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Birding, burlesque, breadmaking: 10 people on how much they spend on their hobbies

Can you buy your way to happiness? With a hobby, sort of.

Journalist Martha Harbison on a birding excursion.
Camilla Cerea/Audubon
Rebecca Jennings is a senior correspondent covering social platforms and the creator economy. Since joining Vox in 2018, her work has explored the rise of TikTok, internet aesthetics, and the pursuit of money and fame online. You can sign up for her biweekly Vox Culture newsletter here.

“So what do you like to do for fun?” is a perfectly innocuous question I deeply dread, and not just because my response is usually “improv,” which is an incredibly easy thing to make fun of, as it should be.

I think the real reason I dread this question is it reminds me of all the things I could be doing but am not. Is there a universe in which I took up watercolor, or video games, or the thing where you just go on walks and look for new birds but if you don’t find any it’s fine because you had a nice time? What about stamp collecting? Do people still do this? Should someone spearhead the return of stamp collecting as a quasi-ironic hobby among urban millennials?

There are near-infinite possible activities in the world that most people will never get around to. It’s like the fig tree quote from The Bell Jar — there’s only so much time and so much money to spend on things that bring joy, and our job is to choose before it’s too late.

Which is why I’ve always admired people for their hobbies — whether they’ve done them all their lives or are just starting out. It’s not just that a specific hobby can reveal a lot about a person, but that they’ve been able to decide on one at all.

Here’s the thing: Learning how to do something new can get expensive as hell really fast. It’s one thing to decide you want to spend your Tuesday nights learning pole dancing, but it’s another to realize that classes will set you back hundreds of dollars.

But for many, those few hundred dollars a year hold the key to a welcoming community, a sense of purpose, a getaway from work stress, and in some cases, a thriving small business. So I asked 10 people whose hobbies make up a large portion of their lives and identities to tell me about them, with one question in mind: How do you quantify the joy of having a hobby?

The one whose hobby is really trendy right now: plant parenting

Ben Kling, 27, writer
Cost per month: $50 on new plants
Cost per year: $800 for plants, custom planters, and tools
Time per month: 30 minutes watering and pruning every three days, plus three hours for plant runs, 8 hours total
Time per year: 8 hours a month, plus pest intervention, 150 hours total
Cost for a beginner who’s looking to get into it: About $200 for a small jungle of pots, plants, soil, and a can

Origin story: I bought a desk plant at my first job in New York because I thought it would be funny if I ever got fired, to have to leave with a plant in, like, a cardboard printer-paper box. It’s just a funny trope to me, such a pathetic little tableau. And then I did get fired! Or laid off, at least. And I got to live out my dream of being the Obviously Fired Person in the elevator.

Ben Kling with some of his plants.
Caroline Symons

I started building an app that keeps track of plants and tells you when to water each one because it would save me having to do the rounds and get dirt under my nails every few days. Then I realized how useful it would be to beginners, in addition to people with tons of plants, to be guided through it all.

On “being a person who’s really into plants”: It’s funny, in years past I’ve firmly rejected the manic pixie plant boy thing that people have projected onto me. They’ll ask “aw do you sing to your plants???” No, I don’t. I do say things like “what’s going on with you” under my breath, but that’s less than even dog people do.

On what makes it all worth it: Last summer I went on a trip and half my plants died. I had to clear them out and my apartment felt ... just kind of dead? Lonely? They are a presence. There’s something about your brain that knows you’re in company of a sort. It cost me a hundred or so to replace what I’d lost, and I didn’t even question it. The good my plants do for my brain (and allegedly my air quality) is definitely worth — what was it — eight hours and 50 bucks a month?

The one whose hobby is technically illegal: weed

Beca Grimm, 30, journalist
Cost per month: $50-$100
Cost per year: $600-$1200
Time spent: Daily
Cost for a beginner who’s looking to get into it: $25-$100 for a cute pipe, $2 for a lighter, ~$50 for an eighth, and $10 for a burrito

Beca smoking.
Beca Grimm

Origin story: I started smoking weed when I was 15. I got into it the usual way: I was a bored teen in suburbia and saw the opportunity to try.

On the biggest barriers to getting into weed: Laws, for sure! Even with sweeping legislation, thousands of people remain incarcerated — especially people of color. That is terrifying, and if that doesn’t bother you, you shouldn’t get to smoke weed. If it does bother you, do something about it, like donate money to a nonprofit working for cannabis- and drug-related clemency. (There’s a bunch, but CAN-DO is a good one to familiarize yourself with, for starters.)

