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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r
r
13 years ago

I’m not sure opera makes sense to calculate using just the hours you’re physically present. I think that part of the point of something like an opera is that it stays in your mind long after you’ve left. If you are someone who listens to opera, every time you hear that opera you will now experience it differently.

Paul
Paul
13 years ago

J.D. For the cost/hour of bicycling, you probably want to calculate what the cost of driving that same distance would be and figure out which is cheaper. Also, factor into some of these activities the amount of enjoyment/benefit you derive from them. For example, take every activity listed, figure out the cost per hour, but also, rate each on a scale of 1-10 for things like enjoyment, health-benefit, environmental impact, or whatever else you care about. Once you have all the axes you care about rated, add them all up and figure out how they each score. The 1-10 scale… Read more »

REI1AB
REI1AB
13 years ago

Hmm … the cost of fun. While it is novel and interesting to find out these numbers, I think that in certain instances, cost-benefit analysis isn’t needed. I never consider whether or not I should have fun in an instant, I just do it. Have uncapped fun for 20 minutes a day, and see how your outlook changes.

Sam
Sam
13 years ago

I think its ‘fun’ to crunch these numbers for various rec. activities. I would, however, suggest that there be some sort of handicapping system so that one could rank their favorite rec. activities and then factor in some sort of savings based on which activity you enjoy the most. For example, if horseback riding is your absolute favorite recreational activity (also pretty darn expensive) and you would rank it a 10 on a 1-10 scale for the amount of pleasure you receive from said activity, you could then divide the cost per hour by 10 (pleasure rank). So if horseback… Read more »

Dan
Dan
13 years ago

I’ve been purchasing a season pass to snowboard at a local mountain over the past two to three years. I track all the time I spend snowboarding over a season (both at that mountain and at others) and compare it to total costs. A) It helps me know when I’ve broken even with my season pass and B) It lets me know how much I’m paying (per hour) for snowboarding. A good season works out to about $4-$7 per day. A pretty good deal if you ask me as I thoroughly enjoy snowboarding. It’s funny how math-dorky some us can… Read more »

A Tentative Personal Finance Blog
A Tentative Personal Finance Blog
13 years ago

One of the things I love to do is run. $80 for a pair of nice shoes that last 6 months. I can log more than 600 miles. I think it all comes down to less than a dollar an hour.

I’m also in a softball league, but that’s free and takes up four hours a week.

J.D.
J.D.
13 years ago

I have lots more to say on this subject that didn’t feel appropriate to squeeze in the main entry. REI1AB, I agree that running a cost-benefit analysis on fun is goofy. Yet that’s the sort of thing I do. Fun is an important part of life, no question, especially the sort of exhilaration I get from something like paintball. As r notes, part of the value of the opera is that it stays with you long after it’s over. The same is true of paintball. I love playing, and it gives me an experience I can’t get anywhere else. It… Read more »

J.D.
J.D.
13 years ago

I think Sam and Paul have a great idea, adding in the “fun factor”.

Scarfish
Scarfish
13 years ago

When analyzing some of the big-purchase-for-fun costs, I also add in the Non-Use Cost–what it’s costing me in wasted storage space, guilt, or actual cash to have but not use. An example of this would be a bike for me, as I’d used it maybe once a week and have to figure out some place to put it the rest of the time. Or cable–I feel guilty paying for all these channels that I’m not watching, so I find myself uselessly channel surfing, trying to get my money’s worth…when really I’d rather be reading a library book (free!). I wouldn’t… Read more »

bob
bob
13 years ago

I spent $20 for a nice tournament chess set about 5 years ago, I’ve probably played 2000 games with my kids, adults, acquaintances, met folks from all walks of life from various countries around the world… About a penny a game, it’s a bargain.

