According to a report from the Bureau of Labor statistics, the average American spends nearly 5 percent of his income on entertainment. Finding a way to reduce entertainment costs while taking up inexpensive or free hobbies can improve your quality of life — as well as your checking account balance.
Related: 5 Sports You Probably Can't Afford to Let Your Kids Play
1. Television, Movies and Home Media: Cut the Cord
Over the next few years, cable TV bills are expected to rise to an average of $125 a month. That's $1,500 a year — or 3 percent of a $50,000 annual salary. Getting rid of cable would eliminate three-fifths of the average yearly entertainment expenditure.
But who wants to go without television altogether?
Consider cutting the cord. A recent tidal wave of personal-media technology has enabled the cord-cutting movement to burgeon from a disgruntled fringe group to a major bloc of media consumers.
Through streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu Plus — each of which cost about $8 a month — cord cutters can ditch their costly cable subscriptions and still enjoy vast menus of movies and shows. With standalone streaming now being offered by entities such as HBO, CBS and Showtime — channels whose content was previously shackled to a cable subscription — not only can cord cutters buy just the services they want at a tiny fraction of the cost, but they can watch it on any of their devices.
Related: You Only Watch So Many Channels
2. Start Your Own Garden
Gardening is an environmentally friendly, health-conscious hobby that occupies idle time while producing food and drawing the participant closer to nature. According to the National Gardening Association, about one in three households maintains a garden. They can range from tiny plots to massive, for-profit undertakings. When done right, gardening can be fun, rewarding, relatively easy and, best of all, cheap.
Gardening requires a nominal up-front investment of around $70 on average for seeds, nutrient-rich soil, water, protection like wiring, and accessories such as gloves and tools. But the NGA estimates that $70 expenditure can yield a $530 return in the form of money saved on grocery bills. For those who don't want to take the initiative alone, or who want a more social hobby, community gardening demands even less of an investment with the benefit of pooled resources.
3. Start a Blog
Blogging incorporates several of the most productive and beneficial of all the free hobbies — reading, writing, photography and web design — into one. Content management systems — WordPress being the most widely used by far — enable people who possess only rudimentary online skills to create rich, user-friendly web pages and blogs without writing code or knowing HTML. And it's all free.
There are hundreds of millions of blogs; tens of thousands of new sites are created every day on WordPress alone. There are countless strategies to get your blog noticed, but the general rules are to write well, include good images and videos, update frequently, and get involved in online communities by staying active on social media and by reading and sharing other people's blogs.
Tutorials on how to get started — and even blogs about blogging — are easy to find. The most successful blogs can become lucrative sources of income. But even if your blog never pays, blogging is a completely free creative outlet for self expression, learning and making contacts.
The free hobby most likely to improve your quality of life is physical exercise. There is irrefutable evidence that even modest exercise boosts mood, prevents disease, helps regulate body weight, increases energy and provides countless other counterweights to the detriment of a sedentary lifestyle. Research shows a direct correlation between immersion in natural settings and improvement in brain function, problem-solving and creativity.
Hiking combines both.
Hiking can be done in virtually any part of the country, and hikes can range from relaxing to grueling. It requires an investment in good boots (which can be found for under $100) — but little else. Hiking is serious exercise that not only can burn more than 500 calories per session, but also engages natural human movements, meaning that — unlike, say, bicep curls — it replicates athletic activity that is natural to human biology and evolution. There is evidence that hikers are happier and that they heal more quickly.
5. Picking and Canning Fruit
Gathering and preserving fruit is an ancient, zen-promoting activity that comes in handy during gift-giving holidays. You will have to invest in one of the several different kinds of canners that are approved by the National Center for Home Food Preservation. But the upfront-investment will quickly pay for itself in reduced waste.
There are two main types of canning machines, boiling-water canners and pressure canners. The goal of both is to eliminate bacteria and seal out air. But the real hobby is more than just the preservation process. From identifying orchards to picking and sorting fruit, canning — like hiking — has become a hobby, but it was once a matter of survival.
Related: Save Money by Growing Your Own Food
6. Start a Podcast
Like blogging, podcasting is a creative outlet and a way to project ideas. It does require more of an upfront investment than starting a blog, but the basics of how to record and broadcast your own radio show are easy to pick up.
Like blogs did for writers and photographers, podcasts give radio enthusiasts an affordable platform that simply would never have been attainable prior to the internet. Now, anyone can host, record and disseminate their own show without a contract with a radio station or an enormous expenditure on licensing and equipment that would otherwise only been attainable by the very rich.
From their homes and through regular computers, podcasters can broadcast their shows through iTunes, potentially reaching enormous audiences.
Part hobby, part art form, part survival skill, cooking for you and/or your family can keep the refrigerator and freezer full while reducing food bills. There is overwhelming evidence that eating together as a family can strengthen bonds between siblings, parents and children. The Smithsonian Institute estimates that hominids were using controlled fire to cook food as far back as a million years ago.
Like gardening, cooking can be range from an inexpensive, modest affair to a colossal, commercial undertaking. Like any good hobby, cooking is something that can be infinitely varied, expanded upon and improved — but never truly mastered.
Incorporating the basics of carpentry and art into the same hobby, woodworking is a creative outlet that builds functional, real-world skills. From making or refurbishing furniture to building models to scale, woodworking incorporates both brawny activities like sawing and sanding along with detail-oriented precision work.
One of the practical — and economically prudent — aspects of woodworking is that its practitioners can build an impressive array of tools and instruments over a long period of time as they expand upon their collection from one project to the next.
Self gratifying, community nurturing and good for the resume, volunteering costs you nothing and surrounds you with people who share your passions. There are as many non-profit charities as there are causes — and most of them are looking for volunteers.
From animal shelters to blood banks to soup kitchens to environmental cleanup, there are organizations that exist solely to improve social welfare. Committing to one can begin as a passion, turn into a hobby and become a calling.
10. Building Models
From airplanes to cars to dinosaur skeletons, modeling is cheap hobby that hones the skills of concentration and focus. Building models requires — or can help develop — a meticulous nature and eye for the most minute detail.
Modeling is a completely scalable hobby — and virtually every town in the country has a shop dedicated to the art. Modeling kits can be inexpensive and easy to get, or they can be advanced, sophisticated and complicated.
With more than six million participants, this GPS-based, real-world game is the largest continuous treasure hunt the world has ever known. It's a modern hobby for the modern hobbyist — but one that is rapidly expanding. Geocaching enthusiasts use GPS to physically go to specific coordinates, where a "geocache" box awaits.
The amazing story of geocaching began on May 2, 2000, when the "Great Blue Switch" was flipped on, linking 24 satellites, which forever changed GPS technology. But geocachers don't need space-age technology to delve into this bizarre, yet exciting interactive world.
12. Street Magic
Magic isn't magic — it's the learnable skill of illusion. It's easy to pick up, nearly impossible to master and it benefits its practitioners with a skill that is always a hit at parties. Props are cheap (think a deck of cards and a coin) and countless YouTube tutorials make learning free.
Practicing regularly can make you a specialist in a few key tricks. From there, you can expand your repertoire to an entire act. It's hard to get good, but when you do, your talent will be noticed everywhere.
The average American spends thousands on entertainment every year. Technology like streaming video, however, has made doing away with major contributing expenses such as cable bills a real possibility. Turn your passions into hobbies. Whether they're indoors or outdoors, physical or mental, solitary or social, they can almost always cost you next to nothing.