Updated on 09.16.14

How to Build an Inexpensive Hobby

Trent Hamm

As any regular reader of Google-X knows, I love to read. It’s a hobby that relaxes me, encourages me to think, and doesn’t cost very much to participate in, and it’s one I’ve enjoyed as far back as I can remember. I can scarcely leave my house without a book in tow and I’m far more content when business traveling to curl up in my hotel room with a book than to hit the town.
I find that a hobby that’s financially frugal is a great way to reduce spending and leave yourself not feeling bored, ever.

I’m a busy person, though. How do I find time for such a time consuming hobby? The biggest key is to focus on a very small number of key interests, and devote real time to them. For me, those hobbies start and end with writing, reading, and a limited amount of games. Simply put, I put aside time for reading. I have a block of time each day, roughly an hour, where I simply do nothing but read.

I usually read in the most comfortable place in the house. Leaned back on the incredibly comfortable couch in the basement with a big, cool beverage (and perhaps a small snack) at arm’s length. I feel very comfortable and happy here, with my immediate needs covered well. I can just let go of things – my seat is comfortable, my thirst and hunger needs are taken care of – and just sink into a book.

I tend to choose a mix of materials to read, from deep, involving books and complicated essays to light and simple fare. I’ll follow a treatise on systematic theology with a Terry Pratchett novel and not skip a beat. One makes me grow, the other makes me laugh. By mixing stuff up and not burying myself in “boring” items, I keep reading exciting and lively. In fact, I believe this is one of the big reasons people get turned off from reading – they get their face rubbed in something that’s really, really pushing their comfort level until they get so frustrated that they hate reading.

I also often take notes on what I read. About half the time, these notes wind up forming the core of a book review on Google-X. Basically, if I own the book, I’ll just jot down (in the margins) any thought of interest to me, and I’ll underline key points. Then, when I’m done, I’ll go back through and hit all of those points again in one sitting. Usually, this brings a book together for me. Even better, those notes are often a great place to start a blog post, if you’re a blogger (or thinking about starting one).

I also find that setting reading goals makes things more fun. A few years ago, I made it my goal to read every Charles Dickens novel. I’ve also read every single biography of Teddy Roosevelt I’ve been able to find (he’s probably the closest thing I have to a role model). I’m about to systematically start reading every Pulitzer Prize winning novel in reverse chronological order, even re-reading the ones I’ve already read. I follow these goals diligently, but not exclusively – I’ll throw all sorts of stuff in the middle to liven things up and lighten the mood. The success in reaching such a goal, though, is tremendous.

Because of these goals, I find it very easy to bargain hunt. If I know I’m going to read all of the novels of Charles Dickens, for example, I can turn to services like PaperBackSwap and the library to get most of them very cheaply. Suddenly, I have a lot of books to read – and it didn’t cost me much at all.

Here’s the game plan for a busy person if you want to start a reading hobby – or want to develop any hobby:

7 Tips to Start a Frugal Hobby

1. Set aside time

Find a block of time that you can set aside each day (or with any intense regularity), and set it aside exclusively to follow your hobby.

2. Make it portable and easily accessible

As best you can, make it so that you can take some aspect of the hobby with you wherever you go. If you like puzzle games and are trying to build lateral thinking skills, get a Nintendo DS or a pocket puzzle book. If you’re learning the harmonica, keep it in your pocket.

3. Do it where you’re most comfortable

I find that during my regular readings, I get much more into it (and feel much happier afterwards) if I do it in a comfortable place. Sometimes this isn’t possible, but if you can plan to practice your hobby in a place where you feel happiest and most comfortable, the hobby will feel happier and more comfortable, too.

4. Mix guilty pleasure with challenge

You might be tempted to dive into some of the most challenging pieces of your hobby right off the bat. Don’t. Mix the challenging stuff with the pure fun stuff. When I was learning to play the banjo, I’d play “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” over and over again and get incredibly frustrated. Instead, I found it went much better if I played the challenging piece for a while and when I felt the frustration really kicking in, I’d back off and play something easier that I really enjoyed, like “Yankee Doodle.” Do the same with any hobby and you won’t grow alienated from it.

