Long time readers of The Simple Dollar know that I have a number of hobbies that I’m quite passionate about, most of which are actually pretty cheap if you make smart choices regarding them. Because I wear my hobbies on my sleeve so much, I get pretty frequent emails and Facebook messages from readers asking about how they can get started in those hobbies, too.
So, today, I thought I’d share some steps for how to dip your toes in some of my favorite hobbies at an absolute minimal cost while still giving yourself a chance to really understand what it is about these hobbies that is enjoyable. All of these are intentionally written as solo experiences – you don’t have to have anyone else in your life on board with these strategies, though you may find yourself meeting other people in the process of doing them.
The best part? The cost for each of these is extremely minimal. Most of them are free.
Let’s get started on this path to a new hobby!
There are few things I enjoy more on a nice day than going on a hike in the woods. Many people think of hiking as an intense backpacking journey over four days out in the wilderness that requires endurance and a high tolerance for rashes and blisters and bug bites. Yes, that’s one type of hiking, but my definition is pretty broad and includes things that others might merely think of as “nature walks.”
Wikipedia’s definition of hiking is “the preferred term, in Canada and the United States, for a long, vigorous walk, usually on trails (footpaths), in the countryside.” If you recognize that “vigorous” (and “long,” for that matter) has a lot of different meanings for different people in different situations, you’ll quickly see that hiking is an umbrella term for a wide range of experiences. I’ve been on strenuous hikes where I thought I was going to pass out before the end of them, and I’ve also been on leisurely strolls with elderly folks and toddlers. The core of hiking is simply walking in and appreciating nature.
So, how can you get started?
First, find a state or national park with multiple trails that’s reasonably close to you. You probably don’t have one next door, but you probably do have one within an hour’s drive at most. The Oh, Ranger! app is very useful in terms of finding parks near you with hiking trails.
When you go to the park, select a low-intensity trail that seems like it might be interesting to you. You are far better off picking a trail that’s very easy for you rather than one that’s challenging. Trust me – the potential challenge goes up far beyond what you’re capable of – assuming that there are no sherpas reading The Simple Dollar, I’m very confident that there are trails out there that blow away your fitness level. You are far better off choosing a very easy trail at first and working your way slowly upward in difficulty over subsequent hikes.
If you look up the park you’re interested in online, you can often find a description of many of the trails which will indicate their relative difficulty.
For example, my favorite state park that’s within a reasonable distance from where I live is Ledges State Park. After visiting that park’s website, I found a discussion of a “fully accessible interpretive trail to Lost Lake […] located at the southern part of the park.” That is the type of trail that makes for a great starting point.
Dress yourself appropriately with comfortable shoes and comfortable clothes that won’t mind getting a little dirty. No one is making a fashion statement on a trail, so don’t worry about it too much. Choose comfortable clothing and particularly comfortable shoes for walking.
Pack a simple bag, too. For your first hike, I suggest taking along a backpack with some sunscreen, a beverage, a small snack (or a small meal, depending on the time of day), sunglasses, and a first aid kit. It doesn’t need to be overly heavy, nor should it be.
Enjoy the hike! Go to the trail and enjoy it! Walk at your own pace. Stop when you need to or when you see something interesting. There’s no reason to rush unless you feel like it or want to, and don’t feel bad about going slower than people around you, though it is courteous to let faster folks pass you.
Take photos of interesting things that you see. One of the best parts of hiking, in my opinion, is the photography. I love taking pictures of interesting sights or discoveries that I find while hiking. I often use these as screen savers or background images. Take lots of pictures – you can delete the lesser ones later.
Stop for a while and enjoy the scenery. Even if I don’t need to rest, I like to stop regularly when hiking just to enjoy the environment. I’ll look around, breathe deep in the fresh air, and just admire the natural growth in every direction. Somehow, it just makes me feel good.
