Most of us have financial blindspots. One of mine is books. I love books. I have a large library that grows larger all the time.

When I first embarked upon my quest for frugality, I began tracking every penny I spent. I was shocked to learn how much I spent on my book habit. In the past eighteen months, I’ve cut my book expenditures in half, and I’d like to trim them even further.

One way I save on books is by frequenting the public library. Now that I’ve learned how to use it, it’s an important part of my life. Here are a few of the things the library offers:

  • Books — New releases, out-of-print, hard-to-find, specialty, personal finance, graphic novels, classics, science fiction, home maintenance and repair, history, self-help, and more.
  • MagazinesLibraries are a good source for popular magazines. University libraries often carry esoteric titles, as well.
  • Music — My music budget has been slashed nearly to zero since I began borrowing CDs from the public library. (You won’t find most new releases, however.)
  • Movies — The library isn’t as overwhelming as a video store, but you can find many classic titles as well as recent popular films. And the kids section is always great.
  • Audiobooks — I’ve been listening to audiobooks for a couple of years, and most of them have come from the library.
  • College Lectures — Many libraries carry lectures from the Teaching Company or similar organizations. These are fantastic ways to learn about new subjects.
  • Storytime — Kids love storytime. And it’s a great way to introduce them to the wonders of the library, to instill a life-long love of learning.
  • Cultural Passes — My local branch has a check-out system for passes to the zoo, to the art museum, to the Japanese Gardens, and a score of other institutions.
  • Internet Access — Not everyone can afford a computer with internet access. The public library allows you to get online for free.

One branch near me even carries comic books!

The library can seem overwhelming at first. There’s a lot there. Here are some tips to make the public library work for you:

  • Learn to use the on-line interface. This is key. Most modern public libraries have a web-based utility that will let you search their holdings, reserve books, check due dates, and much more. Learn to use this and your library turns into your own personal (and free) on-line bookstore.
  • Learn the hours of your local branch. It can be frustrating to drop by the library to find it closed. (I walked up my library twice on different Mondays before I realized that it was only open Tuesday through Saturday.)
  • Make it part of a routine. My library branch is on the path between home and office, so I often stop by after work. At our old house, the library was near the grocery store, so I would try to combine errands.
  • Have a designated space for library materials. It’s easy — especially if you have children — to lose track of everything you’ve borrowed. Create a space at home — I use an empty shelf — that acts as your library holding area. You’ll be glad you did.
  • Make time to browse your branch. Each library is different, and you might be surprised at the holdings in yours. When we moved to our new home, I spent an afternoon browsing through the stacks at the local library. I was pleased to discover an extensive section on local history, complete with a hand-compiled book of reminiscences form old-timers.
  • Discover what services are offered. Most libraries offer storytime for children. But did you know that many offer book groups for adults? My local branch allows patrons to borrow passes to cultural centers like the art museum and the zoo. A nearby branch has an extensive used book store with dirt-cheap prices.

Nearly all the personal finance books I’ve read over the past eighteen months have been borrowed from the library. I’ve saved a fortune by borrowing photography books instead of buying them.

Here’s a typical way I use the library: I hear about a book called Self-Made Man, which sounds intriguing. I go to my library’s web site and search for the title. From the detail listing, I see that there are nine copies in the system. Unfortunately there are fifteen holds, but that often happens with a new book. I can wait. I click “request copy” and that’s it. I’ve saved $24.95 and don’t have to worry about buyer’s remorse if the book is lousy. The library sends me an e-mail when the book is ready. Every Friday afternoon on the way home from work, I pick up new books and drop off old ones. This system is awesome — give it a try at your local library.

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