How to Turn $500 into $7 the Hard Way

Back in our young and foolish days, Kris and I bought an encyclopedia set from a door-to-door salesman. This was in 1995, at the very cusp of the digital age. We had been on the internet for about a year, but we had no way to know that one day very soon the World Wide Web might make printed encyclopedias obsolete.

So we bought an encyclopedia set. Naturally I charged the $500 to my credit card.

We used the encyclopedia for several years. Then in 1999 we discovered Google. The leather-bound volumes began to gather dust.

Even so, when we moved to a new house in 2004, we took the books with us. We installed them prominently in the living room. But we never used them. Eventually we moved them to storage. For two years, we tried to sell them at our neighborhood garage sale. The first year, we priced them at $50. Last year we priced them at $20. Nobody wanted them.

On the final day of last year's sale, a man stopped by and sorted through our book collection. He was rather particular about his selections, so I struck up a conversation with him. (Bibliophiles are happy to meet kindred souls.) He told me he owned a used book store. “You've got some good stuff here,” he said, patting his stack of books.

“Thanks,” I said.

He turned to leave, but then paused. “You know,” he said. “These encyclopedias are worthless. I have a dozen sets in my store. They used to sell pretty regularly, but nowadays I can't even give them away.” He waved good-bye and left.

It hurt to think that our $500 encyclopedia set was worthless, but I had to admit it was true. I posted it in the “free” section on Craigslist.

The next day a man stopped by to pick up the books. He was ecstatic to find them. “We don't have a computer,” he said. “And my daughter is in the fifth grade. She loves to learn. She'll use these all the time. Thank you.”

I helped him load the encyclopedia into his car, a mid-80s Honda Accord. The rear of the vehicle sagged beneath the weight. Before he left, he fished out his wallet. “Do you have a Blockbuster Video around here?” he asked. I said that we did. “Here,” he said, handing me a Blockbuster gift card. “Take this. I mean it. You don't know how much I appreciate this.” I thanked him and took the card, which I tucked in my wallet and then forgot.

A few weeks ago, I found the Blockbuster gift card. “I wonder how much credit is on this?” I said to myself, scanning the fine print. I tried to call the toll-free number, and to check the web site, but neither would give me the balance. To obtain the balance on a Blockbuster card, you have to actually go to the store. So I did.

The card had $16.50 on it. I thought maybe I could pay for part of a game for my Nintendo Wii, but nothing looked appealing. I scoured the DVDs, but couldn't find anything I wanted. At last I spied The Godfather. Aha! Hadn't I been wanting to purchase that for a long time? It's been three or four years since I last watched it. I bought The Godfather and a pack of Red Vines and headed home.

But when I went to put the DVD away, I was dismayed to find that I already owned a copy. When did I buy it? Why hadn't I remembered purchasing it?

The Godfather sold last night for $7.02. After fees are settled, I will have netted $7.16.

And that, my friends, is how I managed to turn $500 worth of encyclopedias into $7.16 in Amazon credit. That is personal finance at its finest.

There's no profound moral to this story. Each of us makes the best financial choices we can. But sometimes our information is imperfect. We have no way to predict what the future holds, and sometimes what we think is smart (charging encyclopedias to a credit card) is actually rather foolish.

This story first appeared at Consumerism Commentary in a slightly different format.

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Damsel
Damsel
12 years ago

LOL… great post. We ALL have stories like that. Thanks for sharing yours. ๐Ÿ™‚

Kate
Kate
12 years ago

Great story, thanks for sharing. Aside from the obvious point (and I don’t even want to know how much the books really cost you when you add the CC interest) I’d like to comment on the DVD you bought and later realized you already had: It pays off to keep track of what you own. I’ve made it a habit to organize/clean out my pantry every 2 months and it’s amazing how much food I find that I didn’t know I still had. During my last “raid” I found that I had two opened jars of a certain, not quite… Read more »

Sam
Sam
12 years ago

But you did use the encyclopedia set for several years, so I would take the $500 plus any interest charges and divide it by the number of time you used the set and figure out your per use charge.

Anywho, I love a good encyclopedia set and I think kids lose something these days now that they can just google something (of couse they also gain something).

mikemc
mikemc
12 years ago

Makes me feel better about the 5 280CD/DVD Case Logic Wallets I purchased to “better organize” my CD collection. After a few weeks of carefully moving from the original CD jewel cases to the case logic wallets, I realized that I preferred how I had it originally w/ all the CDs on a media self. Easier to find what I want to listen to.

