Imagine a magical store where everything is free. Shelves upon shelves are stocked with valuable products, and you can pick whatever you like and take it home for free. Unlimited books, movies, magazines, and music are there for the taking. Travel to the kid’s department where there are free toys galore: train tables, blocks, puppets, a play kitchen, a doll house, mini-playground equipment, puzzles, Legos, and rows of computers loaded with educational programs. Pick up the programming schedule to choose from concerts, guest speakers, classes, and children’s festivals, parties, and crafts—all available at no cost.
Does this sound too good to be true? It’s not! This place is real. It’s one of my favorite places on the planet. This magical site of unfettered access to a wealth of resources is, of course, the local library.
I’m sure I don’t have to tell you the library is full of awesome free stuff. Yet for some reason most people shell out for Netflix or cable, a Chromecast, eReaders and ebooks, itunes downloads, paper books, audio books, movie rentals, magazines, or newspapers, often via monthly subscriptions that wipe money out of their accounts each month without them giving these purchases a second thought. So that’s why I’m bringing up the old “the library is free” card.
In fifth grade, when asked to conceptualize a new invention that we wished existed, I described “a tiny computer that has all the best books in the world on it.” (I’ve just searched my basement for the hard copy of this assignment, complete with a terrible drawing, but couldn’t find it.) So yeah, I basically invented the eReader at the tender age of ten. While I abandoned the idea after the concept phase, fast forward 20 years and I could own my elementary innovation for about $100. Yet I’ve staunchly refused to capitulate the cash. Here’s why the home of tomes is far superior to owning media:
1. You already paid for it. In all truth, there is no such thing as a free library book. You’re already paying for all these services via taxes, so why not take advantage of them, rather than essentially paying for the same thing twice? But you don’t get to decide whether to pay for the library, for the sake of simplicity let’s consider it all “free.”
2. No subscriptions or on-going cost. We hate the idea of mindlessly forking over cash for entertainment that we could find in free, legal ways through the library. We also avoid new purchases that involve an ongoing cost as part of our “Mindless Austerity” efforts to “Develop an Aversion to Spending.” For example, an eReader doesn’t make sense unless you buy eBooks regularly; I’ve noticed there aren’t enough digital library books to go around. There’s always a long wait for the e-library book compared to hard copies.
What about the authors’ income? 1.) The library pays for handsomely for new hardcover books, unlike me who buys used copies off half.com, and 2.) Most of my favorite authors died of tuberculosis in the early 1800s. So they aren’t collecting royalties anymore.
3. I can’t break it. I know many people have replaced their original eReaders. Whether it gets broken, lost, or outdated, more technology means more money over the long run. I’ve never lost a library book, and the small amount I’ve paid in late fines is less than the price of one new book.
4. Less clutter. Frequenting the library allows us to own way less stuff. But first let me profess my deep love of books. I was an English teacher. I spent all of middle and high school with my nose in a novel (and, embarrassingly, often dressed like the main character). I used to buy books without thinking twice about it and blamed it on being a hopeless bibliophile.
I’ll always own books, but I’ve stopped collecting books because why should I have to buy, store, and organize lots of books when the library is so much better at it? We purchase far fewer books than ever before, and then only ones that we can’t get at the library—and only after exhausting all the regional libraries and inter-library loan systems. Same goes for most movies. If I don’t get through a book before the six week renewal limit, I just call, blame my kids for my slow progress, and get another two to six weeks on my loan.
The library also means we can have a lot fewer toys. Though I feel like I’m swimming in plastic playthings, I’m a bit of a minimalist at heart. As a child I said that whenever I had kids of my own, I’d give them two possessions: a teddy bear and a library card. There are good, classic, educational toys that I’ve opted not to get my kids because we go to the library about once a week and they play with them there. Why should I purchase, clean up (or nag my kids to clean up), and house every type of block that exists? I don’t need to own a large plastic kitchen; the library has one. We don’t need more than a few puzzles and a modest collection of children’s books.
If we had all the same awesome toys as the library, the kids wouldn’t play with them more than once a week. They’d dump the pieces, lose a few, and then move on. But every time we go to the library they are excited to play there. We live within a short drive of four nice libraries, so we can rotate our visits and return to a less-cluttered home.
5. Coffee shop substitute. I regularly teach Bible studies and need a place to prepare while Neil or a friend watches my kids. Coffee shops are popular work stations, and I like coffee shops, but you know what I don’t like? Paying $4 for coffee when I could make it for 4 cents at home. Our local library even serves free coffee, tea, and hot chocolate during weekdays. It’s (supposed to be) quiet, and I don’t have to pack up my rather ragged laptop since the place is full of computers. And their internet is faster than mine! It’s a great free alternative “third place.”
