Spending Money on Hobbies: User? Poser? or Shopper?

Years ago, I told my dad I was planning on buying plans to build a sailboat. My dad – son of a boat builder and maintainer of many a wooden boat – asked the perfect question:

Do you want to BUILD a boat or do you want to sail it?

It was the perfect question because it forced me to think about what was important to me about my then obsessive hobby, how I wanted to spend my limited money and, perhaps more important, where I wanted to put my even more limited time. (It turns out I wanted to sail – I never did build that boat. I did join a sailing club and learned white water kayaking.)

I have been thinking about that a lot recently as I have become more deeply interested in an old hobby of mine – using fountain pens. If you hang out on fountain pen forums (yes, there are many), you’ll find several types of hobbyists. 

  • There are those who are deeply into collecting pens as objects. These people collect purposefully, know the obscure history of pen manufacturers, and can definitively identify a pen and its manufacturer from an out of focus photograph in around 30 seconds.  
  • There are those who like to use pens. I fall in that category. I like the feel of using pens and what it does to my handwriting. There are also people who produce stunning calligraphy or drawings and the functional quality of pens and of inks are important in facilitating or limiting their ability to make art.
  • There are ink lovers. Trust me on this – there are people who obsess about which of 70 different shades of black is the perfect choice. Who swoon over shimmering and sheening inks (those color changing inks they talk about in Harry Potter are real). For them, pens are a medium for spreading color.
  • There are newbies, getting the lay of the land.
  • And then there’s people who buy stuff to buy stuff.

That last group is the one I’m interested in. 

Hobbies are an important aspect of many people’s lives and add interest to our sense of who people are.  This is particularly important for children, who are in the process of developing an identity and who have limited choices in what they do at school.  It can also be an important source of achievement and identify for people who have limited vocational options.  Hobbies can also help clear our minds and give us something other than work to think and fuss over (other than family and kids).  

In any hobby, there are those who have a hobby seemingly just to buy things for.  In fountain pens, they may buy every new pen (shiny!) or have hundred of inks. But in other hobbies, it’s other things. 

  • The person who goes to yoga class seemingly to collect great looking leggings and beautifully coordinated mats.
  • The person with an entire room fully of exercise equipment, a garage full of bicycles, skateboards, and skis, but who never seems to go outside.  
  • The person with 50 cookbooks and a kitchen full of appliances who never seems to turn on a stove.

For some folks this seems to be a form of focused hoarding. Hoarding has important cognitive components. For some people, it is easier to just buy something than decide what you really want and what you can pass by.

For many folks, though, it seems that buying things for a hobby establishes a sense of identity in that hobby – I entertain, I love fountain pens, I am an athlete.  Even if you don’t have time to engage in that hobby, owning the trappings of the hobby allows you to define yourself in that way.  

  • You think about it – and it’s fun to browse the internet and window shop.
  • You read about it.  Let’s face it, every hobby has lots of things to read (hence all the time I spend on fountain pen sites). That’s part of learning about your hobby. With the internet, the more time you spend reading about a topic, the more those ads start to haunt your screen. And it’s so easy to click . . . .
  • There is honestly equipment that any aficionado needs or wants.

I am not critiquing buying or collecting. But I do think it’s worth asking whether the reason you like a particular hobby is that it’s (a) the activity you love, or (b) if what you really like is buying things for it, or (c) you like people thinking that you are that type of hobbyist.  Those motivations tell you different things about yourself.

  • You could be a real enthusiast and buying things is a natural product of what you need to do what you love.
  • It could be that you are using the hobby as a means to an end – establishing a social identity, even if you don’t actually have time to engage in the hobby (I’m the kind of person who skis – see all the ski stuff I own?). That’s interesting from a psychological perspective.  It can be dangerous, however, because it may establish you as ‘the yoga fanatic’ or ‘the banjo player’ to people outside the hobby, but to people who are real practitioners, you may come off as shallow or even a fake.
  • Or it could be that your real hobby is shopping.  In which case, have fun and watch your budget.  

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