How to have cost-effective fun

post by Kat Woods (katherinesavoie) · 2018-06-30T21:23:58.089Z · EA · GW · Legacy · 23 comments


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

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: 

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 sorted by top scores.

comment by Robert_Wiblin · 2018-07-13T19:16:47.199Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

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 by Jeff_Kaufman · 2018-07-02T19:24:37.748Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

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.

Replies from: devon_fritz
comment by devon_fritz · 2018-07-12T11:12:50.498Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

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.

Replies from: Robert_Wiblin
comment by Robert_Wiblin · 2018-07-13T19:13:41.366Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

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:

comment by Jeff_Kaufman · 2018-07-02T19:20:21.488Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

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: 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.)

Replies from: EvaJane
comment by EvaJane · 2018-07-04T13:17:01.242Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thank for recommendations

comment by Josh Jacobson (joshjacobson) · 2018-07-01T16:58:40.760Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

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.

Replies from: markus_over
comment by markus_over · 2018-07-21T09:16:08.734Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I don't think eating out ranks highly on the "fun per dollar" scale for me personally simply due to the amounts of dollars involved, but still I find it really difficult to imagine a world without me going out for dinner relatively regularly. It may be my most expensive "hobby", but still it seems to provide quite a lot of value. I'm not quite sure why exactly, and if there are less expensive ways to obtain the same gain.

Could you maybe expand a little on the details of why it ranks so highly for you? I'd be interested in a more detailled perspective.

comment by lukefreeman · 2018-07-05T22:48:51.940Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

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 😳

Replies from: David_Moss
comment by David_Moss · 2018-07-06T18:09:08.960Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Fwiw, rent does seem a bit more expensive in Sydney than Vancouver (, 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 by Ro-bot-tens · 2018-07-25T01:55:20.806Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

really appreciated this piece. Especially the parts about defining what one thinks is fun (and how much per unit cost) and mentally orienting yourself to have fun in many ways. Thx for taking the time to write this up. I’m new to this site so appreciate any karma points anyone is willing to send. Thx

comment by nil (eFish) · 2018-07-09T23:11:01.834Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

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 by adamaero · 2018-07-07T03:12:37.254Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

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.)

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

Be free.

comment by Roxanne_Heston · 2018-07-07T00:03:35.060Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

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

comment by kbog · 2018-07-03T03:38:41.590Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

There are so many incredibly fun video games these days.

comment by Andaro · 2018-07-03T01:42:50.495Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

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 by Neil_Dullaghan (Incogneilo18) · 2018-08-02T01:19:56.462Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Great framework!

I was wondering how people calculated "expected fun-hours". I was considering an alternative approach such as considering how many hours of sleep would I trade for one more hour of this activity (of course there may be some point at which hours of sleep given away impedes your ability to do the activity!), or maybe how many more hours of your least favourite activity would you do to gain one extra hour of this "fun" activity.

And as an another example, similar to sharing steam or Netflix accounts I think sharing/borrowing physical items from friends/colleagues is also useful. I've borrowed a friend's mountain bike & surfboard and have lent him my road bike. This may mean that one values the activity without the friend more than some other activity with the friend at a time when they are free.

comment by Jamie_Harris · 2018-07-01T09:14:02.934Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Minor question, but when I tried downloading something from 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!

Replies from: michaelchen, Julia_Wise
comment by michaelchen · 2018-07-02T11:53:00.258Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

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 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 by Julia_Wise · 2018-07-05T14:16:11.415Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

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

comment by Khorton · 2018-06-30T21:40:40.514Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

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

Replies from: katherinesavoie
comment by Kat Woods (katherinesavoie) · 2018-07-01T00:51:48.330Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

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!