How to Save Money with a Reading Hobby

Over the last several weeks, I’ve offered up money-saving guides to two of my primary hobbies – board/card games and home brewing. Today, I’m going to tackle the third leg of my trifecta of leisure time – reading.

Reading fiction and non-fiction books has been a major part of my life almost since I can remember. I remember reading The Lord of the Rings in sixth grade and The Hobbit earlier than that, and there are pictures of me reading things like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe during my elementary school years. I also had an early love of reading nonfiction, gulping down an entire series of presidential biographies during the summer between sixth and seventh grade.

That passion never really stopped. While I do go through phases where I read more and read less – usually connected to how intense other elements of my life happen to be at the moment – a day doesn’t go by when I don’t read at least a chapter or two in one book or another. On days that afford me the opportunity, I’ve been known to read an entire book in one sitting.

Books afford me an opportunity to exercise my imagination. They allow me to see the world from the perspective of others. They also teach me things and give me a deeper understanding of a topic on which my understanding may have once been pretty shallow. Books have given me knowledge, empathy, creativity, and awareness all while being constantly entertained. They have been an invaluable part of my life.

They’ve also been an expensive part of my life. Over the years, I’ve spent literally thousands – and probably tens of thousands – of dollars on books. I have entire shelves full of books and I’ve given away or sold hundreds upon hundreds of them. No matter how I acquired them, that cost adds up.

Over the last several years, I’ve learned how to mitigate that cost without taking away the joy of reading. I still have the opportunity and the joy to sit down with a book that excites me and get lost in the pages, but I no longer shell out nearly as much cash for that pleasure. Here are ten strategies I use to pull off that trick.

Use the Library

This is the number one strategy for saving money on books. The library is simply a building full of free books. It’s like a book store where every book has a “free” price tag on it. All you have to do is bring the book back in a few weeks, by which point you should have read it.

Libraries feature shelf after shelf after shelf on whatever nonfiction topic or fictional genre you might be interested in, from light fiction to incredibly deep literature and fron children’s books to incredibly complex nonfiction and everything in between. They have old classics, undiscovered gems, and the latest releases. All you have to do is browse the shelves to find a huge pile of books perfect for you – and if they don’t have it, all you have to do is ask and they can likely get you a copy via interlibrary loan.

One of my favorite things to do is to simply slowly wander through a section of the library that I’m interested in at the moment – maybe I’ll walk by the philosophy shelves or the science fiction section. I know that whenever I see something interesting, I can pull it off the shelf and take it home with me – and it costs me nothing at all.

Libraries are simply an enormous smorgasbord of books of every variety and type – and they’re all free for the taking. All you have to do is substitute the library for most of your stops at the book store.

Use Your Library’s Online Reservation System (If Available)

But what do you do if your usual book store is Amazon or another online retailer? Most libraries have you covered there as well. Many libraries have an online catalog and online reservation system that allows you to browse through their book collection no matter where you’re at, and most of those libraries have a system that allows you to reserve books with just a click. Those books are held for you at the library where you can pick them up at the front desk or, in larger libraries, the reservation desk.

The experience actually feels a lot like shopping at Amazon, except that every book has the same price – free. My local library has the equivalent of a “buy it now” button on the page for every single book that’s in circulation there. Just click it once and they’ll hold the book for you. If it’s a popular book, there might be a waiting list, but they’ll send you an email as soon as you’re at the top of the list and a book is being held for you.

This simple system has allowed me to pick out my books well in advance of a library stop so that I could just park by the door, dash in, pick up my reservations, and leave. It’s also enabled me to get on the reservation list for popular books when I hear about them and, in a few cases, has allowed me to have hot new releases in my hands the day the book comes out.

Get Involved in Additional Programs from the Library

Libraries aren’t just a place where you grab books and run away to your favorite reading chair. They offer other opportunities for enjoying books as well and those opportunities don’t cost a thing.

At my library, they often have readings and question-and-answer sessions with authors. I’ve even done a couple of them at various libraries myself. It’s a great opportunity to learn more about a writer and the books he or she writes and that can often lead you to walk right out of that reading and check out some of that author’s works.

