Frugality in Practice: Using the Public Library

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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Cat Connor
14 years ago

*sigh* The library. My Great Failing.

I have tried again and again to use the library. I love the place. But alas, I find I only end up renting books. Maybe now that I’m mature enough to handle a checking account and save regularly, I should try again.

Dave Hilling
Dave Hilling
14 years ago

I might add that some libraries will even order books that you recommend. Just provide them the ISBN and tell them what it is, and in many cases, you’ll be the first to get your hands on it.

As far as library fines go, they are pretty trivial ($0.05 per day per book in my area), but you should still watch them. I’ve never had a fine larger than $1.00. As far as videos, you could keep them a week over and it would still be cheaper than renting.

panasianbiz
panasianbiz
14 years ago

I stumbled across your blog while I was doing some online research. As an educator, I love to see libraries being promoted and I hate to hear about people who are too intimidated to use them! Reference librarians, in my experience, are a wonderful group of people, who truly love to help people use the library’s services.

Writer's Coin
Writer's Coin
12 years ago

Well done! I agree with all of this. Now, is a library card more valuable than a college degree?

Stefano
Stefano
12 years ago

The library is a great resource to save money- I use consumer reports buying guides all the time, review finance advice in the latest issue of Money magazine and Kiplingers and check out bike maintenance books to keep my bicycle (primary transportation)running well instead of taking it in for a tune up. I also like their selection of foreign language films. It’s a real treasure!

Tina
Tina
12 years ago

As a librarian, I’m so happy to hear that so many enjoy their local libraries. But remember that many libraries will also(at least try to) borrow books they don’t own from other libraries. So if your library doesn’t own a certain title, ask if they could inter-library loan it for you. It’s often free or at a very small fee.

rich
rich
12 years ago

I’m a librarian and just want to say that it’s always nice to see blog posts like this. Thanks for using your local library!

Michelle
Michelle
12 years ago

Hi JD — I have a question. I can’t find info on museum/garden passes at my local library branch, nor on the website. I use the Multnomah County Library, which seems different from your library. Do you know if they offer it through here as well? 🙂 Thank you!

Lisa
Lisa
12 years ago

Libraries often also have book sales, the local library has a sale each season of discarded library books & books people have donated as well, as all other forms of media from Dvd’s to books on tape. They sell them for $1 for a paper grocery bag full. At last count, I have around 20 cards fro m different libraries.Libraries also have online resources that include ay our local library , all auto repair manuels from cars from 1960’s to now, 1,500 different magazines(online copies) ,homework helpers with online actual live kid tutorinng in all subjects & they used to… Read more »

Dale Dormody
Dale Dormody
12 years ago

I work with libraries across the United States, providing low-cost website solutions. I’d like to share this article with them, and suggest that they re-print it on their websites, so that their patrons can benefit from your suggestions. Would re-printing this on library websites be OK with you? How should they reference or credit you? Thanks..Dale

Maharani
Maharani
10 years ago

I love to read but have some problems with public libraries. First, a lot of them carry huge amounts of junk-thrillers, silly novels, romances. They are great if that is what you like to read. I am a non-fiction reader with specific interests, and like to dig deeply into a subject, and find that the majority of local libraries have poor collections in my areas of interest. I prefer a university library if possible. Even then, I spend a lot of time waiting for stuff on interlibrary loan. I simply dont have time to get on the freeway and drive… Read more »

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