So like you, $150 poorer, I posted on both Craigslist and Amazon. No nibbles yet… ๐Ÿ™‚

Dangger
Dangger
12 years ago

My family bought a set of used encyclopedias in the 90’s for 2 bucks… it was a church tent sale that spans 3 days…. on the last day, anything you can fit into one grocery size paper bag is 1 dollar. I managed to find all of the books scattered all over the tent. It filled up two paper bags. Though you had to carry it lovingly or else it’ll rip through the bags. I used it for many years throughout highschool.

Hannah
Hannah
12 years ago

Hahah great story, and very true! Think of the people who spent a huge amount of money on CDs and walkmans, only to have ipods come out a few years later…

MITBeta @ Don't Feed the Alligators
MITBeta @ Don't Feed the Alligators
12 years ago

Keep in mind that anything you buy, short of a few things (like a house, hopefully) is eventually going to be worth next to nothing. The thing that I think you are beating yourself up over is the fact that the internet came along so quickly after your purchase. I have a Bowflex in my basement that I’d love to get $7…

@Hannah: Anyone who rebought all of their CDs from iTunes is a fool. I still very much enjoy my CDs (not the least of which because they sound better than the compressed MP3s and iTunes files).

Steve
Steve
12 years ago

I think that guy’s daughter will get more than $500 worth of education out of those books. Your investment will pay off for her.

Mike
Mike
12 years ago

That’s a great anecdote. I’ll think of this every time I sell yet another hopelessly outdated computer book for peanuts. Just think about the interest you could’ve earned on the $500, too, if it had been sitting in a savings account! ๐Ÿ™‚

Then again, I imagine that during the years you did use it, you easily gained >$493 worth of knowledge. So was there a true loss?

Jon @ The Money Mythos
Jon @ The Money Mythos
12 years ago

That was a great story, though for your sake it’s too bad it didn’t work the other way around. I think my parents still have their encyclopedias upstairs, from the 1970’s. It’s always fun to browse through the computer section, which is just a page or two, in those.

The Weakonomist
The Weakonomist
12 years ago

My parents are sitting on a set of encyclopedias. Its best used for a cat perch. I got a lot of use out of them growing up. Didn’t know about the free section of Craigslist. Maybe I’ll put them up there.

Has anyone read “The know it all”? Its a great book in journal format written by a guy as he reads the entire encyclopedia set.

Mister E
Mister E
12 years ago

Heck, I would have taken them if they were in good shape.

@Hannah : And think of the people that spent a huge amount of money on iPods that will need to replace them with whatever the next format they force on us is.

Daniel
Daniel
12 years ago

Wow – it’s sad to hear about your bad purchase, but it brings tears to my eyes just thinking about how much you helped that man and his 5th-grade daughter.

What a great story!

d^2
d^2
12 years ago

april fools! no one wants a hardcopy encyclopedia! you almost had me, though. ๐Ÿ™‚

guinness416
guinness416
12 years ago

Heh, well told story! You know, at least someone is using them. I have a feeling lots of encyclopediae just get ditched. So that’s a good thing.

Sara A.
Sara A.
12 years ago

If you put it on your credit card you probably paid more than $500 for with the interest.

Heather
Heather
12 years ago

I sometimes hang onto things because I don’t like to face the “mistake” inherent in giving them away or selling them. There’s got to be a more positive way to view this loss of money! Obviously you made somebody’s life a lot better… that’s a start…

Not an Artist
Not an Artist
12 years ago

I kind of miss Encyclopedias. I would always came across interesting subjects while flipping through the pages looking for a specific topic. I suppose you could say the same for the internet and Google searches; but at least in the Encyclopedia it was much less likely to be porn or celebrity gossip.

Besides, I have fond memories of using the ancient set my family owned as key elements in the construction of elaborate blanket forts — how else would you weight down the corners?

