Attention: You are now leaving the Wintrust website.
by Trent Hamm
October 03, 2017
by Trent Hamm
October 03, 2017
A few days ago, I was cleaning out the garage when I found my old set of golf clubs.
Now, for those of you who aren't aware of the full story of my financial turnaround, I used to be an avid golfer about a decade ago. I had a group of friends that I went golfing with a few times a week and I was constantly upgrading my golfing gear. It was an expensive hobby, to say the least. I bought balls, tees, new clubs, and other items all the time, and then there were the green fees and the cost of snacks and drinks and then a few drinks in the clubhouse afterward… and I was doing this a few times a week.
When I realized I needed to start turning around my financial situation, I made the decision pretty quickly that I needed to take a break from some of my expensive routines, and golf was one of them. I basically gave up golf cold turkey, only playing occasionally with family after that. I sold a few of my more expensive items, stuck my remaining golf balls into my golf bag, and basically just sat it off to the side so that I'd have enough gear to go golfing with my father-in-law every once in a while.
The golf clubs have sat in my garage, basically unused, for most of a decade now. I've pulled them out a few times, but they've mostly become a relic of an abandoned hobby.
I looked over my clubs a bit. I checked the side pockets and found plenty of tees, new balls, and a few old balls in there. I took out a club and gave it a few practice swings.
As I thought about it, I couldn't help but wonder whether or not golf is a hobby that could fit into my life today. Could I really enjoy such an expensive hobby? I don't particularly want to jump back into the golfing hobby, but could I make the expense of it work within a frugal lifestyle?
What about other expensive hobbies, like photography? Can such a hobby be deeply enjoyed if you're a frugal person?
I still have one somewhat expensive hobby: home brewing. I also have a couple of hobbies that can be expensive if you're not careful. When I think about more expensive hobbies than my own, I realize that most of the principles I use to keep these hobbies in check would work for more expensive hobbies, too.
Here are a bunch of strategies for enjoying an expensive hobby while still keeping your finances quite healthy.
1. If you're not doing it with cheap equipment, you won't be doing it with expensive equipment
If you tell yourself, "I would do X thing if I had the right equipment," the truth is that once you're past a short honeymoon period, you won't actually do that thing, even if you have all the equipment in the world.
If a hobby is something you're really into or passionate about, you'll find yourself doing it to the best of your ability with whatever equipment you have. You'll take a putter to someplace with really short grass and aim at a target. You'll take a driver to a driving range. You'll use your smartphone to set up great photography. You'll find ways to do whatever it is you're excited about with whatever you happen to have on hand.
If you're not drawn to that hobby in that way, then you shouldn't be investing money hand over fist into it. An amazing camera won't suddenly make you into a photographer; you're either into photography with a cheap camera and have designs on upgrading, or you're not really into photography at all and just appreciate that it's kinda cool when other people do it.
Don't dive into an expensive hobby unless you love it so much that you're already trying to do it with whatever you have on hand.
But what if you do need at least a little bit of basic equipment to start? Start off with low-end inexpensive gear and used gear and use it until you can clearly explain what doesn't work. If you're really passionate about cooking, you'll want to cook with two knives, a cutting board, and three pots that you bought at Goodwill. If you're really passionate about photography, you'll want to take photographs with your smartphone.
The thing is, it's only through using that low-end gear over and over again that you can really figure out why you need to upgrade anything. You'll start to see how this low-end gear really isn't meeting your needs and you'll see how specific upgrades can help you enjoy this hobby more deeply.
Take my own home brewing hobby, for example. My first batches were made in a stock pot that we already owned and in a cheap food-grade plastic five-gallon bucket with a vent hole on the top that I bought at the store, along with some cheap grains and about $8 worth of additional items from the local home brewing store. That's it. It was about as bare bones as possible. I only started switching items out when I began to notice issues or things that I wanted to do that I couldn't pull off.
2. Pair an expensive hobby with cheaper hobbies
If you're into photography, pair it with a cheap hobby like walking or low-intensity hiking. If you're into backpacking, pair it with something like reading books from the library.
