Low-Cost and No-Cost Hobbies

Life in the time of COVID-19.  Honestly, with so many people now forced into free time at home, and with unemployment rates rising by the day, this blog is almost necessary.  It’s good to have a hobby to keep you occupied, anyway. And if you’re trying to pay down debt, you need hobbies that use up a lot of your time and don’t cost much.

Me personally, I’m an introvert anyway, so doing things at home that are relatively inexpensive is a snap for me.  I do like to adventure and create unique memories, but my first love is homebody hobbies.  I grew up with reading and writing as my preferred sources of entertainment, and added baking in my early adulthood.  I only became adventurous in my late twenties. And while I loved and still love to get out into the world and gain new experiences and memories, I’m perfectly happy to sit at home with a book, a video game (Pac-Man is so addictive), to bake, and of course, to write.

If you can spend your non-working hours on a project or a new skill that will eventually earn you money, such as writing a book, starting a blog, inventing a product, or learning Adobe Lightroom, these are way better than hobbies, even if those hobbies are free.  But the truth is, everyone needs to relax from time to time.

If you don’t have a homebody hobby that’s inexpensive, and if you’re working on cutting down debt, now is the time to find one you like.  Everything in this list is either free, has an upfront cost of $100 or less and is then free, or costs up to $25 per month as of Spring 2020.

My Personal Favorites

Reading

Ah, the old standby.  I have always been a lover of books.  Books can be expensive upfront, especially if you’re reading a lot.  But what I’ve learned is that those books sitting on my shelves deserve re-reads.  Plus, asking for books for Christmas and birthdays usually fits neatly into others’ budgets.  An expensive novel is somewhere in the $30 range, and most trade paperbacks can be had for $15 or less.  Failing that, the library is a great resource for free books.

Books aren’t your jam?  What about magazines?  What about geeking out on a topic you love online?  I’m subscribed to National Geographic, which cost me less than $20 for the year and gives me fresh articles on the regular related to nature, science, and geography.  The beauty of the internet is that if you have an interest in a topic, there’s massive amounts of information at your fingertips, for the cost of your monthly internet bill.

Writing

This hobby comes in so many forms.  If you’re into writing technical manuals, you should do that.  There’s a market for it.  Blogging, poetry, novels, and letters to your politicians count too.  I really love journaling myself, in addition to writing for this blog.  Journaling can be a great way to de-stress, to look for patterns in anything in your life, and to build gratitude.  You may decide to write out all of your political and other opinions in a private space, or maybe you want to share them with the world.

I also try to keep up with old fashioned letter writing—the kind using pen and paper.  Plus I’m a post card junkie and love to send out post cards to friends and family when I visit places.  A post card costs anywhere from 50 cents to $1.50 (if it costs more than that you’re being ripped off unless it’s a special material).  A pack of note cards (with envelopes) can cost about $10-15, and it’s an understatement to say that people love to receive mail over a text, e-mail, or Facebook message.  I love sending mail in general and will often create little packages with small presents in them, but in a time of debt, it’s best to stick to letters, note cards, and postcards.

Try to make your letters long to take up more time.  Go for quality over quantity so you’re not spending $20 on stamps in one day.  I try to send out 2-3 letters a month and prefer to hand-write them.  Sometimes I even get creative and draw or doodle on them, dress them up with washi tape, and other things, which provides a creative outlet.  There’s a whole movement out there for snail mailers.  Just ask Pinterest.

Baking

This one can be tough if you don’t tend to keep baking supplies on hand as part of your regular grocery list.  It can be expensive to buy specialty items, but the basics tend to be, well, grocery basics.  You can keep this cost low by sticking to simple recipes with staple baking items rather than going for the exotic, which tend to use expensive ingredients that you may never use again, like crystalized ginger or truffle oil.

Wheat bread, chocolate chip cookies, chewy brownies, and pizza all taste great and don’t require you to locate peppermint oil or buy fancy baking equipment.  I still mix all my doughs by hand and, although I do own an inexpensive hand-mixer (about $25), I don’t own a stand mixer or a bread machine and don’t need to.  The most exotic thing you need to buy is yeast (which is inexpensive).

Language Learning

This doesn’t have to be complicated or expensive.  Yes, you can speed up your learning by buying special apps, hiring a tutor by the hour to talk with you, and buying a half dozen word lists online.  But there are enough free resources out there that you don’t actually need to spend a penny to learn a new language, especially if you happen to live in the U.S. and you’re trying to learn Spanish.  We have a plethora of Spanish speakers in the country to practice with!

I’ve been learning Italian using Radio Lingua’s Coffee Break Italian podcast (free) for the last year and a half, and I’m just about at intermediate level Italian.  I convinced my husband to join me, so I practice with him, but even without being able to practice with him, I wouldn’t have an issue with practicing on my own.  With the internet available, it’s easy to find other free resources to help me, including finding Italian speakers on Facebook to chat with.

