How much is your library card worth?



If someone would pay me to read literature I would never have to work another day in my life.  I love reading.  Some people have bumper stickers that say, “I’d rather be golfing/hunting/knitting/fishing/etc.”  Guess what mine would say??

My old behemoth of a bookcase used to be filled with all the books I ever read from high-school on.  I’m a pretty big minimalist, but I always wanted to hold on to my books.  They were a big part of who I was, and I liked the idea of having them on display as an identity signifier in my future home (and also maybe to re-read, but that never seemed to happen).

Maybe I matured enough to realize that I didn’t need that external identity validation or maybe my minimalist instincts simply won out in the end.  Either way, I eventually donated all my books to Goodwill and took a tax write-off.  The tax write-off was pretty nice but nowhere near as large as the original face value of the purchased books.

Fast forward to today… I get my books from the local library for free (or as hand-me-downs from friends), I maintain a digital book shelf at Goodreads, and I don’t have any traumatic scarring from the hasty Goodwill book donation of yore.

The numbers:

So how much is this new lifestyle worth (borrowing from the library vs. buying books)?  It all depends on how you frame the situation, but going to the library versus buying new books is worth about $800 dollars over ten years.  I’ll get into more details below.

  • 10-Year NPV: $773
  • 10-Year ROI: 94%
  • 10-Year Payback: 0.6 years
roi - library vs new books

click for link to live spreadsheet

chart - library vs new book

These numbers aren’t that impressive, unfortunately, but there are a few things going on here.  First off, average people don’t read a ton; therefore they don’t spend a lot of money on books in the first place.  The median adult reads 8 books a year according to a 2011 PEW study.  If an average new book costs $16, then this person is only spending $128 per year on books.

Secondly, I’m assuming that the average book buyer is going to buy from Amazon, which means free delivery and no wasted travel time to and from the bookstore.  Versus the library scenario, where someone has to physically walk or ride a bike to both pickup and drop off their borrowed books.

Each situation is unique, but my personal library time costs are a lot lower because I borrow and download ebooks directly from my home computer.  Removing the time/labor costs of library trips essentially doubles the value of borrowing books versus buying them, meaning that my free library card is actually worth about $160 every year, or $1,600 after 10 years.

But, working against the library ROI is the fact that I actually bought my books used in the past, at prices well below the suggested retail value.  Assuming no library trips are needed, the library still wins out versus buying used books; however, if library trips are required, the scenario is much more of a toss-up.

And then there is even another variable that I didn’t want to model… driving costs.  If someone is driving to the library versus walking, biking, and/or not even having to go at all, the value proposition becomes even more difficult.

As usual, it all depends on the details of the situation, but on the whole it appears that borrowing from the library is usually a smarter decision.  Seventy bucks a year isn’t something to retire on, but it is definitely a marginal improvement.  Think about it this way; multiplied by three people, this is about 1.2% of a $25,000 family budget.  And of course, the savings are higher for people that read more than 8 books a year.

  1. Buy 8 new books a year (PEW)
  2. New books cost average of $16 (School Library Journal)
  3. Library trips don’t involve cars and take 30 minutes each way
  4. Your time is worth $10.00 per hour
  5. $2.00 in late fees every year from library (building in some wiggle room for when your running behind on finishing Infinite Jest)
More thoughts on reading:

Reading might not make us better, more ethical human beings, but there is some evidence that it improves social skills, empathy, and emotional intelligence.  If I had to guess, I would say it probably also helps with language skills and keeps the brain a little sharper.  Some people even argue that readers are the best people to fall in love with.  But I’m not in this for the icing, like Jay-Z, I’m after the cake (cake, cake, cake, cake) (aka the reading experience itself).

There isn’t anything like getting lost in a great novel (or literary non-fiction book).  For me, the main pleasures of reading come from well-developed characters and new ways of seeing the world.  I don’t have a source, but I came across an article that said people’s brains react to reading fiction in much the same way they do to socializing with actual people.  It is well-known that socializing with friends and family is one of the most important determinants of happiness, and based on how pleasurable reading can be, the findings aren’t all that surprising.

To top it off, in the context of how long a book might take to read, the value per dollar of reading for pleasure is hard to beat elsewhere.  You might not be producing or earning money, but you definitely aren’t throwing it away either.