5. Focus on bargains in your specific area

Once you’ve defined a specific hobby and are actively following it, you’ll find your entertainment spending naturally goes down. Even better, you can kick the bargain hunting into high gear – it’s much easier to find a bargain when you know exactly what you’re looking for and it’s in a niche area.

6. Take notes – perhaps even start a blog

Keep a record of your progress – what you like, what you hate, what you learned, and how it made you feel. This seems silly for some things, but it’s not – in fact, it’s a way of really savoring those good experiences, both now when you record them and later when you look back on them. One great way to do this is to start a simple blog about it, sharing your experiences with others.

7. Set goals

Maybe you want to learn a song. Maybe you want to be able to solve a simple sudoku puzzle in five minutes. When I was a kid, I tried really hard to learn how to solve a Rubik’s Cube puzzle in under a minute. If you enjoy the process, the sweetness of achieving a goal becomes just that much better – it’s a milestone and a sure sign that you’re becoming more than just a mere novice.

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  1. My biggest challenge is finding the time to set aside. With three kids in the house, I find my most productive time may be either very late at night or very early in the morning.

    I’ve also found that sneaking in 15 minutes here or there, so long as I can take notes, can also be very productive.

    Without note taking, I probably retain only about 5%. With note taking, it goes much, much higher.

  2. guinness416 says:

    I don’t know. I can see how this might work for exercise or learnign a language or so forth, but I’m not feeling these tips with regard to books. I’m an enormous reader, and always have been so perhaps that’s where we differ, but some of these tips make it sound almost like a chore to me – “I will force myself to be a reader”. There are whole months where the only reading I can do is on the subway, or the only reading I do is schlock fiction, but that’s okay, I don’t take myself too seriously. The cult of productivity is starting to burn me out on money blogs; whatever improves your quality of life is fantastic and more power to you, but things like reading just don’t mesh with scheduling and goals for me personally.

  3. tarits says:

    Reading for me is like coming close to a black hole: I am totally sucked in. So if I have other things to do, like work or study for grad school,I must avoid nonwork/school related books at all costs.

    But when I do have the time, I can happily spend a week reading. Since I speed read, that’s usually 4-5 pocketbooks or 2 “serious” / non-fiction books a day.

  4. Erich says:

    Thanks Trent, great stuff. This really applies to other hobbies besides reading too. One of my hobbies is photography. I go the digital route because I just can’t afford film adn developing costs. It sounds like an expensive hobby but it really isnt.

    First, when I thought I may be interested in it, I borrowed friend’s cameras, to get a feel for the activity, find out if it was worth it for me, etc before I bought anything. As it turned out, it is something I really enjoy.

    So I bought a used digital SLR, and the lenses. Even used it was quite a bit of cash outlay, but I went high quality. This is something I usually do, because I’d rather not deal with something breaking, or not working quite right, or whatever.

    Anyway, since this initial investment, I’ve spent maybe $100 on my hobby, for a new battery, a profesionally sensor cleaning, etc. Other than that, Ive had the camera for a year, and used it quite heavily. Almost all of Trent’s above advice applies to this activity, merely by substituting “photographing” for “reading”. The rest applies to, with some simple modifications.

    In the meantime, my entertainment budget has never run out. I have to much fun taking the pictures to need to do other stuff that costs money. In the last year I’ve “saved” as much as the camera equipment cost by not spending it on other forms of entertainment. This year my entertainment budget has been reduced quite a bit, knowing I will be just as happy finding stuf to photograph. (and so I can save up for a new lens :) ).

    I guess my point is that people should be careful when considering hobbies int terms of thier budget. Sometimes a bit of up front expense is worth it for this as well. It’s very much like the energy saving washing machine example Trent likes to bring up from time to time, just applied to fun.

    Anyway, I hope I didn’t come across as trying to counter what Trent said above, I’m trying to provide a supplimental anecdote for this.

  5. Beth says:

    I love to read too – I like to read before I go to sleep, because it calms me down and stops my brain buzzing. I love when I can get really sucked in to a good book :) I tend to only read fiction though – since I’m still in school I read enough educations things that when I have the choice of what to read I tend to pick fantasy, thriller or romance.

