Leisure Reflections 38: Economizing: On the Margin between Obligation and Leisure

By Bob Stebbins. University of Calgary

Website (personal): http://soci.ucalgary.ca/profiles/robert-stebbins
Website (Perspective): www.seriousleisure.net

The differences separating disagreeable obligation and leisure would be, you might think, reasonably clear-cut. After all, we like to pursue our leisure activities, whereas we want to avoid the disagreeable requirements in life. This simple explanation would work well were it not for the fact that we sometimes find ways of spicing up the latter thereby reducing its negativeness. We accomplish this in myriad ways while suffering through certain unpleasant obligations: conversing with others while waiting in lengthy queues, reading pleasurable material during seemingly eternal commuter transit rides, and daydreaming (if not sleeping) through boring speeches, to mention a few such occasions and possible adaptations to them. Each of these adaptations is in itself casual leisure, even though we would probably not seek the larger obligatory activity just so that we could converse, read or daydream.

Put otherwise, the disagreeableness of obligations may for some of them be understood in terms of degrees of unpleasantness. So, the long queue turned out not to be so objectionable, because I got into an interesting discussion with the person ahead of me or the speech began to hold my attention, because the speaker began to present more interesting material. In these situations we have some control over their unpleasantness, thanks to our capacity to enliven them with particular leisure opportunities at hand.

Nevertheless, some negative obligations are inescapably disagreeable, among them, passing through airport security, enduring dental work and putting up with unruly spectators at sports events. Moreover, disagreeable obligations potentially sweetened by leisure activities may remain sour, because we lack the resources to change them in this way (e.g., nothing to read, no one to talk to). These observations suggest that the domain of non-work obligation (it exists alongside life’s other two domains, namely, leisure and work, Stebbins, 2012) is destined to be in general an unhappy part of life with, in certain situations, some adventitious antidotes to lessen its pain.

The remainder of this edition of Leisure Reflections bears on economizing. It is a widespread practice in market economies that, it is proposed here, injects leisure into the obligatory aspects of shopping.

Economizing in the Marketplace

When we economize we reduce the cost of a good or service. Economizing is a necessity for people who lack sufficient money to meet their needs and wants, and a source of prestige for all who pride themselves on ‘getting a good deal’ as a result. Furthermore, many people hope to economize on their purchases of goods and services, whether obliged to shop for them or keen to shop for pleasure, as in window shopping. In harmony with this observation shopping in general has been analysed as unpleasant obligation and as leisure (Prus and Dawson, 1991; Bowlby, 1997; Falk and Campbell, 1997; Robinson and Martin, 2008; Stebbins, 2009, chap. 4).

Theoretically, the interest in economizing on purchases in the realm of shopping blurs the line between unpleasant obligation and leisure. At times the economizing is comparatively superficial and spur-of-the-moment, as in a two-for-one sale of boxes of crackers or nights in a hotel. Or, a buyer while window shopping stumbles across an appealing decorative item the price of which is sufficiently reduced to justify its purchase. Or, one reads online or in the local newspaper about a bargain and soon after arranges to buy the advertised good or service.

The purchases discussed in the preceding paragraph may be described as transitory economizing. It can happen during leisure, as in the examples of window shopping and reading online or printed material or happen as momentary leisure during disagreeable routine errands, as in the two-for-one purchase in the supermarket (supermarket shopping is a disagreeable obligation for some people). Compared with the following two types, this transitory type may, with research, be shown to be the most common variety of economizing.

A second type is project economizing. The leisure aspect has been conceptualized as project-based leisure pursued within the context of obligation, albeit an agreeable obligation. Shopping as obligatory leisure is probably relatively rare, but yet, consider the fulfillment some people experience when buying, for example, a new house or automobile. Let us assume that they are at ease with the financial implications of such a purchase and that they have worked up a solid knowledge of the product and its market, carefully searched out the best buy, and realized a good deal, all of which can be deeply rewarding. The purchase was necessary for these shoppers, however, for their old car had been demolished in an accident or their old house sat on land over which a new highway would soon be built. This leisure is most accurately classified as ‘project-based leisure.’ It is short-term, moderately complicated, either one-off or occasional though infrequent, creative undertaking carried out in free time. It requires considerable planning, effort, and sometimes skill or knowledge, but for all that it is neither serious leisure nor intended to develop into such (Stebbins, 2005).