So with that being said, here are, in my humble opinion, some books that will really stretch your dollar per unit of reading pleasure:

  • Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño
  • 2666 by Roberto Bolaño
  • A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
  • Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Schteyngart
  • Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro
  • Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger
  • Underworld by Don DeLillo
  • Bangkok 8 (series) by John Burdett
  • Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
  • The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow
  • Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson
  • Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
  • Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem
  • The Sacred Book of the Werewolf by Victor Pelevin
  • The Wind-up Bird Chronicles by Haruki Murakami

You can find most of these books at your library I would guess.  I have a longer list here too.  And if you want to be really systematic about it, I have an old awards-based ranking here (and below), although the sizing leaves much to be desired.

I also really like the n+1 and Paris Review literary magazines if you’re into that kind of thing (I’m really enjoying the work Kristin Dombek is putting out at both of these magazines lately, particularly her essay, “How to Quit” in n+1, although “Letter from Williamsburg” is great too.)  And finally, from a more conservative side of the spectrum, I thought this Marilynne Robinson meditation on beauty was really solid.

What about you?  Do you have a penchant for reading fiction or non-fiction, or for certain books or authors?  I’m always looking for new recommendations and more generally just curious to hear more about what you’re enjoying these days.  Let me know what’s good and thanks for stopping by!


*UPDATE: I forgot to mention how much I like the New Yorker Fiction Podcast.  Check it out here.


Literary Awards Analysis:


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  1. D. Hoover says:

    Usually just look up the best short fiction from two years ago, and then I get it from the library. Always reading great stuff, rarely waiting long for it.

    A serious one that doesn’t suck that bad: “Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It,” by Maile Malloy(sp?)

    Books that have at least made me grin:
    Peter Farrelly, Comedy Writer
    Richard Russo, Straight Man
    David Sedaris (lots of stuff)
    Michael Chabon, Wonder Boys
    Chuck Klosterman, Downtown Owl

    • Love David Sedaris. My brother also just finished The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon, which he couldn’t stop talking about. So I guess I need to check him out (was Wonder Boys a movie?.. cause I think I saw it a long time ago in high school).

      Maile Meloy looks pretty decorated too… might need to add that one to the goodreads shelf. Thanks for the recs!

      • Yes, Kavalier & Clay is excellent, and Wonder Boys was adapted into a movie. I don’t care for Chabon’s other work.

  2. I really like non-fiction and historical fiction, and I’ve been loving my university library as we can request books from the entire university system and have the books delivered to the library closest to us. I’ll miss that service when I graduate.

    Currently working on The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker, a non-fiction about the history and evolution of violence and our response to it from antiquity to modernity. The next fiction I’d like to read is A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews.

    • Man, Steven Pinker sounds so familiar. I’m pretty sure I’ve read some of his evolutionary psychology stuff before. The Better Angels of Our Nature sounds pretty heavy, but this is coming from a fiction junkie 🙂

      Both my Dad and my wife are big historical fiction and non-fiction fans, and they are, however, slowly rubbing off on me (Devil in the White City, Trinity by Leon Uris).

      And btw, A Complicated Kindness looks pretty amazing. I mean look at all those awards and a Canadian female author…. Color me swooned. If you remember, please let me know what you think after you’re done.

  3. Hey FG. I like the numbers. When I stopped working and started 1. paying attention to expenses 2. started reading more to stay on top of my game, I quickly realized I needed to use the library. The online tools are fantastic and, at a rate of 70 books a year (over $1,000 per your estimates), I can’t afford not to use this wonderful, convenient and plentiful resource.

    I love the new blog template/theme BTW.

    • Dang… 70 books a year! Props on REALLY staying on top of your game!

      If only I was free to pursue that kind of lifestyle 😉

      Thanks for the design love…. I appreciate it.

  4. I like the library card benefits. My conversation goes something like this when books come up. “Yeah I don’t buy books, they cost money. But they are so cheap on my Kindle/Nook/Ipad, yeah but they don’t cost anything at the library. It’s going to be hard to convince me that spending money is better than not spending any at all.” The conversation doesn’t differ much any time it is brought up. There is some one off situations, but it goes back to I spend $0. Nice post, thanks.

    • Yeah, hard to argue with $0 dollars. I try to take it a step further with the intangible costs similar to what MMM does on his clown car habit post… there is a value to time, both on the upside and downside that I’m trying to capture.

      For example, if you have to wait in line for a free book, when does it stop being free? A 15 minute wait, a 30 minute wait, 24 hours, etc. Everyone will draw the line eventually.

      But all my analyses DO have the hard value with growth number so you can separate intangible and tangible values (ie: remove the time component).

      Thanks for the comment and visit!

  5. In the early twentieth century, in his series of lectures entitled Pragmatism, the philosopher and psychologist William James advanced the thesis that, broadly speaking, people can be separated into two general categories of personality – tough minded and tender minded.

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