CHICAGO -- New hobbies and exercise regimens may broaden your horizons or shrink your waistline, but they also can break the bank if you're not careful.
Before your well-meaning ambition drives you to shell out hundreds of dollars for sports gear, a new musical instrument or a closet full of craft supplies, stop and take a proverbial breath. You may be able to save big by test-driving your new pastime with rentals, workshops and other shortcuts.
Here are seven tips.
1. Take it slow: The biggest cost saver may be the simplest. Ease in one supply at a time. And upgrade as you go.
"You don't move into your dream house when you move out of your parents' house," said Deborah Moebes, owner of Whipstitch Fabrics in Atlanta, who teaches sewing classes. "You move into the dorm, and then you move into the apartment and you move into your starter home. You work up to it."
2. Talk to the experts: Before diving into a new hobby, investigate what's involved. Search the Web. Browse a bookstore or library. Get a sense of why people you know like the activity and what it costs. Runners need good sneakers, while projects like woodworking may require lots of space for supplies like saws and chisels and stains, as well as sizable investments of time and money.
3. Take a class: It's increasingly common for studios, stores and gyms to offer introductory classes and clinics where newbies can try their hand. Some last only an hour and are free while others can go for weeks with price tags to match. But almost all let you learn new skills and build confidence under the watchful eye of an instructor, and many provide materials.
At Chicago's Old Town School of Folk Music, for instance, in-
structors offer no-commitment workshops where students can try out an instrument for a few hours.
It's a chance to get a sense of how to play, say, a banjo and whether it's worth renting one and committing the funds to sign up for a series of classes.
4. Make a list: Whether you're getting advice from an instructor, a clerk in a sporting goods store or a crafty acquaintance, ask for help compiling three lists: items you can't do without, supplies that would be nice to have and things you might want to splurge on later.
At Home Depot, customers who attend any of six hands-on workshops held each month in each store leave with a list of what they need to complete a project.
"We don't want to overwhelm or confuse anybody," said Ken Rye, the home improvement chain's marketing manager of workshops. Lots of other stores and schools offer similar classes.
5. Buy a kit: Vince Parker, the director of training and customer service at Hobby Lobby, an Oklahoma City-based chain that stocks everything from model rocket kits to origami supplies, recommends starting out with a beginner's kit of what you'll need for one project. Then you can assess whether you're interested in expanding your supplies and launching into the next activity.
Beware, though, as kits sometimes cost more than buying items individually.
6. Rent the gear: If you need big machinery, check for local hardware stores and heavy-equipment companies that rent tools and specialized machines. You can rent everything from a pressure washer to gardening equipment and tools for laying tiles. Some towns even have tool-lending libraries.
Many music shops will let you rent instruments for a nominal fee, too.
7. Seek deals: Whether you're looking for something as cheap as embroidery hoops or as expensive as an exercise treadmill, remember you rarely need to pay full price.
Time your purchase to coincide with sales, and always look for coupons, browse newspaper classifieds and check websites for gently used or refurbished gear.
If that doesn't work, try hunting for a swap event (or organize one yourself) where you and your friends can trade unused supplies.