The Debt to Pleasure: What is the Cost of Fun?

Last weekend, I played paintball for the second time in my life. I had great fun charging through undergrowth, hiding behind logs, and shooting my friends at close range. Paintball is a blast, but I’m amazed at how much it costs to play. We each paid $25 to use the field and an additional $25 for paint. The total cost was $50 for about five hours of playtime — roughly $10 an hour.

On the drive home, we compared the cost of paintball to the cost of laser tag. Last fall, we spent $7 per person for each twenty minute game of laser tag. That’s $21/hour — twice the cost of paintball. Some of our group felt the higher cost was worth it; others thought paintball was a much better deal.

This made me wonder: What are the hourly costs for other recreational activities? How much do we spend to have fun? Do people consider how much pastimes cost, and which would they continue to pursue if they realized how much they were spending?

I do this sort of geeky number-crunching all the time. In March, I broke down the numbers to discover how much Kris and I were spending on television. I learned that it cost us $3.16/hour for digital cable, but only $0.90/hour for Netflix. We cut back to basic cable.

Ten years ago, I paid $700 for a new bicycle, on which I’ve since logged about 3,000 miles. At roughly 15 miles per hour, that’s 200 hours of use, or $3.50/hour. That seems moderately expensive until I factor in the health benefits. But these are difficult to quantify — what do the benefits of biking save me in the long run? Calculations like this can become needlessly complex.

Still, it’s easy to estimate how much most activities cost. Here’s what I spend on various pastimes:

  • Laser tag: $20/hour
  • Paintball: $10/hour
  • Biking: $3.50/hour, but less every time I ride
  • Bowling: $5/hour
  • Neighborhood walk with Kris: free
  • Seattle Mariners game: $10/hour, plus food, plus 300+ mile round-trip
  • Portland Beavers game: $5/hour, plus food, plus short travel
  • My nephew’s t-ball game: free
  • Movie theater: $5/hour
  • Cable TV: $3/hour
  • Shows from iTunes: $2/hour
  • Netflix: $1/hour
  • Nintendo Wii: About $10/hour so far, but decreasing with time
  • Board games: $3/hour (on average)
  • Contract bridge: virtually free ($1 for a pack of cards)
  • The opera: $25/hour, plus dinner plus parking
  • Community theater: $2.50/hour

Neither laser tag nor the opera seem that appealing after running the numbers. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that you should base your recreational choices solely on their hourly cost, but I do think you should keep money in mind. Try to discover inexpensive (or free!) sources of entertainment.

For example, reading library books is pretty cheap. A new $25 hardback might take five hours to read, for a cost of $5/hour. If you buy the book used, you might only spend $1/hour. But if you borrow the book from the library, you get to read it for free.

The most expensive recreational activity I ever participated in was a season of city league soccer. It cost me $100 for ten games, or about $5/hour. That’s not so bad. But then I tore out my ACL, which required expensive surgery. Even with insurance, I was out $2,000. Ultimately my season of soccer cost me over $100/hour!

How much do your favorite activities cost? Which are worth it? Which are not?

This article originated with a discussion in the forums.

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