Making and Doing: The Value of Productive Hobbies

I spent a couple hours this morning performing what ought to have been a simple home maintenance task. The light fixture on our front porch had gone faulty, and I needed to replace it. I’ve done enough wiring projects now that the electrical aspect of the job didn’t bother me. But the woodworking? That was frustrating.

As I fumbled with the jigsaw (“Drat! Another blade bent!”), I wished again that I practiced woodworking more often. I have several friends who do so, and the skills they’ve learned help them to save money around the house. My incompetence this morning gave me plenty of time to reflect on the value of productive hobbies.

Productive hobbies

When I was younger, I spent most of my spare time reading comic books and playing video games. There’s nothing wrong with a little self-indulgence, but the older I get, the more I appreciate hobbies that provide practical skills. Productive pastimes are not only fulfilling, but they can also help save money. (Sometimes they can even generate a little income!)

Here are a few hobbies and pastimes that can help to save (or make) money:


Kris and I aren’t yet finished with our year-long garden project, but already we know that it has saved us money. (Find out just how much when we post an update this Saturday.) Even if it did cost a little more, it’s fantastic to have fresh food just feet from the front door. You don’t need a lot of space to start a garden. Consider square-foot gardening or container gardening.


Cameras can be a money sink, but photography doesn’t have to be expensive. You can have a lot of fun with a cheap point-and-shoot digital camera. With practice, you may even be able to make money selling digital photos online. I know several people who do this (and I’ve done it myself).


Carpentry is another hobby that can consume a lot of cash. But if you have the space and the time, you can also develop skills that yield big dividends in the long run. If I’d taken the time to learn woodworking, I wouldn’t have to pay a contractor to do some of our remodeling projects. (And I wouldn’t have cut a four-inch hole this morning when I only needed a three-inch hole.)


As with many hobbies, knitting can be expensive, but there are ways to make it less so. Nell at Octopus Knits has pattern companies and yarn folks giving her product (yarns & patterns) to try. Some of my friends have taken commissioned projects. Kris is learning to knit adorable little stuffed animals; she could sell them for $20 a pop.

Computer repair

Because I’ve always been a computer hobbyist, I’m able to troubleshoot computer problems instead of paying somebody to do it for me. Before I turned Mac, I also saved money by building my own machines. In fact, for a couple years, I supplemented my regular salary by helping friends and family with their computer problems.


Last week, I pointed to the work of lillyella, whose art generates enough income through her Etsy store that she now does it full time. In the past, I’ve also mentioned Ayla, a teenager who sells her art glass at the local farmers market. Kris has a friend who is learning how to work with stained glass, but just for fun.


My friend Laura has a group of friends that love to cook. They recently organized a cooking evening to provide freezer meals for each of them.  They decided on six menus, assigned the shopping, borrowed a church’s kitchen, divided duties like cutting, slicing, dicing, mixing, frying, cleaning, split the costs and each went home with six different items for future use. But even learning to cook for your own family can save you a lot of money.


Baking is fun for its own sake, but it can also save you money with gifts. Who wouldn’t rather have a couple dozen home-baked cookies than another useless mug? Some people can even turn this skill into a career. My aunt turned a baking hobby into a business, creating cakes and catering weddings. She provided jobs for several other family members, too!


Though Kris has always enjoyed canning, this summer has been amazing. She’s discovered it’s a hobby she truly loves. She derives immense satisfaction from preserving her own food. “It’s comforting to walk into the pantry and know that I made all of this,” she said recently. “I know where the food came from, and I know that we’ll be eating it all winter.” Though the start-up costs are a little high, they repay a hobbyist in time.

Making music

My friend Michael has a musician friend who plays the piano and has been paid to play at private events. He has another friend with a great voice. This man loves to sing, and he and his friends hire themselves out as a quartet around Valentine’s Day and to sing Christmas carols during the holidays. (I’m always jealous of my musical friends. I know it’s hard work to become proficient, but it looks like such a fun way to stay entertained.)

Vehicle maintenance

I know little about cars. I wish I knew more. Knowing even basic vehicle maintenance can save you big bucks. I once knew a guy who performed nearly all his own auto work. He could buy a junker car, fix it up, and resell it at a nice profit. He wasn’t going to get rich doing this, but he enjoyed the hobby, and it kept him in money for his own vehicle.

Physical fitness

You’ll never get rich running road races, but there’s no question that a healthy body can save you money. Find a physical activity you enjoy: biking, running, hiking, dancing, yoga, and weightlifting. Play a team sport. Regular exercise can be fun, but it will also save you money in the long run.

The possibilities are limitless. There are countless fun and interesting hobbies that can either save you money, or maybe help you earn a little on the side.

Quick tips

You’ll notice that none of these hobbies involve collecting. I’m an inveterate collector myself (comics, books, notebooks, movie serials, music of the 1920s, …), so I know first-hand how expensive it can be. Some would argue that it’s a form of compulsive spending, and I can’t really disagree. Since I’ve begun focusing on hobbies that involve doing rather than getting, I’ve spent much less money.

For some hobbies, equipment can be prohibitively expensive. In these cases, you may be able to find used stuff on Freecycle or Craigslist, or you may be able to begin with low-end gear. (This isn’t always a good option. If you think you’re going to be doing a lot of running, you should buy a quality running shoe from an expert, and not settle for cheap sneakers, for example.)

In many cases, it’s possible to jump-start a hobby by taking a course at a community college or community school. I spent a year taking photography classes, for example. The instruction and experience were invaluable, and helped me develop the skills necessary to actually sell a couple photos.

My friend Michael likes woodworking but can’t afford (and doesn’t have space for) all of the equipment. When he needs to build something, he signs up for a community college woodworking course so that he can use industrial woodworking tools at a reasonable cost.

Further reading

I’m a big fan of productive hobbies, and I’m not the only one! Here are some articles on the subject from around the web:

Don’t forget that hobbies are an excellent way to make gifts for less than it costs to buy them. Kris sometimes knits gifts for special occasions. Most years she gives some sort of home-made food to our friends for Christmas. I sometimes give photographs. One of the best birthday gifts I ever received was a batch of homemade chocolate chip cookies.

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