The third type I have dubbed hobbyist economizing. It is a genre of serious leisure cocooned within the activity of shopping as a non-work obligation. In other words, the hobbyist side of such shopping is rewarding and fulfilling even while the larger obligation to go shopping is itself disagreeable. This obligated hobbyist shopper takes considerable interest in discovering ways to save money while looking for and buying needed goods and services. In practice, this includes amassing and studying carefully as wide a selection as possible of the advertising material bearing on the goods and services of interest. This material is found in newspapers and magazines (including inserts), flyers, coupons, television ads, online ads, among other sources. It also includes obtaining advice from analytic sources like Consumer Reports, online customer reviews and specialized reviews such as Motor Trend, Tripadvisor.com (hotels and restaurants), Airlineratings.com, and eRobertParker.com (wine).

Hobbyist economizing further involves assimilating this information. It is well known among sagacious shoppers that some advertised prices are not bargains at all. That is, other brands of the advertised item may be selling more cheaply, the advertised item may be available more cheaply elsewhere (these days often online), the advertised item is of inferior quality, and on and on. Committed hobbyists in this activity keep up with such details, which are subject to change depending on the item in question.

Other aspects of such serious leisure are as practical though much less complex and mentally challenging. For example, Consumer Reports (2014, p. 11) based on data from a survey discussed nine ways that women in the United States try to save when buying groceries. Five of the nine do not involve assimilating information as described above: buying store brands, buying in bulk, planning meals around sale items, buying prepackaged food and buying groceries online. Note, too, that buying store brands and buying in bulk are ways of economizing in other sectors of the market, including hardware, automotives and alcoholic beverages.

The Rewards of Hobbyist Economizing

This is clearly a time consuming hobby for the true devotee. Yet, the rewards are substantial, one of them being for many participants a significant savings in money often, it appears, according to the apothegm: ‘a penny saved is a penny earned’ (attributed to Benjamin Franklin). Then there is also the rewarding sense of having beat, or at least gained some refuge from, ‘the system’. The commercial world of goods and services is believed by economizers to be highly exploitative, and avoiding as much as possible its worst effects is a triumph.

A third reward is the sense of positive identity that flows from having done well, perhaps even as well as possible, in getting the best price and quality for the purchase. This may include successfully using bargaining skills, themselves predicated on a solid knowledge of product quality, availability, strengths, weaknesses, range in prices and similar considerations. ConsumerReports.org (2013) discusses 13 ways to bargain on everyday goods and services. They report from their national survey that, in the past 3 years, 48 percent had tried to negotiate an advantageous deal. That worked at least once for 89 percent of that group, who saw the greatest average monetary savings in furniture, appliances, and medical and dental bills.

A fourth reward for some economizers, comes with adherence to the principles of voluntary simplicity. Duane Elgin (1981), who was heavily influenced by Ghandi, writes that, among other things, it is

a way of living that accepts the responsibility for developing our human potentials, as well as for contributing to the well-being of the world of which we are an inseparable part; a paring back of the superficial aspects of our lives so as to allow more time and energy to develop the heartfelt aspects of our lives.

Paying high prices for prestigious brands of questionable quality runs counter to these ideas. By contrast, engaging in project and hobbyist economizing fits them well, giving weight to the central role that those two forms of leisure can play in this modern social movement (Stebbins, 2007).

Failure to Economize

Some people fail to economize. Their reasons include: little inclination to go in for such a hobby, preference for a particular good or service for non-economic reasons or being too poor to spend much money in the market place. Any serious leisure activity, for it to be even moderately fulfilling, requires significant effort and perseverance to learn how to do it so as to be able to experience it at a rewarding level (Stebbins, 2007/2015). Even for would-be participants who relish the idea of being expert consumers, of being hobbyist or project economizers, some have little time to pursue such an involved interest whereas others lack the drive to pursue it.

What non-economic reasons can inhibit project or hobbyist economizing? One is prestige of ownership, of which conspicuous consumption is a well-known manifestation (Veblen, 1899). Prestigious brands tend to be both highly prized and highly priced, but for all that not necessarily blessed with commensurate quality (e.g., see in Consumer Reports the annual ratings of cars and frequent ratings of appliances). In buying to acquire the prestige of a certain product or service, its extraordinary cost is a popular measure of that honor. Nevertheless, the rich do value quality and good prices, says economist Robert Frank: ‘The rich, of course, are willing to spend more, often a lot more, for products that deliver quality improvements they value. But few of them want to throw money away’ (Frank, 2014). But this attitude suggests at most a degree of project economizing on their part, possibly achieved by perusing some reviews of the product of interest and talking with friends and relatives about it. In general, only the upwardly mobile seem to need to tenaciously seek out bargains on these items, for they may barely have the money for such purchases while wanting very much to authenticate their membership in the level of society to which they aspire.