6. Gym membership substitute. Gym memberships are expensive, and running sucks. Amiright? I miss doing Zumba and other group fitness classes. Luckily the library has quite the selection of exercise videos, and I’m not talking about Jazzercise videos featuring Cindy Lauper songs, pastel unitards, and matching scrunchies. Sure, there are plenty of awkward 90s unitards to be seen in the exercise archives, but there are also more up-to-date choices similar to classes you’d pay big bucks for at a gym.
7. Free air conditioning in the summer! If you’re like us, you avoid turning on your a/c at all costs. This summer while sweating it out in an 84 degree house I told Neil our next post should be titled “Pretend to Not Be Sweating Your ***** Off All Summer.” The library is a welcome reprieve on especially hot days for cheap, sweaty people like us.
8. Children’s programming. As Arthur the Aardvark said, “Having fun isn’t hard when you’ve got a library card!”All of the libraries in our area schedule amazing children’s programs that far surpass the traditional (but wonderful) story hours. One local librarian plays guitar and sings to the kids on a weekly basis. Many have LEGO clubs that provide children who are past the Lego-eating stage of development with a room full of free LEGOs to build. In case you’ve not been initiated into the Parents of LEGO club: these little pieces of plastic are pricey! And a real pain to step on and clean up.
We’ve also attended events like Life-Size Candyland, Touch-a-Truck, Noon Year’s Eve parties, and summer reading programs replete with free treats and prizes. Other activities include animal shows, dance troupes, the Bubble Lady, and craft times.
9. Meeting other parents. If you’re a new parent, have recently moved, or just want to talk to someone with a vocabulary more expansive than cracker and choo-choo, the library is a great place to meet other moms and dads. In my experience library parents are willing to talk; I’ve been invited to multiple playgroups just by acting friendly in the children’s room. And since the library parents are at the Magical Place of Free Stuff, they’ll inform you of other local free kids’ events if you get to chatting.
Bonus: While shooting the bookish-parent breeze you can silently chuckle at the library mom uniform: skinny jeans, jewel-tone cardigans, flats, and fashion scarves. It’s basically an unspoken dress code. Apparently nothing says “well-read mom” like a mustard-colored cardigan.
10. Vicarious pets. Do I want to keep a fish tank clean? No thanks. I can barely do the dishes, and can’t be trusted to keep anything other than children alive. Killing house plants is almost a hobby for me. My kids adore observing the library fish and turtle, which, by the way, is older than me! One librarian even lets them feed the fish. I’m not sure if this is actually healthy for the fish. Certainly there is a Library Science course covering fish care, right?
11. You get to feel cool. The library is the one public place where I’m not the dorkiest person present. And I secretly enjoy this novel experience.
12. Free textbooks. After my freshman year of college I stopped shelling out obscene sums for textbooks and wised up to the inter-library loan system. I was able to renew the books for the entire semester using the state-wide service linking all university and college libraries. This system is now available at public libraries in our state and Neil has borrowed all his grad school textbooks this way, saving hundreds of dollars in every course. Another system links many public libraries in our state. Check your local library’s web site or ask a librarian if your state has a similar inter-library loan program.
13. Thrifty throwback. Finding free diversion and soul respite in the library is old-fashioned and wholesome in the best of ways. It’s a great add-on to the Live Like Grandma Challenge, which helps put spending in a historical perspective while keeping finance fun. Plus I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the founder of the first American library is the guy on the $100 bill.
14. Did I mention everything is free?
Compared to cable, gym membership, a weekly coffeehouse drink, an eReader & a couple books a month, buying one toy per month, one children’s outing per month, and purchasing textbooks, the library easily saves us over $3000 per year. In a way, my library card is the most valuable piece of plastic in my purse.
Why do you love the library? How much do you think it saves you each year?
What’s the difference between a frugal person and a spendthrift? Aside from how naturally uptight one is, perhaps the biggest factor is a person’s attitude toward spending. Some people love to spend. For them shopping, whether in store or online, thrift store or high-end, is recreation or even therapy. Others dread spending. They’re the type that counted the contents of their piggy banks with Scrooge-like glee. But whether you emerged from the womb a saver or spender, you can still apply some mindless austerity to your finances by developing a healthy aversion to spending. Here’s how:
1. Shop less often. Generally the less you go into stores or visit retail web sites, the less you’ll buy. Try making a grocery list that will get you through one or two weeks, including household items you’re able to purchase at your discount grocery store. If you need a run for fresh items in between just be sure to stick to your list.
