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How to have cost-effective fun

My husband Joey and I run a nonprofit, and we pay ourselves what we would make if the world’s wealth was entirely equally distributed. Often when people hear this they think that we live like austere monks, eating nothing but rice and beans, drinking only water, and working until we drop from exhaustion. However, we actually live a very comfortable lifestyle. I think one reason for this is that we have thought strategically about how to have fun on a budget. We’ve learned a lot from this experience and in this blog post I’ll explain more about how we do a lot with a little. 

I hope that those who are interested can use this as a guide, thus freeing their money for more donations or taking a lower nonprofit salary. Of course, this is not a universal guide, and some people might not be in a position to do this (see more here). This is just for people who want to have a more frugal lifestyle and still enjoy their weekends. 

I’ll start off by explaining the broad principles of maximizing fun per dollar with limited resources, then I’ll give some concrete examples.

The principles of maximizing fun-per-dollar with limited resources

First of all, break down your interests. “Fun” is too broad of a term. There are many different sorts, and some people prefer some more than others. For example, you might be an extrovert, at which point figuring out ways to have fun that are social will be more important than if you’re an introvert. Common goals people want their fun to fulfill are novelty, socializing, being in a different environment, being outdoors, gaining mastery, physical pleasure, and relaxing. 

Once you’ve identified your interests, brainstorm ways to achieve them. Ideally, make a spreadsheet with a row for each idea, and add as many rows as you can. If you spend less than 30 minutes working on this, you’re doing it wrong. Often the best ideas will come after you’ve been stumped for 5 minutes straight. Keep going. Set a timer. 

Then do the most EA thing ever - write up expected costs in one column and expected fun-hours in another column. Make a fourth column explaining how many hours of fun you get per dollar, and sort by that. Et voila! You now have massive nerd points and you’ll be having more cost-effective fun than ever. 

The systematic nature of this method isn’t its only important feature; another is the fact that it forces you to be creative and think about your more fundamental goals. Often people default to the status quo way to achieve their ends, and this leads to massive inefficiencies. For instance, if somebody has a yearning for a pet, they’ll often just go and adopt one. However, there are alternative options that get a lot of the same benefit for less cost, both time- and money-wise. You could foster pets, which, while free, is also helping cause more happiness in the world (if a dog isn’t a utility monster, I don’t know what is). You could ask your neighbors if they’d be interested in free dog-walking. You could volunteer at a local pet shelter. In short, creativity isn’t just for artists. It makes almost every other area of your life better. 

A side note - remember to maximize your different interests separately. If you only figure out good fun-per-dollar activities for vegging out, you’ll often start getting niggling feelings of boredom and meaninglessness. Make sure to take care of novelty and other drives as well. 

The second broad principle is to lower your big costs and not worry about the small ones. When I go grocery shopping I do not pay much attention to price. However, when I was looking for a place to rent, I was patient and looked for a good deal. At the moment I live in the most expensive city in Canada, and yet my rent is very reasonable due to this one-time restraint and strategicness. Another big cost is a car. If at all possible, choose a place to live with good public transit and live close to a hub. Metros are particularly good for getting places faster. Likewise, live close to your work. This minimizes transit costs and also leads to the third principle: minimize time spent on drudgery.

You can spend money on pursuing fun, but an equally good way to make your life more enjoyable is to pay to avoid boredom and pain. For example, pay for grocery delivery. It saves you a ton of time, and unless you enjoy the process of shopping, it will free up your time for much more enjoyable activities. 

Concrete examples

So, those are the broad principles. Let’s get into some concrete examples: 

