Updated on 03.31.07

Buying Books: How A Frugal Mindset Gradually Changes Your Behavior

Trent Hamm

Lately, I’ve been noticing a very interesting change in how I do things. It’s been a progression towards frugality, and I thought I would give an example of it using books. Readers of this site know that I’m a very avid reader and that I just truly love holding a new book in my hands and cracking open the cover.

A year ago, if I heard about a book I wanted to read, I would simply go to whatever source was most easily available and buy it. Period. Obviously, this solution is ridiculously expensive, especially considering I can easily read several books a week.

Six months ago, I would still buy books almost on a whim, but I had started checking online sources first for the best price before running to the bookstore. The biggest change here is that I had killed off impulse buying. I would know what I wanted to buy before I walked into a bookstore. It was during this time that I really discovered how to leverage the Borders Rewards program, for example. This saw some serious savings, but nothing compared to what was to come.

Now, I’ve got a very clear system for buying books that saves a ton of money and doesn’t really take all that long, either.

First, I check my local library’s online service. If I see a book that I am interested in reading, I check to see if my library has it before anything else. This allows me to read it for free. Now, there are many books that (a) the library doesn’t have or (b) I actually wish to own for long-term reference.

Second, I check for the book on PaperBackSwap. Basically, this service lets you swap books for free via the postal service. Using USPS Media Mail, I have access to a million different books – for keeps – for only $1 or so.

Third, I check online booksellers. I visit amazon.com to get a “baseline” price, then check several other sellers for prices. I typically deal with amazon if no place beats their price significantly because I’ve had many good experiences with their customer service.

Only if all three fail me do I turn to a brick and mortar bookstore.

Because I’ve gradually become committed to this procedure, it’s now easy for me to visit my local Borders and just browse. If I bump into something interesting, I don’t buy it: I just make a note of it in my handy pocket notebook and then look for it when I get home.

This process has saved me a lot of money in just the last few months and is emblematic of my more frugal mindset.

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  1. dac_daddy says:

    You could also go to http://www.bestbookbuys.com or http://www.addall.com to see the cost of the book at 20+ retailers (including shipping).

  2. MD says:

    Good Plan! Not only does it save you dollars now, but it saves you dollars later when you decide to move and the space those book occupy and the cost to move them becomes a consideration. I started down this path after our last move, and now I only buy books that I’m interesting in reading multiple times. This way our local library has an active patron, and my bookshelves aren’t straining with books which simply collect dust.

  3. Brian Ashenfelter says:

    If you are a Firefox user, you can also use the “Book Burro” extension to do a lot of the price comparison for you. Once installed, it adds a small panel whenever you are looking at a book off of an online store (e.g. Amazon, Half.com). If you click the panel, it will then look up and show the price of the book from most of the popular online stores as well as check to see if it is available at some libraries.

    It definitely saves some time and works with your process (although I don’t think it has an integration with PaperBackSwap yet). Check it out at http://bookburro.org/

  4. Don’t forget to see if other libraries in your area have the book you’re looking for. You can often get items through interlibrary loan without having to go to these other libraries yourself. Our library has a link on its reference page to a searchable database of linked regional libraries that I find invaluable when looking for books we don’t have locally. I often get my book within a week, again at no cost.

  5. Mitch says:

    Another thought: borrowing from friends. I occasionally see something on other people’s bookshelves and they always are happy to share. Then if I want to read it again later I know that it’s likely worth buying as having “replayability.”

    If you are not sure about whether you even want to read the book, another thing to check is whether the author has a preview chapter online.

    I have also used isbn.nu since about 1999 or 2000. Secondary to several recommendations I am now experimenting with campusi.com as well. Note that campusi will metasearch for books even if they are not “textbooks.”

    For reviews I often try Amazon and occasionally Library Thing or Technorati. Googling for reviews rarely does much good, but once in a while I find something along the lines of an annotated bibliography.

  6. Kate Davis says:

    I am a member of http://www.bookcrossing.com and it has two uses you may find useful.

    Firstly people offer rings where a book is posted from person to person, all different types of books get sent out round the world this way. You can see some of the current rings http://pages.slu.edu/student/webbla/openrings.html

    Secondly you receive a book free in the post, but there is someone waiting to read it after you, so you have to read it soon. I find this prevents the book becoming another one just sitting on my shelves.

    There is also the bonus that you get to read the reviews and comments of everyone else who reads that copy of the book.

  7. Gal Josefsberg says:

    Don’t forget your local used book store. I always go there first when looking for books.

  8. Mitch says:

    If you need classic novels for teenagers’ school projects, try Goodwill or similar. We used to go to Sioux Falls 2 to 4 times a year and while there visit all the Goodwills, the Salvation Army, the St. Vincent de Paul, and end up with a stack of books on the approved lists for the assigned reading logs.

  9. Ray says:

    An earliler post on this blog introduced me to Paperback Swap, and it has been great. I got two books I had wanted in about a week. Free.

  10. Jeremy says:

    Google book search can be good too, you can often find quite a few pages to look through before buying the book to feel out whether or not you like it.

  11. Memo Cordova says:

    Yay for libraries! Great post. Interlibrary loans are handy but it may take days for items to be shipped to your local library for pick up. Another option would be to use the worldcat.org service to locate items–not just books–by searching libraries that own the item closest to the zip code you enter. you can also add it as a search extension Firefox. Either way, making use of your local library is one of the best and cheapest ways to get books, and more.

  12. rhbee says:

    I have to admit to a serious book jones that takes me to Borders, B&N is always to cold for anything but browsing, at least 3 times a week. And though I do buy there using rewards, I usually read there too. Matter of fact, at any one time, I may have three or four books going which I will read to conclusion over several visits. The strangest thing though is that since I started working with my partner, T, on investing and real estate I have actually begun reading non-fiction writers. It’s weird to realize that reading tastes just like food choices can change over your life time.

  13. st says:

    As with DVDs and CDs, an easy and cheap thing to do is to buy books on half.com, and when you’re done, sell them back on half.com. You can usually sell them for about the same price you paid for them. Cheap and you can unload things at your leisure.

  14. Henry Bemis says:

    You can find books up to 90% off at remainder stores, online and off. Consider Hamilton R. Books, for one.

  15. Ginger says:

    There’s also a huge book search engine called Advanced Book Exchange (ABE) out of Canada…they have millions of books from thousands of book dealers listed, and a lot start at 1 dollar plus postage. And in my area (rural Oregon) there are “book exchanges” in a lot of the bars, sounds weird but that’s where I get a LOT of paperbacks. I read 2 or 3 books a day minimum so it could get REALLY expensive if I paid full price.

  16. Fidget says:

    (Not sure if you back-read comments, feeling a little odd posting so late) This is the one area in my life in which I’m having the most trouble negotiating frugality. Most of my stipend goes to books, and as much as I try to use library books for expensive reference/article anthologies, they always end up full of post-its of notes and I feel like I’m losing a significant portion of valuable work when I return them (fortunately PhD students here can renew books indefinitely…). I’m finally working out a system of notes that keeps me from printing all my articles, but my three bookshelves aren’t shrinking any time soon (my dissertation topic could be stuck in one of them!).

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