That aside! There’s this stereotype of the know-it-all stoner who uses words like “terpenes” and “trichomes” in order to make others feel othered — not in an effort to educate. Fuck those people! Most good folks I know into cannabis are just psyched someone new wants to join or learn more.

On what makes a cannabis habit worth the money and potential criminal record: Eh, I don’t really think about it! I think of cannabis as a lifestyle enhancement, the same way some would treat a really fancy craft beer now and then or a basic mani/pedi. My life wouldn’t be dramatically worse without it, but I do prefer keeping some handy.

The one who uses her hobby for altruism: baking

Dayna Evans, 31, freelance writer
Cost per month: $20-$30 for baking supplies
Cost per year: $250 tops
Time per month: 16-20 hours
Time per year: 200 hours
Cost for a beginner who’s looking to get into it: $100-$200 for a combo cooker, banneton, lame, parchment paper, and scale, $100-plus for a proofer, $20 for baking ingredients

Origin story: I got into making bread last January. There was some motivation to do it more frequently because friends were asking if they could buy it. So I launched a side business called Permanent Bake Sale. Once a week, I make between four and eight loaves of bread (depending on the amount of time I have outside of my actual job!), and I sell them on my Instagram stories to the people who respond first. I keep 15 percent of the money to pay for flour and then the remaining 85 percent I donate to one charity at the end of the month.

Dayna baking bread.
Emily Sundberg

On the most challenging parts: Making bread is simultaneously the simplest and most challenging pastime. It’s simple in ingredients — flour, salt, water, and starter if you’re working with naturally leavened breads — but complex in the number and variety of ways you can mess it up.

But in a way, that’s why I love it. Bread is bread, after all, and even if you mess it up a lot, it’s still likely to taste extremely good.

On her baking goals: There are 1,000 different breads I’d like to make (specifically injera so I can eat it every day), and 1,000 different skills I’d like to learn. Now that I get to bake bread while also giving back to causes that I really care about, every time that a loaf comes out of the oven, it feels like I’m winning twice.

On what makes it all worth it: Cooking and baking are the two things that keep me sane. Baking bread is so methodical and simple and repetitive that it feels like meditation to me. But it’s also creative, not just in the literal meaning of the word but in the fact that you physically bring something into creation. It’s a wonderful feeling to feed people around you with the food that you made.

The one whose hobby is a fuck you to capitalism: sewing

Nozlee Samadzadeh, 30, senior full stack engineer
Cost per month: $50 for 3 yards of fabric
Cost per year: $500-$1000 depending on fabric used
Time per month: 20-40 hours
Garments made per year: ~12
Cost for a beginner who’s looking to get into it: $200-$300, depending on whether you need a sewing machine

Origin story: My grandmother and aunt worked as seamstresses their whole careers, so I’ve been sewing ever since I can remember. Right before I started college it clicked that I could sew whole outfits myself inspired by the world I saw online, instead of limited by what I could find at the mall in Oklahoma, and no one could stop me! Fast forward about 12 years, and these days I’ve sewn a good 95 percent of the dresses, shirts, and coats that I wear. I feel weird when I’m not wearing any of my own clothes!

Nozlee in one of her designs.
Jarrett Moran

On the value of making her own clothes: Being a person who sews means that I exist outside of capitalism, trends, and society’s ideas about the size of my body. It means I get to look like me all the time, because I have the power to make the stuff in my head come to life.

On viewing sewing as an art: “Serious amateurism” is really important to me! I have zero interest in turning my beloved, treasured hobby into a side hustle outside of the very rare pro bono project. (I sewed a friend’s wedding dress, and I love sewing for my partner.)

On what makes it all worth it: Sewing is this incredibly peaceful form of physical labor that involves all the challenging problem solving of my day job as a programmer with the spatial reasoning of putting together a puzzle and the steady satisfaction of making something with your own two hands out of an idea if you had in your own brain. What’s not to love?

The one whose hobby also makes a good excuse to go on vacation: cycling

Ryan Sutton, 39, chief food critic at Eater NY
Cost per year: Strava membership $60/year, Zwift membership $120 year, full bike tune-up and cleaning, $175 once a year plus new parts. Citibike membership at $169/year, $300 on vacation bike rentals, $904 per year total
Time per week: Seven hours
Cost for a beginner who’s looking to get into it: ~$650 for a new road bike, $150 for clip-in shoes

Origin story: I didn’t really get into serious cycling for exercise or competition until about four years ago. Briefly, I needed a new sport because short track speed skating was too tough on my arthritis, and I also became super sad after a breakup with this human I was dating and needed something I could do for like 3-4 hours at a time to forget about life for a bit.