Additionally, some buyers may think it undignified to collect coupons, haggle over prices and examine meticulously at the store the quality of the merchandise under consideration. Such behavior might suggest to the seller and other customers observing these goings-on that the would-be buyer is desperate or poor. What is more, calling over the seller’s manager in an attempt to outflank the former’s refusal to give in on the price or conditions of warranty might suggest incivility or a do-or-die mentality on the part of the now obviously determined buyer.

There are poor people who seem not to economize in the sense discussed in this article. Some of this group do economize in another sense, however, as by meeting basic needs occasionally or regularly through food banks, thrift stores, shelters for the homeless and so on. Still, this activity cannot be conceived of as leisure, but rather as a set of non-work obligations that when met ensure survival. As for those with a low regular or irregular income, they may undertake some transitory economizing, by collecting coupons, reading regularly ad-laden newspapers or magazines or online advertising, buying in bulk and the like. And surely in the supermarkets and big-box outlets like Walmart, Target and Kmart, they along with many other buyers will ‘snap up’ bargains when available.


Economizing, it has been argued here, is on the margin between disagreeable obligation and leisure. More particularly, the leisure aspect of shopping, where it exists, is conceptualized as being cocooned within the larger general shopping experience. Theoretically, we may say that, for some people who dislike obligatory shopping (obviously this excludes window-shopping), the three types of economizing set out above sugar-coats this otherwise bitter facet of everyday life. I get no sense that economizers seek to economize for its own sake. Rather, they economize as a necessity, which however, turns out to be enjoyable (transitory) or in varying degrees fulfilling (project, hobbyist).

Thus there is always in economizing as leisure a strong purposive element, since such activity facilitates the meeting of a disagreeable obligation. Leisure in general lacks this kind of purposiveness; we engage in free-time pursuits because we want to do them rather than have to do them. Hence the marginality of economizing as a leisure activity: we have to do it even if it is comparatively pleasant and, for some shoppers, even fulfilling.


Bowlby, R. (2003) ‘Commerce and femininity’, in D.B. Clarke, M.A. Doel and K.M.L. Housiaux (eds.), The Consumption Reader, London: Routledge.

Consumer Reports (2014) ‘Grocery savings habits of the American woman’, October.

ConsumerReports.org (2013) ‘Learning how to bargain can reap big bucks’, http://consumerreports.org/cro/magazine/2013/08/how-to-bargain/index.htm, retrieved 22 November 2014.

Elgin, D. (1981) Voluntary Simplicity: Toward a Way of Life that is outwardly Simple, inwardly Rich, New York: William Morrow.

Falk, P. and Campbell, C. (1997) ‘Introduction’, in P. Falk and C. Campbell (eds.), The Shopping Experience, London: Sage.

Frank, R.H. (2014) ‘Conspicuous consumption?  yes, but it’s not crazy’, New York Times, 22 November, online edition.

Prus, R. and Dawson, L. (1991) ‘Shop ‘til you drop: shopping as recreational and laborious activity’, Canadian Journal of Sociology, 16: 145-64.

Robinson, J.P. and Martin, S. (2008) ‘What do happy people do?’ Social Indicators Research, 89: 565-71.

Stebbins, R.A. (2005) ‘Project-based leisure: theoretical neglect of a common use of free time’, Leisure Studies, 24: 1-11.

Stebbins, R.A. (2007) ‘Leisure’s role in voluntary simplicity’, Leisure Studies Association Newsletter, no. 77 (July): 16-20 (also available at www.seriousleisure.net/ Digital Library).

Stebbins, R.A. (2007/2015) Serious Leisure: A Perspective for Our Time, New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction (paperback edition with new Preface, 2015).

Stebbins, R.A. (2009) Leisure and Consumption:  Common Ground, Separate Worlds, New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Stebbins, R.A. (2012) The Idea of Leisure: First Principles, New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.   

Veblen, T. (1899) The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions, New York: Macmillan.

Forthcoming in LSA Newsletter (July 2015): Robert Stebbins’ Leisure Reflections No. 39: On ‘Edutainment as serious hedonism’

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