  6. Frugal Dad says:

    Trent, you inspired me to start my own 52 books in 52 weeks project this year. I read about an hour a day while perched on a recumbant bike at the gym immediately after work. I have found it relaxing, and a way to clear my head of the work cobwebs still hanging around. As a side benefit, the hour of spinning burns a few calories as well. Now if I could just find some cheap noise-canceling headphones to block out the obnoxious gym music I would be all set!

  7. Karen Gibson says:

    I never thought of my reading as a hobby, more like an obsession for which I have yet to find a 12-Step Program! I tend to read a book through once first, then go back a second time to take notes if it is something I am trying to gather information from. I prefer my first read through to be like a big delicious gulp of chocolate, consumed to be enjoyed, not dissected.

  8. I think I’m reading mainly textbooks (bricks) or other information dense books. Sadly such are often not available from libraries and thus I use amazon (I practically always buy books used) as my go to library. This can cost a serious buck in the long run :(

  9. LisaB says:

    Great post!

    I’ve been a reader since I was a child and I thank my mother for that – no matter what I absolutely *had* to read at home. I had a library membership soon after I learned to read. A note to parents: the best way to encourage your kids to read is to let them see you reading.
    One of my long-term goals is to develop a personal library. I am a broke grad student so sometimes it’s hard to fight the temptation to sell books back for the ca$h, but I’ve done well so far.
    I’m also trying to develop a list of books to read, along the lines of the 100 greatest books (of all time). Any ideas on how to get started with the list?

  10. Funny, something must be in the air. I just wrote about this today—how reading can stimulate you to come up with good blog topics.

  11. Yuppie Sherpa says:

    If I may, I’d like to recommend reading in bookstores, if for no other reason than to meet other people. I met more interesting characters in the 9 months I spent working in a local bookstore after college than in any other job I’ve had before or since then. Avoid the cafe food though :)

  12. Steve says:

    I have a very expensive hobby. I enjoy playing golf. I round of golf usually runs up to $25. If I go to the driving range that cost $8.

    Does anyone have any good tips???

    ~Steve “the cheap one”

  13. Laura says:

    guiness- I agree that sometimes the only way to go is a “candy” novel, whatever your favorite genre. For me it’s nearly always historical fiction, although historical non-fiction can be just as interesting.

    A lot of people talk of building their own library of “great” books. While this can be a wonderful collection and a perfect supplement to a regular library or bookswapping, it’s critical to only retain those books that meet your standards- ones you’ll be compelled to read again and again. Otherwise you’re just accruing more stuff that others could be enjoying.

  14. Michael says:


    I suggest you learn Greek and Latin. Greek and Roman poetry should top any “great” list of books, and poetry translated is not great. You should start soon since it could take years.

  15. Michael says:

    If a round of golf costs you $25, you are doing well. The public courses here are at least $50.

  16. Elizabeth says:

    You also play the banjo?! You really are my hero.

    You don’t talk about it much, but IF you can keep yourself from the temptation of spending a lot on instruments, playing music is a hugely rewarding frugal hobby. My husband and I spend hours every week playing and singing together.

  17. rocketc says:

    I used to be a huge reader. . .then grad school burned me out.

    You have inspired me to take it up again.

  18. Stephan F- says:

    I too read very quickly and the funny thing is that the hardest things for us to find are good books. Finding good books to read is a challenge.
    LisaB- If you google classic books you’ll get plenty of lists.
    Since this is a money blog you might want to try the big money thinkers: Adam Smith, Karl Marx, Ludwig von Mises, Maynard Keyes,
    For books that changed the world, try the various religious texts.
    For some lighter fair, JRR Tolkien, HG Wells, OS Card, I Asimov, A McCaffery

  19. Anna says:

    When I feel a spending spree coming on, I head for the public library instead and load up on books. Makes me feel as though I’m being extravagent, and it doesn’t cost a thing.

  20. Anna says:

    Spelling correction:


    Comment slipped its leash and got away too soon. Apologies.

  21. Candice says:

    Regarding golf expenses, there are discounts on the green at odd hours and leagues that provide a discount. For the driving range, I buy a coupon that covers ten large buckets of balls, and usually hit only one-quarter to one-half of a bucket at a time. The buckets are huge.

    I always buy my stuff on sale.

