At the Virtual Stamp Club John Hotchner has an article about how stamp collectors and their collections evolve. At the site collectors weigh in (in the 21st century it seems to me that the phrase should be "log on," but whatever, let's go with the flow) on their own philatelic journeys over the years.
I certainly don't want to put too heavy of a philosophical overlay on this, but the timing of this consideration is great, as the nature of stamp collecting has changed so dramatically over the past decade that those going back to consider their collecting habits can open a real window to the past.
One would imagine that anyone who writes about stamps for About.com is a real stamp nut. I don't consider myself to be that, though my collecting habits have always been on the slightly obsessive side. Maybe mine is similar to your story. If you're new to the hobby you might see a way to go from my story -- or not, depending upon the degree of involvement you desire.
Early Stamp Collecting
There is often something in one's personal life that brings one to consider stamp collecting. It may not be a happy thing, or it may be that there is some hole in one's life. I wanted to collect art, but knew that finances wouldn't allow me to amass a collection of Picassos, Warhols and Dutch Masters, so I scaled down. To my mind a scaled down painting was a stamp. That was the original consideration, which faded to other concerns fairly quickly.
I didn't know what I really wanted to collect, so I began collecting a little of everything, with a special interest in U.S. It quickly became obvious that many classic U.S. stamps, though not with Picasso-like price tags were still pricier than I could handle. So year sets of U.S. going back a decade (that was all there was in the USPS's year set issuing past when I started in the late seventies) were the order of the day. They could be had for a few dollars. Now a year set from the USPS comes in a hardcover book and has a price of $40 and up.
Enter a wise stamp dealer who offered me the important advice that one should buy the older, more expensive stuff first, because it will always go up, while the current stuff will really never appreciate to a point where it is out of reach financially. So I struggled to add classics to my collection, sacrificing dinners out and other pleasantries for a nice Columbian or early airmail stamp.
My spotty collection, with plenty of the blank spaces that frustrate a collector, sometimes to the point of quitting the hobby, lead me to the conclusion that I would never have a noteworthy collection of U.S. - or if I did I would be in my 90's by the time I reached that goal. Many collectors must face the fact that they will have either a collection of monetary importance or personal meaning. My bank account made that choice easy for me. I would put together a collection of stamps and covers related to balloon flights and balloon posts.
Deciding on a Stamp Collecting Specialty
But even that wasn't my first choice as my original plan was to collect zeppelin stamps and covers. Again, like my U.S. collection, I'd started acquiring zeppelin philatelic items. And once again it became clear that this area, with its strong demand, priced me out of putting together an important collection. In my zeppelin pursuits I found that other area of lighter-than-air philately: balloon post. With fewer high ticket items than in the world of zeppelin posts, I threw myself into that collecting area. There was a wealth of available and affordable material, but also authentic rarities like Buffalo Balloon items, a cover from the balloon Jupiter, held by the Smithsonian's National Postal Museum, Ballon Monte from the Siege of Paris in 1870, and modern rarities like Double Eagle flown transatlantic covers. These items indicated to me that the area had the sort of legitimacy I was looking for.
Part II of My Stamp Journey coming soon.