That way, not all of your hobby time is channeled into something that constantly draws you to spend more and more money.
3. Apply a strict budget to your hobby from day one and plan out how you're going to use that budget to maximize your fun
I have a hobby budget each month that I divide amongst my various hobbies. That hobby budget has a firm cap, so what that means is that I have to think ahead a little bit as to how I'm going to spend that hobby budget.
I usually plan out what purchases related to hobbies that I'm going to make this month, sometimes very specifically and sometimes with a bit of flexibility. So, I might say "This is the month I'm going to buy a new mash tun for home brewing," and then also have extra money for serendipity when I'm visiting other hobby stores or sites. "I can spend $XX on other things as they come up this month."
(A mash tun, for those interested, is a container that one uses to treat hops with hot water when making an ale; it generally requires insulation and is often done, for small-scale home brewers, by modifying an insulated water cooler.)
If I do this kind of planning each month, I keep my hobby spending in check (mostly – my biggest bugaboo is ordering Kindle books without reflecting on it, honestly, which is still a trick for me). I often plan a few months ahead with regard to this spending, which is helpful in other ways that I'll mention below.
4. Regularly reflect on how high of a priority this hobby really is in your life
Sometimes, things you're really passionate about fall into decline. They slip from being a deep passion into being a routine, and when that happens, you stop doing it quite as often and you might find yourself doing other things during windows when you would have been enjoying that hobby. Instead of photographing, you leave the equipment in your closet and go on a hike without it, for example. Instead of making another home-brew batch, you spend the afternoon playing a board game or reading a book.
It's okay for such change to happen, but be mindful of it. Don't keep spending money as though an expensive hobby is still a high priority for you if it's actually not. Be honest with yourself – it really is okay to not be as passionate about something as you once were, and it really is okay to find new passions and interests. The key is to not keep throwing money after a declining interest.
5. Upgrade your gear slowly, only when it makes sense
When you're really into a hobby, it can be extremely tempting to just want to upgrade all of your gear as soon as possible, improving it as soon as you can possibly articulate a reason why.
Don't do it. Not only is such a move disastrous for your budget, it's also not a great move for your hobby as a whole.
Instead, upgrade one thing at a time. Improve that one thing, then engage in your hobby several more times and see how that one improvement changes things. If I buy a mash tun, for example, I might make several batches of IPA and that new process will really help me reflect how much I really need a ten-gallon carboy or how much I really need a triple-clad cooking pot. If I just go buy everything, I'm not really considering what upgrades are truly worthwhile and which ones might not be all that important.
6. Do plenty of research into upgrades
If you decide to upgrade something, like buying a new photography lens or picking up a new golf club, do plenty of research into that upgrade. Know exactly what you're buying, how it will work for you, what size is best for you, and where you can get that item at the best possible price.
This synergizes really well with the type of longer-term budgeting I described earlier. By planning ahead for future months with regards to budgeting, you give yourself a nice window with which to do research into particular purchases. I might be planning on buying a mash tun in December and have budgeted $100 for it; if I can find a really good plan and assemble one for $80 in gear purchased in December, I've saved $20 for other hobby purposes. Plus, I have time to think about whether or not this upgrade really makes sense.
7. When you do upgrade, choose high-quality items that match what you need
You're far better off slowly upgrading your entry level gear to truly high-quality gear than taking a bunch of middle steps along the way. If you buy one piece at a time, carefully research it, and choose an option that's going to last for a very long time, you're going to eventually wind up with a great set of equipment for your hobby.
For example, let's look at my homebrewing hobby again. I started off with all entry level stuff, but as I replace items, I'm going for individual high-quality replacements rather than moving everything quickly to mid-level items. I'm going a step at a time so that I know what I'm buying and I can replace the individual items that most need replacement. Also…
8. Make sure to maximize the resale value of the items you buy when upgrading
You're far better off buying something for $200 that you can resell for $180 if you take care of it than buying something for $80 that no one will want to buy for more than a pittance. If you do decide to exit the hobby at some point, having gear that you can sell to recoup most of, if not all of, your money is the best way to go.