Maitresse
Maitresse
13 years ago

I do stuff like this all the time! 🙂 Dancing costs me almost nothing. I rarely take lessons anymore, and I don’t compete so I don’t need costumes. (Not that I don’t want to, but I don’t have a partner.) So dancing only costs me the gas to go to wherever the dancing is happening that day or evening. And I LOVE to dance! So this is very cheap AND gets a high “fun rating” for me. Weightlifting is another of my favorite activities. My gym membership costs me $30 per month (or did before I was hired as a… Read more »

Cheap Like Me
Cheap Like Me
13 years ago

I love the fun-geekery! We have been living very cheaply in terms of entertainment for several years, with our biggest fun probably being our once- or twice-weekly trips to the library. Now that we’re doing a bit better financially and our daughter is 6, we’re getting into more “traditional” fun. We’ve been SHOCKED to find out how expensive things are — like our local amusement park charging $35 a day. I guess we were living in happy innocence. But the library is saving us again … she gets a free ticket from the summer reading program with a buy one,… Read more »

Madame X
Madame X
13 years ago

I have been dying to research a post on the cost of playing Dungeons & Dragons. Apparently people spend an enormous amount on the books, which can be $30 and up.

Ski
Ski
13 years ago

I did this last week when deciding whether I wanted a frappuccino from Starbucks or a new book from Barnes & Noble before getting on my train. I could enjoy the $5 frappuccino for a half hour for ($10/hr), or I could enjoy the $7 book for 10+ hours ($.7/hr). I already knew my local library didn’t have the book I wanted to buy, so I bought the book and I definitely think I chose correctly!

Ski
Ski
13 years ago

Madame X, I play D&D and while yes, the books are $25 or more each, you don’t need to purchase every book out there. The barest essential for a player is the Player’s Handbook ($25), and if/when you find a group to play with (there are many online communities that can help you find one) chances are someone in your group will loan you any book you might need, lowering the price to $0/hr 🙂

Aleks
Aleks
13 years ago

I’ve never actually crunched the numbers all the way, but a while back I did change the way I buy video games. Previously I would dig through bargain bins and pick up a couple of old or crappy games for $10. Some of them would get played for a week or less, some not at all. Then I realized that the utility of those purchases was low, and even though the price was also low the value was probably worse than for a good, full-price game. First of all, the games I never played are just a waste of $10.… Read more »

Tim
Tim
13 years ago

My wife and I love to go camping and backpacking, and we’ve spent a bundle on expensive gear. Our packs, sleeping bags and tent each cost about $250, so that’s around $1250, plus the costs of a few other items of gear. In all I imagine we have over $1500 worth of camping/backpacking gear. The thing is, once you have the gear camping is almost completely free (if you’re going in a National Forest area it is free, otherwise there can be small fees). A nice hotel is about $200 a night. My outlook is that I can go stay… Read more »

Adam Jaskiewicz
Adam Jaskiewicz
13 years ago

Yeah, I have a Player’s Handbook, but at a game there will probably be plenty to go around, so you can just borrow one to look something up or whatever. If you get into it seriously, you might end up buying a pewter figure and painting it to look like your character. Still, a players handbook, a figure or two, and a few jars of paint will be less than you spend chipping in on beer, pizza, and snacks in a year of weekly gaming sessions, at least in my experience. Of course, I’ve also had D&D sessions start with… Read more »

Ken
Ken
13 years ago

I swim 1/2 hour 4 days a week for $38.20/month
That’s 2 hours a week or about 9 hours/month which comes out to be about $4.25/hr. That doesn’t include the time going to/from the pool.

There is an inverse relationship with a lot of activities: The worse you are at it, the cheaper it is. For example, The LaSalle Bank Chicago Marathon now costs $110 to enter. If you run up with the elite runners, that’s about $50/hr. If you come through in 6 hours, then it costs you less than $20 per hour.

J.D.
J.D.
13 years ago

@Aleks

EXACTLY.

I used to buy bargain bin games, too, until I realized there was a reasons they were in the bargain bin. They cost $5 or $10/hour of use. Compare that with Starcraft, for which I’ve probably paid $0.10/hour or less. Or Civ2, which probably cost me pennies per hour.

(Also — I want to play D&D with Adam.)