Start keeping track of the trails you’ve walked. I like to keep a list of the trails I’ve walked in a little notebook, along with the length and some thoughts about the trail. Even a simple list of the trails can be fun. Start one for yourself in a notebook you have laying around, or even in a Google Doc or in Evernote.
Trail hiking can become addicting. Don’t be afraid to start ramping up your difficulty if you found the first trail you tried to be easy. Part of the fun of trail hiking is to stress your body just enough so that it feels rewarding to make it to a great vista, but not so much that you feel miserable along the way. Plus, the more you do it, the better shape you’ll find yourself in.
I have a daily routine of journaling each morning. It’s something I’ve been doing with high regularity since I was about twelve years old (and, believe it or not, I still have most of those journals).
The purpose of journaling isn’t to simply list the events of your day, but to reflect on what’s going on in your life. I usually try to look for both the highs and the lows in my life. What are the high spots? Why was that moment so great? How can I expand upon that in my life? What are the low points? What can I do to fix what caused those low points?
I try to go as deep as possible with this, and that usually means confronting some difficult aspects of who I am as a person. I’m far, far from perfect; I’m even quite far from the person I want to be and the person that I tell myself that I am. However, I find that through journaling, I have gradually become a better person in my adult life. I understand myself far better than I used to. I have a strong grip on my goals in life and what my values are. I attribute all of that to journaling as a regular practice, and I consider it to be one of the most valuable things I do each day.
I find that actually writing down my thoughts helps far more than typing them out. The process of thinking about the words I’m writing triggers far deeper thinking and introspection than typing the words.
So, how does one get started? It’s actually pretty easy.
Find a reliable pen or pencil and a cheap blank notebook. You probably have a decent pen or pencil somewhere in your house. It’s also quite possible that you have a blank notebook somewhere, too. If you don’t, just go to a department store and look for a cheap notebook – I like college ruled ones because I can fit more material into them.
Yes, you can start dumping a lot of money into pens and pencils and notebooks if you really want to, but it doesn’t really matter that much, especially if you’re just dipping your toes in.
Think about the one thing in your life that’s troubling you and start writing it down. Just describe it to the best of your ability. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Just write down why it bothers you with as many details as you can think of.
Use the “five whys.” Now, answer the question of why this thing is bothering you. Why are you upset by this event or feature or attribute? It’s usually a pretty hard question, and it’s going to be the first in a chain of them.
I find that repeatedly asking “why” – much like my six-year-old son sometimes does – is incredibly powerful here. Every time I write down something, I ask myself why. Why does this bother me? Why am I making this choice? I think about that for a little bit, and then I write down a little more.
There are never any right or wrong answers here. The only thing that matters is honesty, and sometimes the honesty is harsh. It can hurt. It can make you feel bad about yourself. I’ve been driven to anger and to tears by journal entries many times.
The thing is, if you keep asking why, there will come a point where you suddenly stumble upon some kind of powerful realization about yourself, about your values, and about your place in the world. When that happens, it is powerful. It doesn’t happen every time, or every other time. You’ll often stop journaling because you feel stuck or because an answer to your problems isn’t apparent yet and that’s fine. Just keep coming back to it and asking yourself why and you’ll eventually dig down to something useful.
Journaling helped me realize that my primary source of unhappiness at my previous job was a sense of abandoning my family, and I was able to figure out how to fix that. Journaling has helped me become a better husband and a better father and forge better relationships with almost every single person of significance in my life. Journaling has helped me overcome a lot of my introversion and has gently pushed me to community involvement and to the building of a far larger social network than I would have ever imagined. It has helped me with my financial journey, my health journey, my career journey, and countless other things. It’s helped me figure out my true values and, lately, it’s helped me figure out how to better express and articulate those values so that I can communicate successfully with people in my life with different beliefs and values than my own.
All you really need to start is a pen, a notebook, and a willingness to look at yourself honestly.
