Dear Lifehacker, I'm really interested in trying out some new hobbies like electronics hacking, but I'm not sure if it's worth the cost to get into it. Is there a way I can try out a hobby without totally emptying my wallet? Sincerely, Hopeless Hobbyist
Dear HH, We'll certainly agree that a lot of hobbies are incredibly expensive, and they're intimidating and hard to get into because of that. Electronics hacking in particular seems like an expensive place to start. That said, depending on what you want to do, you might have more options than you think. Here are a few ways to try out hobbies cheap without diving in headfirst with your wallet.
Check Out Magazines and Websites to See What You're In For
You won't find a shortage of hobbyist magazines and websites out there. Any library or bookstore will have thousands of magazines to choose from, and you can easily use this to your advantage when you're trying to break into something new.
First off, magazines can give you a really good overview of what a hobby is actually like. They'll include ideas, projects, experiences, and give you plenty of food for thought about whether it's something you're really interested in.
Also, as odd as it might seem, the advertisements are also really helpful. They can give you a really quick overview of what types of prices you can expect to see if you decide to jump into the hobby, and the sort of gear you'll need. It's not an end-all solution, but magazines and websites are a great place to start to see if your interest is piqued. In the example of electronics hacking, sites like Adafruit, Make, Instructables and of course Lifehacker are all great places to start looking for low-cost projects to get you started.
Rent or Borrow What You Can for Your First Trial
Obviously, the cheapest way to go about checking out a new hobby is to borrow some equipment from a friend. Chances are, you know someone out there who has a guitar, a soldering iron, a circular saw or whatever else you're looking for laying around.
Even if you don't have friends that are into the hobby you want to check out, you're not totally out of luck for free options. If you can find a tool-lending library in your area you can borrow tools for free. For electronics stuff, hackerspaces are a fantastic resource for tools and instruction.
If not, renting equipment is always an option, especially for outdoor hobbies and sports. Some outdoors stores will allow you to rent everything from tennis rackets to backpacks. Even software is getting on the rental train. For instance, if you're interested in learning Photoshop, it doesn't make sense to spend hundreds of dollars out of the gate, but you can check it out for a month for much less to see what you think. "Rent before you buy" is an old adage, but it's still applicable when you're trying out something new.
Take Cheap Classes to See If You Actually Like It
Even if you're not interested in taking a lot of classes over time, going to a class when you're testing out hobbies is one of the easiest ways to gauge whether it's worth your time and money. The reason is simple: they almost always provide you with the tools you need.
Classes are pretty easy to find through a Google search, but you can also search for hobby classes on Yelp or Eventbrite. In a lot of cases, the first class you take is free, and it'll give you a decent enough idea of whether you'd like to pursue the hobby or not.
Again, for something like electronics, woodworking or programming, hackerspaces are a great option and you can find one near you through Hackerspaces.org. Classes are often free, and you can also find hackathons and other events that welcome newcomers so you can see how it all works.
Hit Up Experts to See the Minimum Amount of Equipment You Need
So, you've decided that it's time to actually get into the hobby you want, but you still don't have that much money to blow. It's not a big deal, because you'll find enough experts out there that can help you put together the tools you need for cheap.
For this, you'll usually need to dig into forums to see what people recommend. For electronics, sites like the Arduino.cc forums and Adafruit forums are great places to pitch people for help. For your example, for electronics you'll need a soldering iron and a multimeter, but you don't need to buy every single microcontroller available. For your example, blogger Kenneth Finnegan has a great electronics starter kit guide, and over on Tested, Mythbuster Adam Savage runs through some of his most essential tools for beginners.
If you're going to just try something out, pick an activity or project, and get just the supplies you need for that. You'll find a forum for just about any hobby you can imagine, you just have to look for it. You don't need to go overboard and get everything. Sure, this might mean you'll be running to the store frantically for future projects, but at least you cut down your early expenses considerably.
It's OK to Start Cheap and Upgrade Later
You do not need a $4000 guitar for your first one, you don't need the complete run of Spider-Man to start reading it, and you probably don't need a $500 rain jacket if you're going camping for the first time in November. It's really easy to look at a new hobby and only see the best gear out there, but when you're first starting out it's all about figuring out what your intentions really are.
For most hobbies, you don't need to dive in headfirst and buy the best (or even the midline stuff in some cases). Provided safety isn't a concern (if you plan on bungee jumping, then a good cable is probably a must), you can almost always start out with a starter kit or a cheap knock-off brand. For your example, a good soldering iron like this can make your life considerably easier, but when you're first starting out a cheap one like this is enough to get you going. Once you decide you're really into it, you can upgrade as needed, and you'll have a better idea of what you really want out of that expensive equipment anyway.
That's pretty much it. The main lesson is that you don't need a lot of startup cash to get into a hobby. You have plenty of cheap ways to go about it when you need to, and doing so will prevent you from wasting money in the long run.