I will admit that Kyle got me the Season 1 premium content this past Christmas (about $100 per season), which has helped me grow my vocabulary, but all of the grammatical content is free, and I would be almost as far along without the paid content.  I was already well into Season 2 when he got it for me, so now I’m going back and using the premium content to double check my spelling ability and adding new words to my vocabulary.

Adult Coloring Books

Don’t laugh.  These can cost as little as $3 per book, and with a regular 12 pack of colored pencils and a pencil sharpener, you can have days’ and weeks’ worth of relaxation while keeping your hands busy.  As a bonus, this frees up your mind to listen to a podcast or audio book.

The more intricate the coloring book is, the more time it will take to complete.  Remember to make it a labor of love, and don’t rush through it.  A single page can take me many hours over several days to complete.

Dancing

Personally, I’m a swing dancer.  My husband and I were both Swing dancers before we met, and so now we like to turn on some jazz (or anything in 4:4 time), move the furniture around in the living room, and do a little dancing.  With YouTube at our disposal, we can look up tutorials for new Swing moves online and try some things, or we can just stick with the steps we already know.  It’s a great way to keep moving when you’re stuck at home.

Of course, if Swing isn’t your thing, just having a general dance party in your home with your family can be an excellent way to get exercise, or you can learn a dance of your choice.  Have you always wanted to learn to break dance?  Belly dance?  Dance hip hop?  There are free materials online that can teach you.  And while it’s not as good as having a live teacher to correct you in real time, you can still enjoy the process and learn some things along the way.

Making Music

Whatever your instrument of choice, if you already play, you probably already have an instrument, which makes this a no-brainer.  If you don’t have an instrument or play already, now is a great time to learn.  Choose an instrument that is not that expensive.  Guitar is popular, and for the sake of learning, you don’t need a particularly good one or a fancy one.  Guitars can be had for $100 or less upfront, and there are enough free resources online that you can teach yourself without having to buy a single other thing.  If you really enjoy it and want to progress or get a better instrument later, you can, but for basic learning nothing but the instrument needs to be purchased.

Our family loves to make music.  Everyone owns an instrument, though my husband is the only one who plays well.  He has the talent for music that the rest of us lack.  I have a decent singing voice, so our preferred family music night involves Kyle playing guitar while we all sing together.

If you don’t play anything, just turning on your favorite playlist and singing along is another way to make music at zero cost to you.

Board Games

You might be thinking this can be costly if you’re starting from no games.  And you’re right, it can.  I recommend getting one new boardgame every month to two months until you have a good selection of them.

To start yourself off easy and with a lot of options if you don’t already have a stash of games to play, a regular pack of playing cards gives you a lot of variety for about $3-4.  You don’t even need to buy a rules book—just search for card games online using ordinary decks.  There are so many options—Poker in all its variants (which can be played with change or, like my grandmother taught me to do when I was a kid, candy), Rummy, Spades, Hearts, War, Bullshit, Go Fish . . . there’s something for everyone at any age level.

A $1 pack of dice gets you another spread of games, including Farkle, Stuck in the Mud, and Yahtzee (did you know there are free downloadable Yahtzee score cards online?).  From there, most classic board games shouldn’t cost you more than $20-25.  Once you have ten or twelve games, you have enough variety to keep you entertained for many evenings to come with family or friends.

Podcasts and Audio Books

Ah, listening.  I love listening hobbies because I can do them while I’m doing chores around the house, while I’m going for a walk, or while I’m trying to get in a real workout.

A crazy number of podcasts are available for free.  iTunes, Podcast Addict, and Stitcher are like the equivalent of the internet for your ears.  Anything you might have an interest in can be found via podcast for free.  My husband really loves Hardcore History, a recommendation given to me by one of my coworkers, and as I mentioned earlier, I’ve been learning Italian through a free podcast and coming along really well.

There are podcasts less for learning and more for pleasure too—My Favorite Murder is treasured among true crime enthusiasts, and for myself, I really love Side Hustle School with Chris Guillebeau for a dose of personal business inspiration.  I also geek out on Hostile Work Environment, an HR podcast hosted by lawyers that tells tales of can’t-make-this-up workplace shenanigans that made it to court (and often times, the news).

Audible membership is only $23/month and gives you two credits that can be used on any two books in their store.  After a few months of credits you’ll have a nice library and will be ready for some “re-reads,” if that’s even the right word for it.  I’ve been working on my audio book collection for a few years and have well over 100 titles—weeks and weeks of listening hours available even if I decided to cut my membership today.

Hiking and Walking

These days, the trails might be closed down, but we can still go for walks around the block.  My husband and I do a lot of our financial planning and other planning and decision making while we’re hiking or walking.  Walking, in particular, is both good for you as well as fairly relaxing, and hiking comes in a variety of trail difficulty levels, which means there’s something for everyone out there.  The cost of a hike is only the cost of the gas it takes to get to the trailhead, and maybe an upfront cost of about $20-30 per water bottle for each person in the family, for a very good quality bottle.  If you want a basic bottle, you can spend as little as $10-12 each.