In general, mid-level stuff doesn't have all that much resale value. It does the job well, but it tends to wear out and not attract much interest from serious enthusiasts. What will attract their interest is top gear, and for that stuff, if it's well maintained, you'll get a good return on your money.
Plus, there's also the factor of the "second upgrade." If you upgrade from entry-level to mid-quality and you stick with the hobby, you'll eventually find yourself wanting to upgrade to the high-end version, at which point you're stuck with a mid-grade item that you have no use for and can't resell for much.
For me, this is further incentive to slowly upgrade items to truly good versions of that equipment within my hobby budget. If I were into photography, I'd vastly prefer to save for a few months to buy a truly great lens rather than buy several mid-grade lenses one month. I'm more likely to be able to recoup my value from that one lens later on, plus I know I'll never have to upgrade it again further down the road.
9. Don't be afraid to look for used versions of high-quality items when upgrading
In general, people who own high-end versions of hobby equipment take really good care of it. A photographer with a $400 lens is going to take care of it. A pen enthusiast with a $500 fountain pen is going to take care of it.
That's why it often makes sense to buy high-quality items used from other enthusiasts who may be downgrading or getting out of the hobby or selling a few items in a pinch. You generally won't get a huge discount doing this, but the item you get will be in extremely good shape and it'll be an item that you'll someday be able to sell for almost as much as you put into it.
10. Maintain any equipment you buy for your hobbies and make such maintenance part of the hobby routine
If you own high-end equipment, take care of it. Keep those lenses stored properly and cleaned properly. Clean your home brewing gear thoroughly and store them in a dry place. Clean and properly pack your camping and hiking gear. You get the idea.
Yes, this takes a little time, but if you're passionate about the hobby, it's often enjoyable time. I enjoy doing things like organizing board game boxes or cleaning up my home brewing equipment. It lets me think about the tasks that I've been doing and also reminds me that I'm putting things in position so that this gear will last and also so that I'm ready to go the next time I dig into this hobby.
11. If a hobby involves routine paid experiences, make the "regular" experiences as low-end as possible and spread out the high-end events
Golf is a great example of what I'm talking about here. It can be tempting to always go to the nicest golf course around, but it's actually a terrible idea for your wallet and also, believe it or not, for your long-term enjoyment of the hobby.
A much better approach is to become a regular at the cheapest course around. Play most of your rounds at that cheap course, where you can feel more comfortable trying new things and honing your game, and save rounds at the nicer course for special occasions. If there are opportunities for cheap or free rounds, take advantage of those, too.
The best part? You'll find that you really appreciate the occasional nicer rounds. They're not routine. They're special. Because of that, they stand out in your mind and you really savor them.
12. Get involved in local groups who are involved in the same hobby and learn from their experiences
If you're really into a hobby, look for a local group related to that hobby and get involved with it. Such groups attract enthusiasts like bugs to a UV light. Surrounding yourself with enthusiasts enables you to have a lot of sources for socializing, for advice on how to improve within the hobby, and also opportunities for buying (and selling) high-end used equipment (as noted earlier). You can often find such groups virtually on Facebook and face-to-face groups via Meetup.
This can be a double-edged sword, of course. Such groups can often encourage a spending impulse and a desire to toss money into a hobby, especially at first. Keep it in check – stick with your budget and consider your purchases carefully. Look for discount opportunities within the group, such as discounts for group members and individuals selling items to each other.
The key behind all of this is one simple thing: keep your spending impulses under control. Expensive hobbies can result in financial disaster if you approach them with an impulsive mindset. Don't allow yourself to spend much at all on the hobby without a bit of planning and consideration first. Shop around, know what you're buying, and make sure that it fits into your overall budget before writing a check or swiping a credit card.
If you can keep yourself doing that, you can enjoy an expensive hobby on a frugal budget. You might not have everything you want immediately, but you'll have abundant opportunity to learn about and grow within the hobby.