On a surprising benefit of cycling: I go on at least once cycling vacation a year now in the summer, usually to the South of France where there are tons of beautiful mountains to ride within riding (or train) distance of Nice. Incidentally you’d be surprised how much money you’ll save going on cycling vacations instead of visiting tons of destination restaurants or whatever throughout the day and night.

On what makes it all worth it: Cycling has helped me see parts of the world I never thought I’d get to — small towns in France, the Canary Islands, the verdant and altitudinous outskirts of Bogota! And since my specialty is climbing — there’s nothing better than that burn in your thighs — cycling is pretty good summer training for my true love, skiing.

The one who turned her childhood extracurricular into an adult hobby: orchestra

Nikita Richardson, 28, journalist
Cost per year: $350
Time per month: 16-30 hours depending on rehearsals
Time per year: 2 hours per week September-June
Cost for a beginner who’s looking to get into it: $100-$500 for a decent violin, $30-$80/hour for violin lessons (Nikita’s orchestra requires about five years of lessons and practice)

Nikita with her violin.
Nikita Richardson

Origin story: I started playing the violin when I was 11 through my middle school in Marietta, Georgia. In 2015, I started looking for new hobbies to fill my time because I kind of realized that having friends and hanging out with them wasn’t a hobby! I came across the Brooklyn Conservatory Community Orchestra in a Google search and auditioned and joined in September 2015. I had to relearn certain notations and clean up bad habits I developed as a young violinist. But you never forget how to read music. That part came to me easily.

On the joy of being part of a community: It’s hard to even describe how much community orchestra changed my life. I’ve made new friends from all walks of life (the average age of people in the orchestra is probably about 40), and it’s a truly unique interest of mine. No one else I know does something like this, and I love inviting my friends and family to my concerts to see this other side of me.

On what makes it all worth it: The greatest value I place in it is that it’s something that has nothing to do with my job. I love being a journalist, but I don’t want to think about it all the time. So, for two hours every Tuesday night, I completely focus on music. It’s like therapy.

The one whose hobby is way harder than it looks: birding

Martha Harbison, 45, journalist
Cost per month: $60 for gas, pizza, and beer
Cost per year: ~$2000 for birding trips
Time per month: 10-40 hours
Time per year: 500 hours
Cost for a beginner who’s looking to get into it: $30 for a field guide, $70 for good budget binoculars

Origin story: My parents are birders, so I grew up driving through wildlife refuges and looking at a lot of duck butts.

Martha on a birding trip.
Camilla Cerea/Audubon

On the birding community: We are legion. Each city or geographic area in the U.S. will probably have a bird club or Audubon chapter — frequently both. In NYC alone, we have the Linnean Society, the Feminist Bird Club, NYC Audubon, Brooklyn Bird Club. And online, there are listservs, Facebook groups, WhatsApp groups, Twitter accounts, and the entire eBird community. I have interacted or engaged with them all.

This past June, I collaborated with NYC Audubon to lead an inclusive bird walk in Central Park to celebrate Pride month, and I swear that was one of the most positive experiences I’ve ever had birding.

Why birding is more challenging than one might assume: Beyond costs, it’s hard to learn new ways of watching and seeing things, and birds are small and they move quickly and many of the ones we see in the Northeast look the same to an untrained eye.

And yes, I struggled. I still struggle! But for me, the struggle is part of the enjoyment, because it means I’m learning something new. If it was easy, I’d get bored.

On what makes it all worth it: Birding has helped me through some very bad periods of my life — a respite, a distraction, an excuse to get outside for a walk when I didn’t really want to. It’s an opportunity to spend time with my parents, to build new experiences and memories with them. My dad died last year, so these days I just bird with my mom. And, finally, there’s the pizza.

The one with the really expensive hobby: CrossFit

Jake, 28, retail buyer
Cost per month: $1,260
Cost per year: $15,120
Time per month: 56 hours
Time per year: 616 hours
Cost for a beginner who’s looking to get into it: $200 per month

Origin story: I first got into CrossFit about four years ago to lose weight. The big draw was to hold myself accountable to live a healthier lifestyle. The class setting forces you to work harder compared to working out on your own in a traditional gym setting.

