he takes cards he gets from prize packs (from winning Friday night Magic… and even when he doesn’t win, it’s… Read more »

Sarah
Sarah
12 years ago

One thing that strikes me as sad about the acquisition of Stuff (equipment/supplies) in the pursuit of hobbies is that the acquisition often supplants actually partaking in the activity. It’s so much easier to buy things related to the hobby than it is to do the hobby. (Probably not unlike how easy it is to buy something on credit than save up for it!) The amount of supplies/gear/accessories acts as a sign of how “into” the hobby one is.

Timo
Timo
12 years ago

Having the best set of surgical tools does not make one a surgeon. Having Photoshop does not make a person a graphic designer. Having a Paul Reed Smith guitar does not make me a rock star. Indeed, it is practice that a person gets better at their craft, and brings true enjoyment. However, like what RDS says, it is probably good to start with decent gear. If I started with a cheap $20 guitar, I probably will not still be playing guitar now (been 8 years).

Caitlin
Caitlin
12 years ago

It’s important to have good running shoes to protect your joints and your back. It’s not going to make you a better runner but it will protect your health. The rest is just window dressing. As far as photography goes, my top tip would be to buy a second-hand film SLR. You can pick them up off eBay incredibly cheaply. Or ask around – if you have a friend who is a keen amateur photographer and has already upgraded to a digital SLR, then there’s a good chance they’ll have an old film SLR lying around. Some brands have lenses… Read more »

Philip Lilly
Philip Lilly
12 years ago

I can understand how a hobby can soon start eating up money. This often deters me from starting a hobby due to the costs. I get a good feeling that I will be saving money, but I feel that I might be missing out. I could start cheap, but it still seems like a bit of a waste, since costs will go up.

RetiredAt47
RetiredAt47
12 years ago

All great tips, especially the one about buying used. It amazes me how much people will invest in a new hobby, only to discover the hobby is not for them. But that’s what often makes for the availability of near-new items at a good price. And, if you buy used and decide to abandon the hobby, you can often re-sell the equipment/supplies for about what you paid for them.

plonkee
plonkee
12 years ago

I think that mapgirl used to work in a yarn shop to fund her knitting hobby. She definitely knits anyway. My two hobbies are blogging (cheap and self-funding) and also I play the viola and the oboe. The viola is virtually free as I have quite a lot of music and a good instrument already. The oboe on the other hand, I’m taking lessons (£10 a time), then I have to buy reeds (£7+ a time, and I go through 1-2 a month) then there’s music. Finally, I don’t actually own an oboe, I’m borrowing my teachers old student model.… Read more »

Susy
Susy
12 years ago

DH is always trying to get me to buy a nicer camera for my blog photos (I use a $199 Sony point & shoot). But I think what I have does just fine. One hobby I have that is expensive is gardening, but at least I can get some food out of the deal. However when you have bad soil you can spend hundreds each year on compost/mulch etc. I do try to save seeds & propogate my own plants, but it’s still expensive, I just try not to visit nurseries. At least it’s a hobby that keeps me fit… Read more »

Writer's Coin
Writer's Coin
12 years ago

Well put. I think the takeaway here is be patient, go slow, and don’t ever assume that high-end equipment will make you good.

Most people get so excited at the start they jump in too fast. Go slow people.

saro
saro
12 years ago

db, my friend is an after-school art teacher and she’s ALWAYS looking for supplies. In fact, most teachers pay out of pocket for their school/art supplies. It’s a great donation to make because the students will use it, learn and enjoy their time.

shares