  • Use Groupon to maximize novelty. Groupon is a godsend for the frugal fun maximizer. Check out local things in your area that you’d be keen on. In the past I’ve gone to a cat cafe, a blind restaurant where everything was pitch black and all the servers were blind, a sensory deprivation tank, and a VR arcade. Each were things I might have done on a holiday overseas, but with Groupon I was able to do them locally for a fraction of the cost.
  • Go on local vacations. People often default to travelling far away to get their novelty kicks. However, often there are local places that serve the same purpose for much cheaper and less environmental damage. For example, there’s a resort within one hour of Vancouver that has all of the atmosphere of being at a tropical resort, but for a fraction of the travel and living costs. There are probably such areas around most major cities. 
  • Take initiative with friends. Often people say that they can’t do things for cheap because their friends are always going out and doing expensive things. You can help mitigate this by being the person who organizes hangouts. If you’re the one who takes initiative, you have more effective say over what’s done, such as drinking at home or watching a movie on a projector. A hidden benefit is that you’ll also find it easier to maintain friendships and socialize more, instead of just passively waiting to be invited to things. 
  • Get a car co-op. Even if you live close to public transit or your work, there will often be times that you need a car. Many car co-ops have systems where you only pay when you use the car, so are surprisingly cost-effective if you only use them only occasionally.
  • Get Netflix from friends. This one is so well known I won’t go into it. 
  • Share your friends’ Steam accounts. If you play video games, ask your friends to share you on their Steam accounts. This can get you a large supply of entertainment for free with the small cost of not being able to play when they’re online.
  • Get games on Humble Bundle. Another gaming hack is get games from Humble Bundle. They bundle a new set of games once a week and you can make all of the money go to AMF, so it doesn’t even count as entertainment spending. Just make sure to check the settings to make sure that the money actually goes to AMF instead of a different charity or the developers. They let you choose the amount that goes to each.
  • Don’t drink out. Drink at home. Invite people over and have some drinks. Everybody will save money, it’s a more comfortable environment, and you’ll still have lots of fun. You can even feel more comfortable talking about controversial topics without worrying about offending nearby listeners.
  • Buy cheap alcohol. It’s been established again and again that people can’t tell the difference between cheap and fancy alcohol. It’s mostly signalling. Take advantage of this and buy cheap liquor. Vodka and sugar-free pops are cheap, easy, minimize chance of hangover, and limit calorie intake compared to many alternatives. 
  • Don’t buy books. Use the library and the internet. Check out libgen.io or your local library. 
  • Get a projector instead of going to the movie theater. If you’re a big movie goer and like experiencing film on the big screen, invest in a projector. That way you can invite friends over for movie nights and save money over the long run. 
  • Organize a friendly sports day. A lot of people in elementary and high school played sports at lunch or as part of a team. People often fall out of it as adults, but there’s no reason to. Get some friends together and arrange a weekly soccer or other sporting event on an empty field. It costs nothing, is lots of fun, is physically active, and it’s social. It maximizes a lot of things all at once. 
  • Don’t eat out. Eating out is terrible on the fun-per-dollar scale. Save that money for something better. Cook at home, but, in keeping with minimizing drudgery, if you don’t like cooking, don’t spend too much time on it. Bulk make things that can be frozen and reheated later (like pakoras, veggie burgers, veggie pies, burritos, etc). Look for recipes that are easy. Lots of people, especially vegans, make the mistake of learning two or three really fancy recipes to impress a date, but that take hours to make. If a recipe requires you to make your own cashew milk, ignore it! Just buy some soy milk or cashew milk, or find an easier recipe. 

I’m going to end on a more advanced note that can’t be summarized well in point form. One of the most powerful, but also most difficult, ways to have fun cost-effectively is to expand the number of things you find enjoyable. I do this with meditation and gratitude, but I’ve heard of people having success with CBT as well. 

Happiness comes from external and internal factors, and if you can control the internal factors, this costs no money and can last a lifetime. However, it’s tricky and subtle and I’ve seen some people have far more success with it than others. I’ll give it my best go here though within the limitations of a blog post. 

Meditation has a lot of evidence in its favor, and in my own personal experience (I’ve been tracking my happiness and habits for over four years now), has made an enormous difference. Meditating first thing in the morning makes you more resilient to potential stressors throughout the day, and can change your baseline of happiness, such that, if nothing in particular is happening, you are at a higher level than you would be without it. I highly recommend accompanying your practice with reading or classes. Since meditation is fundamentally hard to teach (you can’t see what’s going on in somebody’s brain and correct it as a teacher), play around with different teaching resources. Some might click with you way better than others. I recommend Joy on Demand (written by a programmer and Google employee, so more rationality focused) and The Mind Illuminated (much more technical and straightforward compared to more woo-y alternatives). However, your mileage may vary. Play around with it. 