Rich Lafferty
Rich Lafferty
13 years ago

Equally important is the marginal cost of the activity. Compare, for instance, buying a $500 bike or renting a bike for $5/hr. Until you’ve done 100 hours of riding, renting is a “better deal” — but when you’re sitting at home, deciding whether or not you want to go out for a bike ride, I bet you’ll get more utility out of the “free” ride on your own bike than on the metered ride on the rental. Or consider a a $200-entry bowling league vs. weekly $10 bowling nights (provided you like competitive bowling, of course). When it’s paid for… Read more »

Neil
Neil
13 years ago

There’s also a difference between one-time setup costs and recurring costs. Activities like bicycling, whitewater kayaking, and outdoor rock climbing have considerable setup costs, but after that it’s nearly free (gotta include gas prices to get to rivers or cliffs). Other activities have both setup and recurring costs: golf, snowboarding, paintball. I do consider this when choosing a new hobby. BTW, it’s actually getting to be that going out to the movies is cheaper than watching from home (if you’re looking for a hi-def experience). Modern home theatres are incredibly expensive. While I don’t like paying $9 at a theatre,… Read more »

m.g.
m.g.
13 years ago

This reminds me of a social studies project I did ages ago in middle school on cost vs. value. I had a bunch of different brands of chewing gum and got several of my friends to chew a piece of each one. We timed how long it took until they were ready to spit it out. Then divided the cost of a package of gum by the number of pieces, then divided by the average number of minutes chewed to get a price/minute value. Wish I could remember who won. But back to the topic at hand, this kind of… Read more »

Vancouver Dave
Vancouver Dave
13 years ago

I do this kinda thing all the time. You will get real said if you look what it costs to operate a motor vehicle per day or mile.

The bike is a unique animal in this case as it has a salvage value at the end of the hypothetical use calculateed, this is obviously not the case for paintball or watching a ball game. Additionally, the costs are front end loaded with a hobby such as a bike, it is expensive up front, with minmal outgoing cash during its usage.

Just a thought.

Brad
Brad
13 years ago

With your bike riding, you are factoring the cost of the equipment, yet with your television viewing I am assuming that you are only factoring in the cost of the media, not cost of the equipment. If you have a home cinema setup and a large screen TV, this changes the costs quite a lot. Sorry to be a pedant, just thought I’d stick up for the cycling! 🙂

kaz
kaz
13 years ago

I like to be aware of the cost too.
BUT
Part of the reason I budget is so I can afford the things I love. That includes travel. My husband and I are planning a hiking trip to New Zealand in November. 2 weeks will cost us around $3000 each plus plane tickets. So the cost per hour is pretty big, but I don’t care, because this is a dream trip for us.
But this is why we are frugal about other things!

ClickerTrainer
ClickerTrainer
13 years ago

JD, why do “board games” cost so much for you? They cost about $25 for a new one, right, and you play it x number of times. So the cost is 25/x.
Maybe it’s like that gym membership when you never go — the cost per workout goes up and up?

Lynn
Lynn
13 years ago

$3/hour for board games seems very over priced. I’m pretty sure that our monopoly board cost $20 or $25 and while I’ve only used it a few times, each game has lasted over an hour, there is always 2 or more people playing and (judging by my parents’ decades old game) will probably last me the rest of my life.

My parents got their Monopoly board at a garage sale for $0.50. It had all the pieces and they still have it. The cost per hour of that game is probably less than a penny!

J.D.
J.D.
13 years ago

I actually think my board game number may be underpriced. For a long time, we played board games with a group of friends. Being a credit kind of guy back then, I bought a lot of fancy-schmancy board games at $40 a pop. Some of these were played a dozen times. Some were played two or three times. Many were never played at all.