  22. tarits says:

    my other hobby, which fits the frugal criteria better, is singing. actually, it’s more of a ministry since i sing with a church choir. but for 6 hours each Sunday, i enjoy time with my friends, free voice lessons (our conductor is a music teacher by profession),the opportunity to de-stress by screaming at the top of your lungs, and free dinner.

    another hobby is sleeping. yes, it’s a hobby since with my schedule, it has become a luxury. arg.

  23. Henry Bemis says:

    Edward R. Hamilton. Source of all your quality dirt cheap book needs. http://edwardrhamilton.com . You’ll thank me later.


  24. Phil A says:

    Reading is an excellent hobby but so is watching movies rented from Blockbuster.com or Netflix.

  25. Sarah says:

    Trent – just in case you haven’t already read it, I highly recommend Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchet. Hilarious with some really interesting social/religious commentary. Also, along that same vein, the Douglas Adams Hitchhiker’s Guide books are wonderful.

  26. Kat says:

    Why do you not use your library? Your hobby could free by using the library. Why waste the money purchasing all those books, however cheap they might be when you have a library?
    If you really enjoy the book and honestly will reread it again and again, then I can see purchasing it, but honestly most books are read only once.

  27. kell@confessionsofachocolatelife says:

    I would say the key thing to making time for your hobby is cut out unnecessary activities. For me, this is TV. Blech, I hate it. I usually only watch it to spend some time with my partner, who watches way too much of it. So, I have slowly been cutting back, replacing it with more fruitful items, like meditation and piano practice. But the question remains, how to spend time with your partner and also fit in the things you want to do?

  28. Lauri says:

    Reading is a way of life for me and I’ve definitely become a more frugal reader — using the library and paperbackswap only the last year.

    My newest frugal hobby is disc golf. For those with a course nearby, it can’t be beat. No greens fees at all, and once you get a small bag and a few discs (cheap ones run from $7-10 and you only need a few) that’s it! I play every waking hour I can while there is daylight. I pack in snacks and bring water I filter at home (Brita).

    The only cost I have is an occasional tournament ($15-20 in fees, gas to get there), and $6 a week for my league (and sometimes I win that and more back!). Outdoors, cheap to free, and I’ve made so many great friends.

  29. Wonko Beeblebrox says:

    I have found that this is a great place to buy used books at reasonable prices; they are normally originally from public libraries, so they are often not very giftable- but cheap for you to buy…


    Normally I’ll read a given book from my local library first, and then if I really like it, I’ll head to that website to see if I can get a cheap copy for myself…

  30. Deirdre says:

    Anna, my kids and I agree. Moving near to a great public library helped wean them off the “mommy will you buy me this?” disease. Coming home with a big basket of library books is as big a treat as any shopping spree. They pick out a bunch, and I also try to get some that they wouldn’t necessarily have picked up on their own — especially picture books (photos, art, etc.) from the grown-up section.

    Of course I love the library too.

  31. Laura H. says:

    Many are not comfortable with underlining and making notes in books, and sometimes, one is borrowing books from a library or friend, or intends to resell them, and it becomes inconsiderate or undesirable to mark them up. In this case, knock-off brand Post-It notes are a Godsend— you can buy in bulk and even color-code them to the type of observations one is making, and unlike pencil notes, you can mark your pages with them and flip back and forth.

    If you are feeling that this is extravagent, businesses often offer them as promotional items, particularly in the healthcare industry.

    I would never have gotten through Hegel without Post-Its; they are invaluable if you are studying German philosophers. Likewise, starting a new craft from a book where the basics are covered in the beginning chapters and projects are offered near the end became far smoother for me.

  32. Monica says:

    You make reading sound like work!

    For me reading is so much a part of my life that I couldn’t possibly quit if I tried. I do not have to make time for reading — it’s the other stuff I have to make time for! I read on the bus, I read on the subway, I read in the doctor’s waiting room, I read while I eat my sandwich in the lunch room at work, I read before I turn the lights out at night, I read when my husband pauses the DVD to take a bathroom break. And of course I read in large chunks of time, comfortably curled up in an afghan. I reread favourite books, I read classic children’s book, I read how-to books, I read 19th century novels, I read the Bible and books on Christian spirituality, I read books about World War II, I read books about the education system, I read books about shipwrecked people, I read books about peak oil, I read books about the history of fashion, I read books about the problem of evil.