RTPEric
RTPEric
12 years ago

I’m confused… it seemed like the 16.50 Blockbuster credit is worth more than 7.16 in Amazon credit… did I miss something???

icup
icup
12 years ago

I never understood the need to actually have encyclopedias in your home, even when I was in high school, pre-internet. Maybe that’s just the poor kid in me coming to the fore. The public library always maintained a perfectly up-to-date set in my town. But even beyond that, its a bizarre concept, if you stop to really think about it. There was once a time (not too long ago I might add) when all of mankind’s knowledge was peddled door to door in handsome leatherbound 30 volume sets for the unbelievably low price of $499.99! That is right up there… Read more »

Will
Will
12 years ago

Only $7.16? You forgot about the red vines!
So add .55 to that.

J.D.
J.D.
12 years ago

HA! Will has an excellent point. ๐Ÿ™‚

katey
katey
12 years ago

I’m real glad the encyclopedia were at least given to a 5th grade girl who loves to learn.

Lily
Lily
12 years ago

Hannah: uhm, you can add music from CDs to the iTunes library. I hope nobody ever RE-BUYS their CDs!

Cory
Cory
12 years ago

Textbooks also seem to become pretty obsolete, pretty fast with the current information they hold. Not just because of the latest edition being released either. In science, the information gap between a lot of science textbooks and the forefront of scientific research is about 30-50 years. It makes it kind of unnerving when you have to pay $100-$200/textbook for this content.

CDs, like records, will never go out of style for some generes of music (i.e. Jazz). For the Britney Spears generation of music listeners, these types of media may very well be obsolete.

Dave
Dave
12 years ago

All PF morals of the story aside, I just liked the story … It was like a micro fiction by Raymond Carver or something.

Steph
Steph
12 years ago

I thought this was going to be an April Fools joke. Thanks for the real post.

No Debt Plan
No Debt Plan
12 years ago

At least you got some use out of them. Like you said, there was no way to tell Google and Wikipedia and the WWW was going to explode like it did. I’d guess you aren’t alone.

Also, could you not have gotten a better return for donating the encyclopedias to a school or something along those lines?

Wayne Mulligan
Wayne Mulligan
12 years ago

Funny story, but what’s the lesson to be learned here? Don’t buy books? Hold off a few years on making any purchases over $100 because it might be worth pennies one day? I think the real lesson here is that information of all kinds is trending towards FREE. If anybody on this blog has it in them go read “The Long Tail” by Chris Anderson (Editor in Chief at Wired Magazine). Then go to Wired.com or buy the magazine and read Anderson’s latest take on the “free” economy. It’s not that he thinks everything will eventually be free, but when… Read more »

Frugal Dad
Frugal Dad
12 years ago

Hey, at least you got some use of them! My Funk & Wagnalls are still collecting dust and taking up a row and a half on our book shelf. I like your free Craigslist idea – I might even check into giving them to a shelter for some reading material. Of course, any current topic is dated, but there are some things that stand the test of time.

jtimberman
jtimberman
12 years ago

JD – Funny thing about this story, it happened to my wife. Before we met, she had bought a set of encyclopedias. We were going to keep them around for the kids, but we’re realistic. We have computers and internet access and always will. We couldn’t even donate them to a library, but a used book store took them for about $20… in store credit. Only to be used on half a purchase of a used book.

Oh well, they were heavy and I was tired of moving them :-).

Von
Von
12 years ago

You know,just 2 weekends ago I hauled a set of Encyclopedia Brittanicas around to 4 different thrift shops and they all refused them. The reason cited was the same thing your book buyer gave….the WWW has replaced them. I was so very surprised. Like you, I’m going to try Craig’s List and Freecycle and see what happens. If nothing else maybe a recycle center will take them?

Darren Meyer
Darren Meyer
12 years ago

Others have said something along these lines, I know, but I want to share something a good friend said years ago when I found myself in a somewhat similar situation: “Return on investment isn’t all about money — it’s also about the intangible values you gain from what you spend.” In my case, I was worried because I tend to buy video games, play the snot out of them, then sell them for 30-40% of what I paid for them. My friend helped me realize that the entertainment value (and memories, etc.) was worth the investment. You spent $500 on… Read more »

Get a Grip Girl
Get a Grip Girl
12 years ago

This article took me back to time of fond memories!
When I was small my parents did get us a copy of the encyclopedia. I remember reading/using them as a reference point. It had a lot of information and to this day, we still have them. However the information is outdated and I now refer to the online version.