Reading is an incredibly powerful hobby. It can introduce you to new ideas and new perspectives on familiar ones. It can help you to see the world from the eyes of others. It can be highly entertaining. It also makes navigating the world much easier, because a sharpened skill for reading (and retaining what you read) is useful in just about any profession in the world. Reading books also helps expand your focus and expand your scope through which you view the world. It’s all incredibly rewarding.
Here’s how you can get started at almost no cost.
First, think of a story you’ve enjoyed in your life or a particular subject you want to know more about. Maybe you really enjoyed scary campfire stories when you were younger, which would point you toward a horror novel. Perhaps you’re really curious about the Revolutionary War, which might point you toward a nonfiction book about that time period.
On the other hand, maybe you love watching mysteries on television, which might point you toward a mystery novel. Perhaps you’re really interested in time management and how to get more done in a day, in which case a time management book is a perfect fit.
The key is to find something you’re interested in. If you’re not deeply interested in the topic of a book, it’s pretty hard to get sucked in, especially if reading books isn’t something you have as a hobby.
Next, look for a well-regarded book that matches what you’re looking for. Generally, well-regarded books are engaging but not overly difficult to read, which is absolutely what you’re looking for if you’re trying to make a first attempt at reading a book in a long while.
I decided to do this myself regarding the Revolutionary War, a topic that I find really interesting and have read many, many books about. I wanted to see what books were recommended by others, not just my own recommendation. So, I went to Google and typed in “introductory revolutionary war books” and visited the first dozen links or so to see what books showed up time and time again.
Two books showed up time and time again: Washington, the Indispensable Man by James Thomas Flexner and 1776 by David McCullough. Incidentally, I strongly agree with these two books as great books about the American Revolution that are fun and fairly easy to read. Either one of these would be a great read, and you could probably choose among them based on your specific interest at the moment.
You can follow almost the exact same pattern for any book genre or topic you’re interested in. Just follow the recommendations and you’ll find a very solid and enjoyable read on that topic or in that genre.
Once you have a book or two in mind, hit the local library. See if they have your desired title – or one of your backup titles – on their shelves. If they don’t, talk to the librarian and see if they can get the book via interlibrary loan. Generally, the top regarded books on a topic or within a literary genre are on the shelves at a library and, if not, they’re usually easy to get via library loan.
There’s no need to actually buy the book. The library is a spectacular source for borrowing books for free, so take advantage of it.
Once you have the book in hand, put aside a little time each day for reading it. I like to read in the afternoon with my children, for example, right when they get off the bus, as we all have a thirty minute period of sustained silent reading. I also usually read for half an hour or so before bed.
The key is to plan for that time and make it part of your day, every day. Take the book with you if needed, as you might use your lunch break at work for reading (I certainly used to do this).
When you’re reading, don’t be afraid to stop and go back if you’re confused, and don’t be afraid to look things up, either. I do this constantly when I’m reading. There’s nothing shameful about being confused by an idea or being thrown by a plot twist or the emergence of a previously obscure character. When you’re feeling confused, stop. Go back and resolve what it is that you’re confused about. If needed, look up a word or a concept using a dictionary or Wikipedia in order to get the general idea. There is no such thing as a dumb question, especially when you are reading to yourself.
Similarly, remember that it’s not a race. You don’t have to rush through the book. If you read slowly, that’s fine. If you read fast, that’s fine. I actually read some books much more quickly than other ones. Read at whatever pace is comfortable and enables you to understand what’s happening in the book or what ideas are being shared. If that means reading a single page every fifteen minutes, that’s fine. I’ve read through books even more slowly than that before. (I am painfully slow when reading philosophy, for example, because I am constantly stopping to jot down ideas.)
On that note, if some specific point is really interesting to you, don’t be afraid to stop and jot it down and then go look it up later or think about it later. Many books often offer little dangling threads that can point you in a completely new direction. For example, 1776 led me to discovering one of the most interesting forgotten people of the American Revolution, Roger Sherman. I pretty much can’t get through a book on philosophy without filling up half of a notebook with various jottings.
