Updated on 11.22.11

Saving Pennies or Dollars? Used Books

Trent Hamm

saving pennies or dollarsSaving Pennies or Dollars is a new semi-regular series on The Simple Dollar, inspired by a great discussion on The Simple Dollar’s Facebook page concerning frugal tactics that might not really save that much money. I’m going to take some of the scenarios described by the readers there and try to break down the numbers to see if the savings is really worth the time invested.

Connie writes in: I trade books by mail. It costs me about $2 to send out a book via media mail and I have to also spend the materials to wrap it. If I just swap page turners at my local used book store, I can get them at $2.50 a pop if I buy a bunch at once. Am I really saving anything trading by mail?

This sounds like you use PaperBackSwap, a service I love and have been using for years. Much like you, I’ve been curious at times whether or not it’s worth it and I’ve ran the numbers several times. Each time, I’m pretty sure I’ve decided it’s a good deal.

For starters, my estimate of the cost of my supplies is about ten cents. I use a sheet or two of printer paper, a single printed page with black and white ink on it, and some packing tape. Media mail varies by weight, but the typical range for me is $2.41 for a paperback in the mail. So, my total cost for shipping out a book is $2.51.

Now, let’s compare that to the used bookstore. At my local used bookstore, they will take most books in trade for anywhere from $0.25 to $1. They also sell used books at varying prices, anywhere from $1 (for Harlequin romances and the like) to $5 (mostly hardbacks). There’s also sales tax on your purchases, so that tacks on another 7%.

If I were just swapping for Harlequin romances, the local used bookstore would probably be cheaper. I could trade in one for $0.25, buy a new one for $1 (minus the $0.25 credit), and walk out of there having paid about $0.80 for a novel.

However, most of the books I want to read there are on the $3 or $4 shelves. I tend to read a lot of nonfiction, some science fiction and fantasy, and some general fiction, too. I might get $0.50 in trade for the books I bring in, but my net cost is either $2.50 or $3.50 for a book I want to read, plus the sales tax. That means either $2.68 or $3.75 for a new (to me) book after paying the sales tax.

If you add on top of that the fact that I can do PaperBackSwap at home whenever I want and there’s a much more extensive selection there, it starts to become a no-brainer.

In Connie’s case, she’s shipping out books for $2.51 via media mail, or she’s buying them for $2.68 at her local used bookstore. For her, the cost is pretty close, so it really comes down to other values. Would she rather support the local business? Or would she rather enjoy a larger selection online?

As for me, I’ll just keep using PaperBackSwap. It’s a service I’ve used for many years to recycle my read books because it’s convenient and the selection is pretty good.

There’s also another take-home point here. If you’re an avid reader, trading used books is really a bargain. Let’s say I spend eight hours reading a book that I swapped for $2.51. That means I was entertained for a cost of about $0.30 per hour.

While that’s not as cheap as the library, it’s pretty cheap, and there’s no danger of late fees or other such things if you don’t get your book finished or if your son drops a library book behind his bed.

Not only that, if you read something at least a little challenging, you’re growing your mind, too. You’re learning something new and improving your literacy. That’s what I call a real value.

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  1. Steven says:

    I’d say there are other benefits as well, namely not having to store a pile of books that will likely never been read again, and the fact that fewer books will need to be printed, conserving resources.

  2. krantcents says:

    I read or get the ultimate used books which are from the library. I stopped buying books years ago. My wife has a Kindle and shares books with her friends.

  3. valleycat1 says:

    For books I expect to read once (most fiction, for example), I use the library – between the local collection & the no-fee interlibrary loan, there are few items I can’t get if I’m looking for something specific. And searching the stacks leads me to authors & topics I wouldn’t know to look for online. Most of my book purchases in the past year are, admittedly, e-book versions not hard copies.

    Our library’s Friends group operates a bookstore 2 Saturdays a month. I donate my read books to them – most from my pre-ereader days – and when I purchase there the prices are lower than the bookswap site’s. They often have a fill-the-bag deal too, to bring the price even lower. Money goes back to the community as extras purchased for the library.

    Thrift stores and garage sales are also good places to look, as long as you don’t mind digging through lots of books to find ones you want.

  4. TLS says:

    I love PaperbackSwap. I also frequently use the library and find books at thrift stores and used book stores. Occasionally, I will buy a specific book new (or used on Amazon) if I can’t find it anywhere else.

    And, for PaperbackSwap, I never buy packing materials (except for tape). I reuse every bubble mailer I receive, and I make my own Amazon-style mailers out of cardboard for larger books. I think sending off books to other members is a lot of fun. Also, PaperbackSwap lets you donate some of your credits to schools in need of books.

  5. Nick says:

    While I’m sure it’s illegal, when I find a book that I want, I chop off the book’s spine, scan it with my Fujitsu scanner and save it electronically. Once I read it, if I want to pass it on to someone else, I mail them the file.

  6. Marinda says:

    I do bookmooch and my packing materials costs are the price of good packing tape. If envelopes are on sale, I ship to Europe with them and they cost about 35 cents, but the books gets there in good shape.

    But with an e-reader and the Overdrive account, I see within years the end of my keeping hardbacks and paperbacks on my shelf. I did have a problem reading Martin’s last book, over 1000 pages, borrowed from the library. I had 21 days to read it all, carefully and it was a challenge.

  7. Steve says:

    The library is free and has a better selection (in my experience). You can get romance novels all day long on paperbackswap. But if you want a particular book, you might have to wait a while or accept an older edition.

  8. Steve says:

    The library is free and has a better selection (in my experience). You can get romance novels all day long on paperbackswap. But if you want a particular book, you might have to wait a while or accept an older edition. I only buy books if it will take more than 28 days to read (sometimes 56, taking it out a second time and picking it up where I left off).

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