Walks require nothing unless you want to speed walk for more exercise and add in a light pair of hand weights, but otherwise, this pastime is totally free and allows you to get out and explore.  Our family has a default path we take, but we sometimes deviate to switch it up, and when the neighborhood isn’t shut down for COVID-19, we sometimes walk to the nearest Subway and grab lunch or dinner while we’re out.  All you need is your most comfortable pair of walking shoes.

Walking by yourself?  You can use an audio book or a podcast to occupy your brain while you’re out, or you can just let your thoughts drift while you take in the sights around your neighborhood.

Other Low-Cost or No-Cost Hobbies

The list above is already lengthy, but here are some other hobbies or learning interests to take up that cost little to nothing.

Learn to Draw

Free resources abound online, including YouTube step-by-step videos.  You can learn all kinds of different styles of drawing, from realism to cartooning to kawaii.

Teach Yourself Hair and Makeup

Be careful not to go out and spend a ton of money on fancy makeup. 

Practice using the drug store cosmetics you have already, or invest in one or two items a month to expand your collection.

Learn to Compose Music

You can find free printable blank sheet music online.  Free resources are out there to teach music theory.

Use YouTube to Learn to Cook

Just be careful not to go overboard on funky ingredients.  Learn the basics. This is a great substitute for a cooking class.

Take up an Exercise Regimen

There are so many different ways to get in exercise it’s ridiculous.  Whether you’re into HIIT training, yoga, Zumba, or anything else, you can find pre-recorded workout sessions online.  All you need is your body weight and maybe a light pair of hand weights to get started, or maybe a stretch band or a jump rope.

Lawn Games

The outdoors version of board games, these can be purchased one game at a time.  Just be careful—many run close to the $50-75 range, but after the upfront cost of two or three of these, you’ll have many years of fun on weekend afternoons.

Learn to DIY Basic Home Repairs

Did I mention YouTube yet?  The internet is an amazing place.  And if you decide to flip houses later as an investment option, this could come in handy.

Practice Photography

Yes, you could go crazy with a DLSR camera and thousand-dollar lenses, but I’m talking about learning to get the best use out of your phone’s camera.  Learn all the features and play around.  Take thousands of photos.  Play with light.  You will improve with enough instruction and practice.

Learn Card Magic

My husband was into this for a while, and all it takes is a regular deck of cards to get started.

Deep Clean Your House

This is a practical thing, but it’s a good use of anyone’s time, and you’ll feel proud of yourself while also being able to relax in a clean home. As a bonus, you can do this while you listen to podcasts or audio books.

Dust Off an Old Hobby Using Equipment You Already Have

I used to love cake decorating.  If I didn’t have enough hobbies already, I might dust off my piping bags and tips and knock the rust off my skills.  The same thing goes if you’re into woodworking, oil painting, or playing an instrument.

Netflix

I’m not much of a TV watcher myself, but I do have a few favorite shows that I’ll occasionally make an effort to get through.  I hear Netflix is quite inexpensive and quite popular, and all you need is your TV, a snuggle partner, and a bowl of popcorn.

Take Free College Classes Online

Did you know that many universities offer some of their courses online for free (but not for credit)?  Bonus if the classes you choose are useful to setting up your own business, such as business accounting or marketing.

Teach Yourself a Marketable Skill

Like software programming.  Or marketing.  Or website design.  Bonus if you can apply it to your existing job for a raise later.

Origami

Paper planes are about as much as I know in origami, but I hear it’s very rewarding.

Hand Lettering

There are a lot of free resources out there to try out hand-lettering, including practice sheets you can download for free (but paper and ink are on you).

Mini Gardening

A few pots of fresh herbs are useful in the kitchen, and a bright container of flowers is a nice addition to any home.  Tending a mini-garden is inexpensive, and you’ll have learned a new skill for taking care of plants—something I haven’t been able to get the hang of.  A bag of soil, basic clay pots, and some seeds (okay, and the internet’s resources) are all you need to get started.

Keep in Touch with Friends and Family

Aside from letter writing, which I addressed above, making it a point to give your friends and family a call regularly is a great way to stay connected.

Start a Money-Making Project

Blogging, vlogging, Instagram mogul, consulting services—whatever it is, this is the best kind of hobby you can take up, because it will eventually pay you after some effort has gone into it.

A Caveat

Any of these low-cost or no-cost hobbies can end up costing you a lot if you fall into the trap of buying all the specialized things for them.  The most elaborate lawn dice will cost more than a basic plastic set, and exotic mac n cheese made with gouda and brie (is that a thing?) costs more than learning to make basic mac n cheese from scratch.  Magicians will try to sell you their beautiful decks (I know this because my husband has a drawer full of 20 or so pounds of cards from his 6-month magic foray) and fine invisible strings and specialty decks.

If you go too far into these niches, you can easily overspend.  Go the simple route wherever you can.  There is plenty to learn and do using free or low-cost resources over expensive ones, and they’re just as good and tend to stretch further than gimmicky expensive materials. (Do you really need that bright purple lipstick for that one make up look you’ll only nail down once and never wear again?)

Did your preferred hobby make the cut?  What do you do for fun that doesn’t break the bank?  Leave your answers below.



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