If a book is boring you, don’t force yourself to finish it. There are many, many books out there. Try a different one. Life is too short to force yourself through a book that bores you or one that’s just way over your head. Don’t feel “dumb” if you’re reading a really introductory book on a topic, either.
I like to post brief reviews of books I’ve finished for my friends on social media. Quite often, this encourages them to also read the book, giving us something to talk about, and sometimes I find that a friend has already read the book which gives us an immediate conversation topic. This is almost always enjoyable and a nice perk to finishing a book.
Much like the other hobbies listed here, this becomes a cycle. Once you’ve read one book and enjoyed it, it’s pretty hard not to go back to the library and look for more. Over time, you get better and better at it and can handle more challenging books, both in terms of the writing and in terms of the ideas.
Playing Tabletop Games
One of the highlights of my week is my Sunday afternoon and Tuesday evening tabletop gaming groups. My Sunday group almost entirely plays board games, usually fairly complex strategic ones. My Tuesday group usually plays adventure board games and role-playing games (or collaborative storytelling games, depending on how you look at them). We also sometimes have dinner parties where we play games with others, and family game nights are routine at our house.
Needless to say, playing board and card games and other tabletop games is a notable part of my life. It’s socially rewarding and I’ve built many strong friendships thanks to gaming. It also scratches my strategic thinking itch and my creative thinking itch.
How does one get started, though? One might expect this hobby to be expensive; after all, you need a game to play and those cost money, right?
Not so fast.
First of all, figure out what kind of game you want to play. For some people, light social games that rely heavily on social interaction are great. For others, strategic games are more up their alley because they enjoy stretching their strategic and logical thinking. For yet others, storytelling games and role playing games and the creativity they foster are right up their alley. There is no “right” or “wrong” answer here – just figure out what sounds interesting to you.
Next, use Meetup to find any active gaming groups near you. You might also want to check the calendar at the local library (because many libraries host game groups and game nights) as well as any local stores that cater to tabletop gaming. Find some kind of connection to those groups, whether through an online resource, a shop employee, or a librarian, and ask about the groups. What kinds of games do they play? Are they open to completely new players?
Generally, I’ve found that storytelling games and role playing games tend to have game nights that are distinct from the other types of games. In most communities (aside from very large ones), the light social gamers and strategic gamers tend to share game nights and overlap with each other more.
All you have to do once you’ve found a potentially promising group is to show up. Introduce yourself to people in the group and explain that you’re completely new to the hobby. You’ll almost always find at least a few people who are enthusiastic and will teach you a game and help you get started. At most game nights, people tend to bring their own games, so you’ll usually find a lot of people who own games and are happy to teach them to newcomers.
As with anything, not every game will click with everyone. Try different groups and different kinds of games and different individual game tiles. You’ll find that with the right group, most games are fun, and with a group that doesn’t click with you, many games aren’t as fun. That’s completely normal. The goal here is to get a feeling for what you like and people you might like to play games with going forward.
There’s really no requirement to own any games at all if you’re a regular member of a game group, though it is considered courteous to eventually start bringing a game or two. Fortunately, board games make great gifts, so just let a potential gift-giver know that you’re getting into this hobby and suggest a few titles that you might like to own. Eventually, this can grow into game nights at your own place with a mix of your game group friends and other friends, too.
The truth is that there are a lot of great hobbies out there that don’t have a steep cost of entry. These are just four of those hobbies; four I happen to be pretty familiar with.
There is no expectation that all of these will click with you, or any of these, though I hope that you’ll try at least one of them out.
The thing to remember is this: the world is full of experiences and hobbies and leisure activities that you’ve probably never even considered, and many of them are basically free to dabble your toes into. Try lots of things and find ones that make your heart sing a little, and then when you’re involved, stick to the experience and not the stuff.
You’ll soon find a more joyous life, and one that doesn’t place a huge burden on your wallet!
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