How Expensive is Your Happiness?
Lifestyle creep is something we’re all familiar with. As a kid, a 10 dollar weekly allowance was Kingly. Pennies were pinched, pizzas were purchased, and the yearly raise of a few bucks was plenty. Our hobbies were free by necessity — stickball, catch, hide and seek.
Then the real world happened. At first we managed to make do with a few precious grand a month. One went to rent, another to food and entertainment, and maybe a few straggling bills got stuffed in a shoebox for travel (or, heaven forbid, savings). As the paychecks got bigger, so did the expenses. No more roommates. Groceries from Whole Foods. Work clothes. Let’s get out of this rental. Yearly vacations. A car, and somewhere to park it. More vacations. The growing list of people who need presents. The weekend house. The federally mandated interest in wine. Where did all the cash go?
For most people, the process of becoming more adult can be reduced to the process of making and spending increasing amounts of money. That money goes a lot of different places, but today we’re talking about hobbies for a few reasons. Number 1, they’re a choice — by and large a fungible way we spend our hours outside of work. Number 2, they’re important in shaping our profile and others’ perception of us. And number 3, as they expand with the rest of our lifestyle creep, they can have a massive and under-appreciated effect on our financial health and happiness.
Who cares as long as I'm happy?
I want you to imagine two different people: Sarah and Jenny.
Sarah loves hiking. It’s all she thinks about while she’s stuck behind her desk at work. She saves up vacation days so she can spend 3 weeks in the backcountry, thru-hiking beautiful trails across the country. On weekends, she does shorter hikes. One day she dreams about a trip to Patagonia.
Sarah is an ultralight geek, and splurged on the absolute top-of-the-line lightweight gear to keep her pack weight under 10 pounds. Friends thought she was insane for spending 250 bucks on a backpack and 400 on a quilt, but she loves them. All in, her gear cost 2 grand and her trail days cost about 20 bucks each in fuel, food, and gear wear.
Jenny loves off-roading. It’s all she thinks about while she’s stuck behind her desk at work. She saves up cash and vacation days to make it to the Baja and Rubicon meet-ups every year. On weekends, she works on her heavily modified 2011 Jeep Wrangler JK. One day she dreams about overlanding in Africa.
Jenny is a handy chick, so she bought a cheap used stock Wrangler and has been building it up herself, in her garage. She got a great deal on the jeep — only 20 large, and the tooling in her garage was another 5k. When she does a project, like installing a light bar or rockslides, it costs her about 3k. She’s got about 15k into the rig now, but figures she could sell it for 30 if things got tight. When she does get the jeep out on the trail (less frequently than she hoped to — maybe a dozen days a year), it costs about 60 bucks in gas — which isn’t bad, but she invariably tears off a fender or smashes a headlight, which can be a grand or two to fix.
A few questions now:
Is Jenny happier than Sarah? She spent more money, that’s for sure, and she’s involved in an exciting hobby that teaches her useful mechanical skills and makes her interesting to talk to at parties. But is she happier than Sarah? Who is able to enjoy her hobby year-round, sees nature’s beauty regularly, and spends her pile of leftover cash on savings and philanthropy? That’s tough to prove.
What is the financial impact of Jenny’s more expensive hobby, now and in the long term? This is a bit easier to calculate. We’re talking about a 40k outlay and about 5k a year in upkeep vs 2k in outlay 400 bucks a year. Let’s start with the loss in compounded interest — a bit over 80k in 10 years. That’s not the full story, though. Jenny and Sarah are playing with after-tax dollars. A penny saved isn’t a penny earned — it’s more like 2 pennies earned. Jenny needs to earn 15-20k more a year than Sarah to support her hobby and make up for lost savings. That could be three or four years’ worth of raises away.
What is the impact on Jenny’s happiness of her expensive hobby? The math is really the least interesting part of this story. Jenny doesn’t make any more money than Sarah, but she thinks about it more. She’s not in crushing debt, but her savings aren’t what she wishes they might be. To be fair to Jenny, her hobby is cheap compared to the legions of folks who drive million dollar Ferraris in club leagues. Isn’t it funny how happiness seems to get more expensive when there’s more money to be spent?
Is there really no hobby less expensive that would bring Jenny happiness? Was Jenny programmed from birth to only reach maximum happiness when off-roading, flying fighter jets, and collecting vintage Omegas?
I don’t contend that people shouldn’t have expensive hobbies, or that expensive hobbies are inherently bad. As a pilot with a love of old Speedmasters and an inconvenient preference for Pauillac, I’m far from the poster child for inexpensive happiness. Certainly, those with pricey taste shouldn’t be shamed out of the activities that make them happy and contribute to their sense of self.
My contention lies instead with the illusion of predetermination that waylays good people from finding a happiness they can afford. Instead of falling NOW into an inexpensive hobby with a strong community, they look for a happiness that’s varying degrees of “out of reach” LATER. That dangerous attitude- that happiness will be ours at some point in the future, if we could only have X, is one to recognize and avoid.
For many young people, the response when asked about hobbies is “hanging out with friends.” The real answer behind this, however, is “spending about three hundred bucks a week on brunches, dinners, and after-work drinks.” Is that a hobby? Well, let’s see. Primary non-work activity? Check. Primary social outlet? Check. Primary cash outlay besides rent? Almost always. Optimal ratio of cash spent to happiness delivered? I bet not.
16 Cheap Thrills
Some people are natureheads who can’t get enough of the great outdoors. Others are adrenaline junkies with a need for speed, and yet others are competitive types who relish in vanquishing foes (or tennis opponents).
The goal here is to spark your imagination with hobbies that don’t just take up time, but have strong communities and can build to become fulfilling parts of your lives — without causing unnecessary budgetary stress. Who really enjoys brunch anyway?
- Thru-Hiking. The gear is almost free, the endorphins are actually free.
- Camping. Take the kids, teach them how to sharpen a stick.
- Archery. Get your aggression out — unlike target shooting, you can re-use these bullets.
- Tennis/Squash/Racquetball. See your enemies driven before you, while exercising — in the city or the country.
- Chess/Backgammon/Bridge/Cataan/etc. No physical exertion required.
- Yoga/AcroYoga. I think you already have the pants for this.
- Crossfit, et al. Fellowship makes the deadlifts go down easier.
- Band/Orchestra/Choir. It’s cooler now that you’re out of high school.
- Woodworking. Let Ron Swanson inspire you (or do what I did and get hooked on Paul Sellers’ gorgeous YouTube channel).
- Rock Climbing. Adrenaline? Check. Outdoors? Check. Gear under $2k? Check. Passionate community of interesting people? Check.
- Fly-fishing. I don’t love killing fish or making them late for something, but maybe you do!
- Kayaking. If you’ve only tried the plastic fantastic resort rental boats, find a place with proper kevlar or carbon fiber sea kayaks — you’ll be amazed by how you glide through the sea and feel truly a part of it.
- Surfing. The surfing is free, the obligatory fish tacos aren’t.
- Painting. I guarantee there’s a hip “drink and paint” get-together within 5 miles of you any given night. You won’t be the worst artist there.
- Cooking. How many hobbies make OTHER people happy, and actually SAVE you money? Just don’t get obsessed with Japanese Gyutos and defeat the latter purpose.
- Skeet Shooting. Scientists haven’t discovered a way to have more fun than this for sixty bucks while wearing pants.
I’m obviously omitting thousands of comparably happiness-inducing activities here just by dint of not being exposed to them or not having the room to include them. Be creative and look at your own matrix for happiness vs. cost.