Settlers of Catan has probably cost $0.50/hour, but Modern Art? That’s $40/hour right there…

Lazy Man and Money
Lazy Man and Money
13 years ago

– “I think Sam and Paul have a great idea, adding in the ‘fun factor’.” I’d go a step further and say that this is as important as the cost to begin with. I think of you Wii example of it being $10/hr and how it could be cheaper if you got an old school Nintendo off of Ebay. It might even be free if you end up selling it for the amount that you paid for it a few years from now. The problem with that idea is that it probably doesn’t rank as high on your “fun” scale.… Read more »

Matt
Matt
13 years ago

I think people can enjoy hobbies that aren’t expensive. I know many people who enjoy life without having expensive hobbies. I also think many people find it easy to develop expensive hobbies and feel that spending money is the primary way to develop happiness. I think all people can choose and enjoy hobbies that aren’t expensive. People hundreds of years ago had fun without using extravagant technology, why can’t we!

Craig
Craig
13 years ago

When I go to the opera, it is an experience I take with me for much longer than its duration. It is also a special event. It’s not just some way to kill a few hours. You can’t measure these activities just in terms of the time you spend engaged in it, unless you assume that they all provide the same level of enjoyment per hour, or if you assume that the only benefit of any form of recreation or entertainment is as a timesink.

mathew
mathew
13 years ago

Video games are bargain entertainment. I tend to go for action/adventure games, which typically take 30+ hours to play. I also tend to wait for them to come out at “greatest hits” prices, around $20. Even factoring in the price of the console (PS2 depreciated over 6 years or so), it’s still less than a dollar an hour.

Also cheap entertainment: feeding squirrels in the back yard. Just $3 will get you a huge bag of sunflower seeds.

Carmen
Carmen
13 years ago

For a number of years now I have factored in the costs when deciding whether or not to pursue a particular interest. For example, I think I could love scuba diving but it is very expensive, so I stick to snorkeling which is great fun and hardly costs anything. My most expensive hobby is singing in a chamber choir – it costs $120/quarter which works out to be about $5/hour for rehearsal time. The cost covers the rehearsal venue and the conductor’s wages and is well worth it. The pleasure of singing in a group and performing together rates very… Read more »

Gerald
Gerald
13 years ago

I don’t know if I define it as a hobby but I love taking classes in new activities. I’ve taken sailing, scuba, photography, dance, etc.

I usually go to community college classes or places that specialize in that activity. Prices end up ranging between $8-$35/hour.

I’m now deciding between trapeze school and Improv.

Liz
Liz
13 years ago

D&D, as a DM, costs me now….oh, maybe a penny an hour? You see, I bought all three core rulebooks 3 years ago from a half-price book store (so $45) and I play 3 seperate games a week during the school year, for 4 hours on the short side of a session. so 12 hours a week for the school year of 40 weeks, 480 hours.(time being a VERY conservative estimate, games almost always run more than 4 hours) That’s less than 10c an hour, but as a dm (I only run one of those games, though….yeesh!) I also put… Read more »

Liz
Liz
13 years ago

Oh, and on the fun scale, I don’t see it as: if something costs more than x per hour, you should stop. I think of it as looking at opera and saying, is it worth $25 an hour to me? Is paintball worth $10? Is the Wii worth $10? To me, the wii is WORTH maybe $20 an hour. But much like JD, our Wii has cost us maybe $10 an hour (even with all our games!) and it only gets lower. The opera isn’t worth $5 an hour to me. But watching theatre would be worth more like $15.… Read more »

MVP
MVP
13 years ago

No wonder I always thought going to the mall for fun was an expensive hobby! What about reading a book? I learned, mostly after moving several times, it’s FAR more economical to borrow a book (from friend or library) or buy it used, than to buy it new. Oh yeah, snowboarding/skiing – we’ve nearly had to give that up. Switched to snowshoeing, which is practically free once you buy the shoes and get yourself there. Golf? I hate it, but can’t believe how much it costs! Like Tim, we love camping and hiking. Between the two of us, over the… Read more »

Lynn
Lynn
13 years ago

m.d. – what a great idea for cost vs value study. I think I’ll use it!

mathew – amen on the squirrel feeding. I love my squirrels and even constructed a bridge from 3 pieces of hemp rope braided together. This way they can better use all of the trees while avoiding neighbor cats.