Gratitude, or, more broadly, savoring, is another very potent method to enjoy more things. I say a gratitude list before bed every night after brushing my teeth, to chain together habits. I also finish my meditation each morning by listing 3 things I appreciate about my job. Additionally, it can help to, instead of comparing yourself to people who are doing better than you, compare yourself to those who are worse off. When I think about the global poor and how their lives compare to mine, I feel extremely lucky and wealthy, and a great side benefit is I feel more motivated about my job at the same time. I often feel richer than friends earning ten times my income feel.

Cognitive behavioral therapy can also be a great tool, especially for getting rid of more negative thoughts. You can also proactively practice re-framing events in ways that make you enjoy them more. 

I’ll finish with a more philosophical approach to frugal fun. Far from feeling limited by my income, I have found, like many others, that practicing minimalism makes me feel free. I feel that since what I need to feel happy is so small, I can do anything I want. If I wanted to work on a very controversial charity idea, I would only need to fundraise a small amount. If anything goes wrong in my life financially, it doesn’t take much to rebuild. A lot of anxiety is relieved when you don’t need much. Living simply doesn’t mean living austerely. It can mean living more purposefully and with greater peace. 

Comments (19)

Comment author: Robert_Wiblin 13 July 2018 07:16:47PM 1 point [-]

The unifying insight behind many of the examples is that what many people including me really enjoy is spending time with friends. A lot of expensive activities - like going out for drinks and food or weekends away - are 80% about getting to socialise, which can be done at much lower cost if you want.

Comment author: eFish 09 July 2018 11:11:01PM 0 points [-]

I would recommend to not consume alcohol at all. (In my experience, a total abstinence is much easier than trying to not exceed a small limit.)

Comment author: adamaero  (EA Profile) 07 July 2018 03:12:37AM *  0 points [-]

Vipassana meditation retreats are all over the world, and they are free. The catch? You need to attend the full ten days the first time to learn the technique. (You can always leave early, but you will only learn part of the technique.)

dhamma.org/en-US/maps#001

Also, prayer is a meditation technique. In Buddhism/dharma, we call it metta.

Be free.

Comment author: Roxanne_Heston  (EA Profile) 07 July 2018 12:03:35AM 1 point [-]

For people looking to get into CBT, Spencer Greenberg and co. are developing an app to walk people through it: https://www.uplift.us/

Comment author: lukefreeman  (EA Profile) 05 July 2018 10:48:51PM 2 points [-]

Thanks for sharing!

The consistent item on my budget that I find we struggle to keep low is eating out, largely because that's the only way we see a lot of people (close friends and family). I wrote about this in my blog post when I limited my food to <$2 a day for a month, food is social and that's a tough thing.

Also, I read your other post about setting your salary based on world's average GDP and was shocked to see rent that low – rent is at minimum 5x that much in Sydney 😳

Comment author: DavidMoss 06 July 2018 06:09:08PM 2 points [-]

Fwiw, rent does seem a bit more expensive in Sydney than Vancouver (https://www.numbeo.com/cost-of-living/compare_cities.jsp?country1=Canada&city1=Vancouver&country2=Australia&city2=Sydney), though only by about 27%, so still in the same ballpark. It looks pretty similar comparing on Craigslist too (I'm also a Vancouverite). I acknowledge you'd need to pay substantially more than 220USD per person, if you weren't splitting costs with a partner or room-mate.

Comment author: kbog  (EA Profile) 03 July 2018 03:38:41AM 1 point [-]

There are so many incredibly fun video games these days.

Comment author: Andaro 03 July 2018 01:42:50AM 1 point [-]

Read free stories online. The biggest cost is the effort to find the best 10% among all existing free stories. But those are very much worth reading and you can spend countless hours quite entertained, effectively free of cost.

Comment author: Jeff_Kaufman 02 July 2018 07:24:37PM 4 points [-]

The recommendations for sharing others Netflix/Steam accounts and downloading books from LibGen seem like they're in a different category from the rest of the stuff here. There's an enormous debate on piracy out there, but I wanted to flag this.

