Want to Read More? Here’s How to Do It Cost Effectively and Meaningfully.

Over the last few weeks, you may have noticed a bit of a theme across some of my articles here at The Simple Dollar. Without directly making it into a series, I’m addressing low cost ways to tackle many common New Years resolutions that people make, such as getting fit or building new friendships or saving money. I even talked about goal-oriented planners for the coming year, and I have a few more “resolution” posts planned in this informal series.

Today, however, we’re going to tackle a resolution that’s near and dear to my heart: “I want to read more.”

People often adopt this resolution when they look back on their life and see a love of reading over the years and reflect on many books that they’ve loved to read, but when they think about their current life… they haven’t read many books at all, or even any short stories or meaningful articles. Reading used to occupy a real place in their life, but it’s somehow faded, and they want to reclaim it.

The problem with a simple “I want to read more” resolution is that it can really easily lead to a lot of unfulfilled spending. It’s really tempting to head down to the local bookstore or over to Amazon and just buy a bunch of books that you’ve been wanting to read. Surely, by having those books on one’s bedside table, one will read more. Right? Right?

Actually, that’s not what I’ve ever found in my life, nor have any of my friends who also love to read. The amount of time spent reading and the amount of books read seems to have little connection to the number of unread books on one’s shelves or bedside table. Just because the option is there doesn’t mean that we pick up books.

As someone who is incredibly busy but still makes room for reading in my life, I find the ability to continue to read books boils down to two key elements.

First, I intentionally set aside time for reading. Every single day, I set aside thirty minutes for reading with my children – during that time, I almost exclusively read fiction. I also spend about the same amount of time reading a personal finance or personal growth book with a notebook open – ostensibly, this is part of “brainstorming” ideas for The Simple Dollar, but it’s also valuable time – and I put aside a solid hour for reading a different nonfiction book on the weekends.

Notice that nowhere in this do I say that I “try” to put aside this time or that I do it if I can “squeeze it in.” I just do it.

For me, reading is a “rock” in the proverbial jar of my life. It’s not “sand.” Sand is the other stuff – television, games, movies, gardening, and so on – that I enjoy doing but that I don’t mind moving around as needed. If I don’t watch any television today, it’s okay. If I don’t play a game today, it’s okay. If I don’t read today… then I’m disappointed. If evening comes around and I haven’t read for a while, it comes before browsing the web on my phone or before watching a television show. It’s a true priority for me.

In fact, most days, I literally schedule it. I usually read my personal finance/self-improvement book just before the kids get home from school on school days, or early in the morning when everyone else is still asleep on non-school days. I usually read my fiction with all of my kids during a half-hour period of sustained reading that we do each day. I do my nonfiction reading for an hour or so after lunch on Sundays.

If I care about something, I make time for it. That means, sometimes, pushing aside other things that I might care about a little bit or that are just convenient time-fillers.

Second, I keep a book with me almost everywhere I go so that I can turn to it in idle moments. This actually contributes a lot to my reading time in a given year. I just simply keep a book with me wherever I go and turn to it in idle moments.

The easiest way to do this, I’ve found, is to simply have an e-reader app on your phone that contains a book that you’re currently reading on it. That way, everywhere you have a phone, you have a book. However, that has a big drawback – your phone is pretty much distraction central.

Another approach I often use is to simply have a “car book.” It’s a book that I just leave in my car and read during idle moments. I’ll take it into appointments with me or just read it when I’m waiting for children to get done with practice or for my friend to come out and join me in the car.

I also keep the books I’m currently reading in my “go bag,” which is basically just my portable office. That way, if I go somewhere to work or to handle some life and household tasks, I have a book with me.

So, if you’re going to adopt a reading habit in the coming year, I suggest two simple resolutions. One, block off some time each day to read and give that time block a high priority. Two, keep a book with you wherever you go. Those two tactics will encourage you to read books far more than you might ever expect.

We’ve tackled how to turn reading into an effective resolution, but how do you make it meaningful and cost-effective? Let’s start with the meaningful.

I have one simple suggestion for meaningful reading: try to read stuff that will improve or change your way of thinking. Read novels that take place in areas you don’t know about, or focus on people from backgrounds that you’re unfamiliar with. Choose nonfiction that addresses a topic that you don’t know well but are curious about, or nonfiction that helps you improve in a desired way.

I find that two types of books really stick with me. One type is the truly great story that sucks me in, but I’ve found that those are very much hit and miss. I might read a book that someone else loves and it’s just not for me, or I might read a book that someone else loathes and absolutely love it. With books like that, I give them a serious chance, but if they don’t click, I don’t feel guilty about moving on to a new book before finishing. The other type is the book that I chose to expose me to a new idea or a new situation or to help me improve myself. These are actually easier to find and choose on my own than great stories are.

Stick to those books and you’ll find that reading really becomes meaningful. Choose promising stories, but don’t stick with them if they don’t click, or choose books that help you improve yourself or introduce you to new ideas or backgrounds or challenge the ones you have.

How do you do this cost effectively, though? The obvious answer is the library. Simply use the library as your primary source of books. Stop in at your local library, see what they have available, and check out interesting titles. If they don’t have exactly what you want, request them or get on the wait list for those books. The only cost for using most libraries is in the form of late fees, so you do have to remember to return the books!

What if you prefer reading on your phone or Kindle? Many libraries offer access to Overdrive, which allows free access to thousands of ebooks and audiobooks via your local library. It’s easy to read books right within the app, pretty much wherever you are, or you can transfer books straight to your Kindle device if you have one.

A final tip: don’t shop for books. If you want to “shop” for books, do so on the shelves of your local library. If you happen to read a book review or hear a recommendation, channel that book acquisition impulse toward your library, not toward the bookstore.

That’s not to say there isn’t a reason to own a book. Books that you use for regular reference are invaluable, as are books that you re-read on a consistent basis. However, books that you’re likely to read just once and then set aside for good? Those are best checked out from the library.

Reading is an incredibly rewarding hobby, one that can both entertain you and add great meaning to your life while simultaneously sharpening your own literacy skills. However, it is a hobby that’s easy to push aside when life gets busy, and simply buying a bunch of books isn’t a cost-effective or time-effective way to reclaim that hobby. Try these strategies instead – set aside time for reading, read things that are meaningful, and use your local library to keep the costs in check.

Good luck!

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.