Streamline shopping by working online options to your advantage. Use subscription programs that offer a discount and free shipping to get products you buy regularly delivered to your door. As long as you’re not spending much more for the convenience you’ll save time and mileage costs while avoiding all the tempting “extras” on the way to the milk & diapers. I’ll share the details of how to harness online shopping for savings in my next post.
2. Plan ahead. We already shared how planning ahead helps avoid fast food spending in particular. The principles applies to many budget categories: you plan ahead to buy items at a discount, in bulk, with online subscription discounts, etc. to streamline shopping and avoid over-spending. If you’re anticipating a one-time need, especially for a bigger-ticket item, set up a search on Craiglist or Slickdeals before you’re down to the wire. When planning a trip you can check Groupon in advance for sight-seeing discounts. Waiting till the last minute to make a purchase almost always means you’ll spend more.
Another way to plan ahead is to ask for gifts of items you need. For example, we asked for a car-top carrier for Christmas before our first camping trip with kids. Funnel relatives’ holiday generosity to meeting needs rather than building a useless Stuff collection.
3. Explore other options. Sometimes a little creativity or research can save a lot. For example, Neil’s long been admiring devices that simplify Internet-TV playing, such as the Chromecast or Fire TV Stick. Since we pay nothing for TV, using the good old bunny ears as well internet streaming, the price of $35 for one of these doodads seemed reasonable. But having developed a healthy aversion to spending, he decided to explore other options first. He figured out that the device did the same thing our laptop and an HDMI cable already could. If he didn’t have an aversion to spending he would’ve just bought it when he wanted it. See his chart below summarizing the features and price of the various internet TV streaming devices available. The plain old HDMI cable is the clear winner in most of the important categories.
|Google Chromecast||Roku Streaming Stick||Amazon Fire TV Stick||Regular Ol’ HDMI Cable|
|Physical remote control||No||Yes||Yes||Probably not|
|Phone/tablet app remote control||“Cast” apps only||iOS/Android||Android (iOS “coming soon”)||Maybe|
|Gaming support||Yes||Limited||Yes (optional $40 controller)||Yes, all you can handle|
|Voice search||Via select “cast” apps||Via remote app||Via remote app, optional physical remote ($30)||Sometimes|
|Screen mirroring||via Chrome browser or Android||via Android, Windows 8.1||via Kindle or Android (coming soon)||Yes, full HD, full screen rate|
|Wi-Fi antenna||Single-band||Dual-band/Dual antenna (MIMO)||Dual-band/Dual antenna (MIMO)||Yes|
|Works with “captive portal” Wi-Fi sign-in*||No||No||“Coming Soon”||Yep!|
See Free and Broken for other options to consider, include using something you already have, replacing disposable products with reusable ones (like diapers or napkins), or buying used items.
4. Have kids. Shopping with kids is a great way to develop an aversion to stores, since you first have to load the kids into these parental-torture devices called “car seats.” Then you have to extract them and place them in another device or drag them by hand through the store, while the little buggers snatch merchandise, hide in racks, run away, open the dressing room door, and laugh at you when you try on colored denim. While starting a family might not be the most efficient or economical way to make recreational shopping a distant memory, it may be the fastest. More on how kids don’t cost as much you think in a future post.
5. Value your time. Name your shopping weakness and there’s a whole market devoted to prying open your wallet. But when you realize the time involved in making money, shopping around, purchasing, maintaining, storing, fixing, moving, etc. many items just don’t seem worth the hassle. For example, I like Starbucks coffee. But I am too darn lazy (or value my time too much) to get in the car, drive 5-10 minutes, wait in a drive-thru line, and pay too much for a cup of brew when I’ve got two pounds of coffee sitting in my cupboard and could make it in 2 minutes for a fraction of the price. You could also think of valuing your time as learning the value of a dollar, or an hour. But my biggest motivator is what I’ll do with the time I save.
6. Get a new hobby. Instead of consuming more, why not create more? Replace shopping and Stuff-owning with some of those thrifty ideas you once didn’t make time for. Try a homemade copycat restaurant recipe, DIY a project, bake your own bread, hand-make a gift, grow a garden, or learn a handy skill like sewing, canning, or car-fixing.
If recreational shopping has become a pastime, replace it with a more frugal and fulfilling hobby. Get into jogging, biking, or hiking; dance with your kids; chop some wood. Throw a dinner party. Volunteer. Read more books, paint, learn an instrument, study a language.
People tend to think of “austerity measures” on the personal level as very time-consuming, but once you integrate these steps into your thinking and shopping, your savings are pretty much on autopilot, and if anything you’ll have more free time. Start thinking of spending money and amassing Stuff as an obstacle to more worthy endeavors. Doing what you really want with your life is much of what financial flexibility is all about.
What are your ideas for implementing mindless austerity in your finances? What would you do with a little more free time?