MVP – please don’t talk people out of buying new books. If they stop, I won’t have anything to buy at thrift stores or garage sales! 🙂

Julie
Julie
13 years ago

I have a couple of very expensive hobbies: sewing and collecting vintage cookbooks, sewing patterns, and sewing/knitting books. Are there times I look at the stuff and wonder about how much money is invested in my fabric stash and my pattern collection? Do I really *need* over 100 vintage cookbooks? You bet I wonder! I can’t even calculate the cost per hour at this point! However, an afternoon of sewing or enjoying a “new” recipe from one of those cookbooks is so off the scale in terms of nurturing my soul, that they are indeed worth it to me. However,… Read more »

Billy
Billy
13 years ago

Gosh, I just spent 500 on a yearly gym membership and so far only have gone 4x for a total of 8 hours. I guess it decreases over time if I go to the gym more often. What would be a reasonable amount for gym? $3 per hour?

Also, you forget to mention drinking is one of the most expensive activities ever. At the usual $5 per pint / bottle, and 2-3 every hour, it gets really expensive. Drink less and save more.

Jennifer
Jennifer
13 years ago

I don’t ever figure the cost per hour of entertainment or activities for my husband or I. We don’t do much. But with 4 kids, the cost per hour is very important. I have found, living in 2 suburbs of major cities, that around $10 per hour for an activity is the norm. I prefer to find something cheaper, and often refuse to pay more than that. Currently we have my daughter in gymnastics 6 hours a week. It seems pretty expensive at $170 a month. However when I figured the hourly rate of this it came to around $7… Read more »

MVP
MVP
13 years ago

Oh my gosh, I can’t believe I completely forgot about my absolute biggest hobby: wine tasting. While simply going out to wineries and tasting at tasting rooms tends to amount to some pretty inexpensive fun (we’re lucky to live in wine country), once you actually start buying and collecting wine, it can get spendy very quickly. Unfortunately, for most of us, wine isn’t an investment. I’m completely comfortable with knowing I routinely throw my money away on something I LOVE. Our solution? We set a reasonable budget whenever we go on a wine tour. And we generally know what we… Read more »

Jeff
Jeff
13 years ago

I like Neil’s observation about the movie theater being cheaper than watching a movie on a high-def set at home. Actually, the prices of many activities are like that — paying as you go is much cheaper than owning. My favorite example of that is vacation property (especially timeshares). I also like MVP’s observation about going to the mall for fun — for most people, that’s either expensive (you buy stuff), or torturous (you see a lot of stuff you want but can’t buy it), or both (you can’t buy everything you want but you buy some of it). Really,… Read more »

Matt
Matt
13 years ago

What if we expanded this to involuntary spending? My basic point here is that you might be suprised how much “doing nothing” costs. Sure, your car will last beyond the payments; these are just rough figures. I’d like to figure out how much time i actually spend in my apartment. Just subtracting for the time I’m at work it’s already up to $7.09 an hour. Take away weekend activities, etc. and it probably hits $10 easy. Anyways, my point is $25/hour at the Opera is sounding good since you are probably already paying more than you expected for mundane things,… Read more »

Vince
Vince
13 years ago

I do motorcycle track days. For those of you unfamiliar with the idea, this involves taking your motorcycle (usually with a larger group who organizes the event) to a racetrack and riding around as fast as you want but in a non-competitive environment. These aren’t drag races or NASCAR ovals, they are twisty style racetracks. Anyway, it’s a fun and relatively safer way to break speed limits and challenge yourself….unfortunately it’s expensive. Not counting the motorcycle or wear and tear on the motorcycle (tires, fuel, brakes, mileage, etc) this works out to as much as $210/hour if you just count… Read more »

Kevin
Kevin
12 years ago

I personnally am an avid reader. I usually buy the books too. And yes, hardcover if possible. I have a membership card that saves me 10% on each buy though and buying from the internet is also cheaper. So let’s say I buy that book at around 25$. That’s gonna be a 10-12 hour read (I’m french-canadian but I buy english book. It costs less, you get more pages and it takes me a bit more time to read through). And that’s only on the first read too. Not all, but a good portion of my book I’ve read a… Read more »

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