On the CrossFit community: Getting into any gym setting is intimidating. There are always going to be “bros.” I am not a social person and interacting within the CrossFit setting made me more comfortable. People are there to push you, not beat you.

On the idea of being a guy who does CrossFit: I hope that being a CrossFit person doesn’t define me, but I believe CrossFitters put in hard work to see results and are comfortable pushing themselves to an uncomfortable place. For me it’s a fun thing to do. One day I would like to be confident enough to do local competitions. I am not a “games” athlete but better than your average affiliate member.

On what makes it all worth it: Ultimately, it is a stress reliever, which allows me to be more present in my life outside the gym. I am happier when I leave CrossFit!

The one with the ~sexy~ hobby: burlesque

Annemarie Dooling, 34, product manager
Cost per month: ~$200, depending on classes
Cost per year: $300 for classes, $50-$300 for costumes
Time per month: 25 hours
Time per year: depends on show acceptances and costume design
Cost for a beginner who’s looking to get into it: $25 for an intro class at the New York School of Burlesque

Origin story: At my old job at Racked we interviewed a dancer named Gin Minsky who was able to mix performing into her life in such a cool way that it inspired me to sign up for one class for my birthday. I’m naturally pretty timid and silly, and so trying to be sexy is totally out of my comfort zone and seemed like a fun experiment.

Annemarie in her burlesque costume.
Trixie Delight

On the untold work that goes into acts: I still struggle with creating acts. It’s a long process akin to writing an investigative reporting piece, or a play or a book. You set up your main character, do the research, write out a story that has acts. There are times during the process where I feel like I have no idea what I’m doing and I should just stop, but I’ve learned this is a common feeling.

On what makes it all worth it: It’s really nice to have a place to go to get away from the newsroom and be silly and have fun and be creative. No one looks like what you imagine when you close your eyes and think of burlesque dancers, at least in the local community. There are performers of all sizes, shapes, ages, gender identities, and ethnicities. Everyone that I have met is trying to create something outside of their day job that gives them a little bit of joy.

The one who turned her hobby into a successful side hustle: ceramics

Marian Bull, 30, food & travel editor at GQ
Cost per month: $300 studio rental fee, $300+ for materials
Cost per year: $7,000
Time per month: 60 hours
Time per year: 30 days
Cost for a beginner who’s looking to get into it: $300 for a 7-week class in NYC

Origin story: I think in the back of my mind I’d always been curious about it. But a few years ago, my therapist at the time basically told me that I needed to have something in my life that was not directly related to my job, so I asked for a ceramics class for Christmas from my parents, and started taking classes in March of 2016.

Marian with her ceramics.
Hallie Bateman

On making her hobby a side hustle: I started selling via Instagram DM, maybe a year after my first class, because people started asking if they could buy things. I also secretly have a business degree, and one thing I really love is learning about a whole new business model — the margins, the ways that I can make my processes more efficient, the revenue streams, etc. but I’m pretty bad at not monetizing my hobbies: My last hobby was cooking, and then I became a food writer.

On the surprising parts of running her business: I definitely thought I’d start to resent it, and I don’t. It’s pretty rare that I’m at the studio and I’m like, “I don’t want to be here.”

One thing that’s wild is that selling a lot of mugs is not at all a lucrative business. A mug takes me an hour to make, sometimes a little more or less; you can’t really sell a basic mug for more than 50 bucks, maybe more if you’re a well known “cool” ceramicist or if the design is really complex. And if you’re selling it wholesale, you only get 50 percent of that — so if I sell a mug wholesale, I’m only profiting maybe $17 for an hour of work. Which makes it necessary to, you know, diversify your product offerings with higher-margin items. I know that’s a little inside baseball, but I’d be pricing my mugs at $60 or $65 if i could.

On why it’s all worth it: Oh, I just fucking love it. I mean, sometimes it’s Level 2 fun — you know, not fun-fun while you’re doing it, because maybe you’re rushing to finish things or worried something won’t come out right, but fun after the fact. But when I get home at night from the studio, I almost always lay in bed and go through everything I got done that night, and it both calms me down and is an easy way for me to feel proud of what I’ve accomplished in a couple of hours. And sometimes it is just regular fun. Throwing new shapes on the wheel is a blast, plotting things out, collaborating with other people — I get a lot of joy from all those things.

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