Comment author: devon_fritz 12 July 2018 11:12:50AM 0 points [-]

I was going to say the same thing. I found the majority of the advice to be good, but don't agree with pirating things to save money.

Comment author: Robert_Wiblin 13 July 2018 07:13:41PM 2 points [-]

Interestingly, the folks at Netflix and HBO don't seem to mind people sharing accounts:

""We love people sharing Netflix," CEO Reed Hastings said Wednesday at the Consumer Electronics Show here in Las Vegas. "That's a positive thing, not a negative thing.""

Presumably because i) it makes more people subscribe because they get more value for money by sharing, and ii) eventually people get their own accounts if they like it.

More comments on what the various services think about password sharing here: https://www.thesimpledollar.com/is-it-ok-to-share-your-netflix-account-the-lowdown-on-log-in-sharing-at-nine-popular-services/

Comment author: Jeff_Kaufman 02 July 2018 07:20:21PM 6 points [-]

Other things in this direction I've enjoyed:

  • Learn how to fix things, especially expensive things. Working on your own house can save an enormous amount relative to hiring someone.
  • When thinking about hobbies, prioritize ones that don't have large consumable costs
  • Social dances (I like contra dance: trycontra.com) are really cheap for how much enjoyment I get out of them
  • Many events will let you in free if you volunteer to help. I've taken money at the door for an hour at many dances in exchange for admission, and it's a great way to meet people.
  • Get good enough at a hobby that it makes you some money (for me, playing music for dances)
  • Learn how to cook: if you get to where it's fun then it's not housework anymore
  • Get excited about optimizing things (for me, recently: house cooling without AC, bulk groceries)
  • If you have kids, figure out how to get things done while also watching them. Bring them to the grocery store, cook with them, etc. It's fine if it takes a lot longer that it would if you did the thing without the kids, because the time is coming out of childwatching-time and not childcare-time
  • Learning how to make the components of your hobbies instead of buying them can be a lot of fun, and can allow much more creativity later as you understand more about the things you're working with.

A lot of this depends on what you enjoy, what you're good at, and what your situation is. A lot of people would find many things on my list not fun at all and probably actively unpleasant.

(On the other hand, I think EA has generally overemphasized frugality. If spending more on transit, or buying food instead of making it, or getting a better internet connection, etc means you have more productive hours on valuable work that can easily be worth it even if it means spending more than your 'share' of world income.)

Comment author: EvaJane 04 July 2018 01:17:01PM 1 point [-]

Thank for recommendations

Comment author: joshjacobson  (EA Profile) 01 July 2018 04:58:40PM 3 points [-]

I appreciate this. A lot of smart ideas.

I know this isn't meant to be universal, but just a note that for me, eating out is one of the best activities on the fun-per-dollar scale.

Comment author: Jamie_Harris 01 July 2018 09:14:02AM 0 points [-]

Minor question, but when I tried downloading something from libgen.io my internet browser blocked it and didn't give me any obvious options for allowing the download. I'm not exactly techy and so this sort of thing scares me - how confident are you that I can download things off the site without giving my laptop viruses etc?

If people use other sites to access free books I'd also be keen to know!

Comment author: Julia_Wise  (EA Profile) 05 July 2018 02:16:11PM 0 points [-]

I get ebooks and audiobooks through my library's online system. https://www.hoopladigital.com/ is the one our library uses, but check your library's site for which one is local to you.

Comment author: michaelchen 02 July 2018 11:53:00AM 2 points [-]

As long as you use a good adblocker (such as uBlock Origin) to get rid of any sketchy ads, I'm fairly confident that the site is pretty safe. If you're unsure if the file you downloaded is safe, you can upload it to virustotal.com. If you're using Chrome and that's what's blocking the download, apparently you can go to your downloads list and click "Recover malicious file."

Comment author: Khorton 30 June 2018 09:40:40PM *  0 points [-]

This system seems to assume that all fun activities give you the same amount of fun. Is that what you mean?

Comment author: ea247 01 July 2018 12:51:48AM 4 points [-]

Fair point. I actually generally try to model it as points (out of ten) happier per hour, but I didn't want to go into tons of detail in the post. I definitely think you could make a much more complex model of maximizing fun than I do. Especially if you find that sort of activity fun!