They also have several different book clubs that meet weekly to discuss books and have a new selection each month. At larger libraries, there are often clubs for specific literary genres and specific types of nonfiction books, meaning you can find a reading group for whatever whets your whistle.

Not only do these services encourage you to read more, they also add a social dynamic to reading that might not otherwise exist.

Swap Books with Friends

So let’s step away from the library for a while. What else can you do to save money on books?

One of my favorite strategies is to simply swap books with my friends, many of whom are avid readers themselves. We often scour each other’s bookshelves for new releases and we inform each other of anything good that one of us reads and also happens to own so that others can borrow those books.

The nice part about borrowing from a friend? You know that friend has already read the book, so you have someone to talk to about the book after you’ve finished reading it – and not someone who hasn’t read it and has no interest and is just being polite. You have a friend with a shared interest who has read the same book.

It has reached the point where I look at the bookshelves of my closest friends as a lending library of sorts – and they look at my shelves in the same way. I can’t even count the number of books that have been passed around my social circle in the past few years alone, but that number has been enormous. Not only has that swapping been a source for great reading material, it’s also helped to cement friendships and enabled fans of the same book to joyfully exchange their sentiments about the book to fellow fans.

‘Borrow’ Books from Your Own Shelves

Even after purging my book collection a few times, I still have several shelves full of books – books I use for reference, at least in part, but also a bunch of books that I simply love.

Whenever I’m wanting to start a new book, one of the best places for me to look is at my own shelves. Why? Because those shelves contain some of my favorite books ever and, almost every time, at least a few of them call out to me to be re-read. I want to pick one of them up, sit down with it, and get lost in that world of ideas or imagination (or both) once again.

I tend to hang onto books that I know I’ll read again for this very purpose, so that when I look at my shelves, it’s almost like a shopping trip where I’m picking out my next great read. (I trade away or sell off the others.)

There’s also usually several “new to me” books sitting on my shelves as well. These books were picked up using some of the other means mentioned on this list, but even at those cheap rates I’ll sometimes accumulate books as fast as (or faster than) I can read them, which means I have a pile of books that are unread and particularly interesting to me to choose from for my next read.

Visit Secondhand Book Stores

Secondhand book stores are interesting places to shop. They tend to be mostly full of strange used books, older editions of familiar items, and lots of pulp fiction.

But that’s not why I go to those stores.

I go because I’ll almost always find a few unexpected gems that really appeal to me somewhere on those shelves. The trick is finding those gems. It takes time because the books are often organized in an eccentric fashion, which means that I’m often relying on serendipity and patience to find those interesting books that I know are hidden away somewhere on those shelves.

I also go because the prices on used books at such used book stores are incredibly low. My wallet loves being able to pay just a few dollars for a great used book, which is an experience I get almost every single time that I stop at a used book store.

used bookstore

Don’t overlook used bookstores. Photo: Ian Collins

Hit Library Sales or Other Community Sales

Once or twice a year, each local library in my area holds a book sale where they sell off some of their extra books – and some donated books – to the community as a fund raiser. Often, they’ll charge a dollar or two per book on the first day of the sale, but by the end, they’ll charge you a dollar or two per box of books that you take out of there.

This happens to be much like shopping at a used book store. Most of the books aren’t particularly interesting, but there’s often an interesting gem or two hidden away if you take the time to look for it. Plus, library sales serve a good cause.

Not only that, other organizations sometimes have community book sales for fundraising purposes, selling off books that have been donated to their cause. The twice-annual Des Moines book sale at the state fairgrounds is a great example of this. They fill a huge room with books and offer terms very similar to the library sales, often offering early access with a donation on the first day (which is usually worth it because the average book quality is higher).

Check Out Little Free Libraries

Little Free Libraries are simply small boxes that you’ll see along the curb in residential neighborhoods, usually on top of a post akin to a mailbox. Inside that box, which is usually nicely decorated and looks like a small library building, you’ll find a pile of books, thirty or forty in number. You’re completely free to take one, though you’re encouraged to leave one in exchange for it.