JACK
JACK
12 years ago

I think that’s the absolute wrong way to look at it. Did you buy the encyclopedia because you planned to make a profit on it? Probably not. You probably didn’t even plan on selling it. Now you may question whether you got a full 500 dollars of value out of them, but you did get value out of them. That you got anything for them after you decided they were no longer of value to you, frankly, should be seen positively. I’ve got a trike that I plan to sell that I know I won’t get anywhere near back what… Read more »

jim
jim
12 years ago

You need to calculate the rate of return… that’d be funny. ๐Ÿ™‚

Andrea >> Become a Consultant
Andrea >> Become a Consultant
12 years ago

JD, I hate to argue with you, but your original mistake wasn’t that you charged the encyclopedias to a credit card. The mistake was that you didn’t pay the bill in full before the end of the grace period. ๐Ÿ™‚

April Fool
April Fool
12 years ago

On April 1? RIGHTTT! You’re not getting me to fall for another one of these stories!

ClickerTrainer
ClickerTrainer
12 years ago

I love my Britannica set. And I use it, there are articles in there that are simply not available on the Internet. Plus, I love how it mentions the new space vehicle called “Sputnick”. And the newly discovered Pluto.

Anthony
Anthony
12 years ago

Love this post. Here’s one I’d love to hear as well:

“How to turn $30,000 into $5,000 in 10 years”

The subject? Buying a new car of course….hehe

Tom
Tom
12 years ago

This made me laugh out loud. Thanks for sharing. I think we all have stories like that.

Mike
Mike
12 years ago

Great post! I think we all have things we paid dearly to buy that turned out to be worthless. I invested heavily in an independent record label in 1998. In 1999, Napster destroyed most of the industry, except the giant labels who could sustain the hit and the nichest of the niche indies whose customers weren’t tech-savvy enough to own computers.

It’s not all bad, though! Sometimes the indulgent purchase somehow sustains or even gains value while it sits in your closet. Let me tell you about a little game called Magic: the Gathering! It was 1993 and…

Matt Haughey
Matt Haughey
12 years ago

I bet over the time it took to pay off the books, it was actually a $1268.32 encyclopedia set. ๐Ÿ™‚

J.D.
J.D.
12 years ago

For those wondering: this story is absolutely true. It’s time-shifted by six months (I posted at Consumerism Commentary last fall), but other than that, it’s accurate. It’s not an April Fool. And I know it’s minor, but I thought it was fun.

Confused
Confused
12 years ago

Why wouldn’t you return the movie to the store for something you wanted instead of reselling it for less? Or did you only pay $7 for it and still have another few dollars in credit left?

Cute story, but that part left me scratching my head.

kick_push
kick_push
12 years ago

funny you mention this because i had my old encyclopedia set collecting dust at my mom’s house.. i tried to throw them away, but my mom decided to keep them in a cabinet in the garage (which has enough cluttered stuff as it is).. we got into an arguement because i told her it was just taking up valuable space.. but she would not listen to me.. she obviously doesn’t know what wikipedia is

Travis
Travis
12 years ago

A fine post, JD. Does anyone else out there feel that they just have too much ‘stuff’? I was planning my budget this weekend, which made me reflect on how I spend my money. Later I went into my apartment’s spare bedroom (which for a single guy like me is also known as the ‘junk room’) to get something, looked around and thought “wow…where did all this stuff come from!” Consumer Reports magazines that I’ve had for years (isn’t this info available online?), golf clubs (when was the last time I golfed?), and those little items that you don’t ever… Read more »

Elizabeth
Elizabeth
12 years ago

Since I am in the process of de-cluttering my home before putting it on the market, I have been going through my bookshelves and attempting to sell some on half.com. Some of my books have been on that site for over two years with no buyers, so I decided to sell them to Powells.com to get rid of them faster. It pained me to see that my brand-new or like-new books were worth a mere $21. However, I also realized that almost all of these books were purchased before I became an avid library user, and that my evaluation process… Read more »

kimi
kimi
12 years ago

I don’t know – my parents bought us a set of encyclopedias, and I remember working on projects with them. I think they were better than the internet.

Every once in a while, we pull them out. It’s fun because you learn about things that you don’t necessarily have questions about.

Faculties
Faculties
12 years ago

This is a great story, but the $500 loss would have been true whether or not you’d put it on a credit card. (Except the interest presumably made it $500+.) However, I like the point that you forgot that you came out of the deal with some Red Vines!

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