    And it’s all free! If the library doesn’t have the books I want, I make a suggestion for purchase, or if they’re old and out of print I get them through interlibrary loan.

  33. Colleen Costello says:

    I tried to get “Your Life as Art” (recommended by a comment on this site) and my library did not have it. They offered to get it, however, saying they would probably own it within a month. Wow — I was pretty pleased. Now, not only will I get to enjoy it, but others will too.

    I love our local library and feel blessed to live close to it.

  34. Tim@wiseuncleben.com says:

    One tip for the avid reader who uses Firefox:

    Install Book Burro from http://bookburro.org/.

    Once you complete the simple configuration, it will automatically check your local library through WorldCat and check the prices at about a dozen online bookshops including used copies! This add-on is such a time and money saver.

  35. Wamu says:

    Reading, unfortunately, is no different from watching TV. As the main post described, he is comfortable in his chair, with a big drink in one hand, and a snack close by. You can easily imagine him being in front of a television.

    Unless you are reading to educate yourself related to your goals (retirement,how to do something, to invest, etc) then you are merely ‘watching TV.’

    An occasional movie or book is fun, but making reading a hobby is poor suggestion. Its sedentary, limits what you do (try multitasking while you are reading), and doesnt add much to your life if not related to your goals.

    A better suggestion is a hobby that has tangible results, i.e. gets you closer to your goals, whether it be to be more fit, make more money, or have better relationships. Sitting reading a book so often that it becomes a hobby isnt prudent use of your time.

  36. Monica says:

    Wamu – Reading is “no different from watching TV”? Reading “doesn’t add much to your life if not related to your goals”? Good grief! Who says we’re talking Harlequin romances here?! Reading Augustine’s Confessions, The Canterbury Tales, wartime diaries, books on Idi Amin’s Uganda, Evelyn Underhill’s books on mysticism, Jane Austen, The Hiding Place, etc. has added a lot of my life and was a very different experience than watching TV.

  37. Daisy says:

    I have to agree with Monica. Reading is a totally different experience.

    I’ve been reading avidly since I was 3, and I have to say it changed my life completely. Many of my opinions, ideas, goals, and even skills — I learned graphic design, programming, and knitting from books — came from my reading. If nothing else, it got me to think more.

    My only regret is that there is no public library anywhere near me. The nearest one is a plane ride away, LOL. This usually means I borrow books from people, or spend money if I really want to read one. I find keeping a fund just for books helps though.

  38. A says:

    I second Trent’s use of Paperbackswap.com. I have been a member (it’s free) for 11 months and I LOVE it. I am a huge reader and always have been, typically plowing through 5 or more books a month.

    Unfortunately, after I moved to Utah I discovered the county I live in doesn’t have a county wide library system (silly me, I didn’t think to research this before buying my house because I had never heard of this kind of whacked out system before). Instead, if you live in a town where a library isn’t located (like me) you have to BUY A MEMBERSHIP to EACH library in order to use it. Memberships are for 1 year and cost between $60 and $80. So I would pay a minimum of $60 to use ONE library (and no trade system between the libraries either)! No way, jose!

    I have received over 40 books from paperbackswap in the past 11 months with 26 on my wait list. I have saved a ton of money!

  39. Harshad Bahl says:

    I like to read books.I have only recently discovered that reading is a very good hobby.Could anybody recommend which books I should read?Are books of Danielle Steel,Ayn Ryand,Frederick Forsyth,Jeffery Archer good to read?

  40. Cameron says:

    One of my favorite book series is all of the 400+ star wars novels, I take them everywhere and have read about 20 so far. Reading is a good hobby.

  41. Nielle Mccammon says:

    another GREAT website for swapping DVDs, books and music is Swaptree.com

    I’ve gotten 3 movies I really wanted in exchange for CDs and other movies I didn’t want anymore!

  42. I loved this piece. I have found that there is time for everything we want to do in our day, as long as we carve it out on our calendars. I have my reading time in the evening. I also have time to work on my website, and time to knit. All of this is after my more-than-full-time job as COO for a non-profit. Sometimes all of these pieces of my live smush together as I read books about knitting, and teach knitting classes to the homeless people with mental illness that we serve at work. Live life… and do everything that you love… read, read, read.

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