There are a few Little Free Libraries in our town which we can hit on a walking trip, and I’ll often take a book or two with me to swap in those libraries. Most of the time, I won’t find a book that’s particularly interesting to me, but sometimes I find real gems in there. I’ve found new releases and books by some of my favorite authors that I’ve never read before in Little Free Libraries, and the only cost is dropping off a book that someone else might like.

If you’d like to find a Little Free Library in your area, check out their map tool, as it will help you identify the location of such boxes in your neighborhood. They’re a wonderful tool for encouraging communities and encouraging reading as well.

Get a Used Kindle and Read Piles of Classics for Free

I’ve been a Kindle owner for many years, which means I have a pile of books stored on there. What might be surprising, though, is that a lot of the books on my Kindle were absolutely free. I didn’t pay a dime for them.

That’s because pretty much any classic book you can imagine – anything written before 1920 or so – is free for the Kindle. It’s in the public domain, which means that anyone can copy it or share it without any cost, and since there’s practically no cost for distributing Kindle books, Amazon happily includes thousands of classics for free in the Kindle store.

Over the years, I’ve shared multiple lists of great free books for the Kindle. Here’s a list of 15 free Kindle books to inspire you to great things, as well as a follow-up article including

15 more free Kindle books to inspire and entertain you. Here’s an older list by me including 28 books that were free as of the writing of that article, most of which are classics but a few of which are books newer authors chose to give away for free.

Those lists are just a starting point, however. There are thousands upon thousands of interesting free books out there on an infinite array of topics and in pretty much any literary genre you can imagine. All you have to do is read.

Be Selective and Use a Tight Budget

Even with all of these strategies, however, a book lover is still going to sometimes have that pinch to just go out and buy a new book to put on their shelves. That pinch is part of what got me into financial trouble back in the day. For me, the solution to that problem was to simply be more selective, both with the books I purchased and with the visits I made to booksellers both online and off.

The most powerful strategy I found was to simply put a very tight cap on my monthly spending on books. I afforded myself $25 a month for books, including book store visits, library and community sales, and so on. That made for a really tight limit on my spending, so I had to start being more selective about what I bought. I could have pretty much any book I wanted in a given month… but it would probably be only that one book. On the other hand, if I was willing to hunt around and be careful with my purchases, I could often get several good books from used bookstores and sales.

That restriction felt very tight at first, but what it did over time was make me more selective about the books I was buying. It also made the book buying experience more exciting and interesting again because book buying became a rarer and more special thing than before. I began to really appreciate and savor each book I purchased and added to my collection rather than it being a much more routine thing that I didn’t appreciate as much.

I also stopped accumulating unread books on my bookshelf and instead started actually reading through all of the ones I had accumulated because I wasn’t buying them at such a mad rate.

Even better, because I was spending less time shopping for books, I had more time for actually reading. Gone was the twice-weekly stop at the bookstore. Instead, I found myself going home after work to actually read, which was a wonderful and positive change.

Final Thoughts

Reading can be a very expensive hobby, but it mostly becomes expensive when you stop reading for the sake of reading and instead become more of a book collector. When you find your shelves beginning to be full of books that you’ve not yet read, it’s probably time to step back from acquiring new books and spend some time reading all of those acquisitions.

Don’t worry, though – when the time comes and you need something new to read, there are many, many strategies for getting new books without breaking your wallet in half. The strategies in this article have served me well for almost an entire decade now and I still have more books to read than I’ll ever have time for in my lifetime, between my favorites that fill my shelves, a modest pile of unread books from swaps and Little Free Libraries and community book sales, the mountains of classic books on my Kindle, and the infinite array of free selections from the Kindle store.

Add those all together and it’s more good stuff than I’ll ever have the time to read. To me, that’s a book lover’s dream. All you have to do is change your focus a little bit to see that infinite array of books.

Good luck!

Trent Hamm
Trent Hamm
Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.

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