Get Rich With: Your Local Public Library

A few years ago, I learned the most shocking fact about public libraries:

Not everybody uses them!

“No!”, you may say, “That’s impossible – how else do people get their books?”

The scary answer that I discovered is that some people have developed a habit of regularly buying books which cost them $10 – $30 each, reading them, and then collecting them on an ever-growing series of bookshelves.

When you talk to a compulsive book collector, you’ll hear things like, “Oh, but I just LOVE books. They are my guilty pleasure. I love the feel of them, the smell of the paper, the beautiful covers and the way they look all lined up on my bookshelf. I love just being able to move slowly along my bookshelf on a Sunday morning, looking at all the titles, picking out books I haven’t read in years and sitting down and re-reading them, and blah blah blah”

I can relate to all these feelings, because I also get pretty excited when I walk past a big collection of books. I read whenever I get a chance, and I am overjoyed that so many books exist to provide me with a lifetime of unlimited learning and entertainment. The only difference is that I have several hundred thousand of them, and a paid staff who roams through my modern curved-glass 20,000 square foot book storage facility, automatically maintaining them and buying more for me constantly. I have so many books that I share them with everyone in my entire city, and we’ve even come to an agreement where we ALL pay just a few dollars per year each for the facility, and yet any one of us can borrow any of the books. By pooling our buying power together like this, everyone wins, and yet none of us have to waste space in our house storing books that we are not currently reading! We love our book sharing facility so much, we decided to call it the “Public Library”.

I know the home-based bookshelf is emotionally attractive to many who fancy themselves to be intellectuals. But if you are really that smart, why are you paying dearly for something that you can get for free?

All of us probably know one of these people, who buys “just a harmless book or two every week or so from Amazon, because hey, it’s only twelve bucks, and I’m a highly paid office worker, and I don’t really have many other vices”.  But unless this person is already completely financially independent, he might eventually wake up and notice over ten thousand dollars leaking from his ‘Stash every ten years from such a habit. A large book collection also amounts to a boat anchor of unnecessary belongings making future moves more difficult for you, not to mention the sizeable amount of natural resources that went into harvesting, printing, and shipping a thousand pounds of dead trees to your house.

But instead of the negatives of book collecting, let’s focus on the positives of library membership. The Money Mustache family can speak from experience here, since we have become enormous fans of the place over the past six years.

My city’s library is an unusually nice building, located in a scenic part of downtown. It’s within a 7-minute bike ride of my house, which has nothing to do with luck – we picked our current location specifically to be close to the library as well as the school, grocery stores, and the rest of the city’s amenities.  Because of this nice proximity, all three of us tend to visit at least once a week on average.

It romances all of us and sucks us in by catering to every one of our interests.

A kid in a library is just as amazed as a kid in Disneyland. The children’s section has thousands of kid-oriented books on all subjects, placed on low shelves encouraging them to dive in. There are also play areas, educational computers and games, and a gigantic model train set that was donated and maintained by a local model railroad club (i.e., friendly old dudes who still like toy trains and kids).

With no experience in turning to broadcast television for his storytelling entertainment (in fact, I’m not sure if he even knows it exists), Junior ‘Stash naturally turns to books. He reads simple ones to us, and we read complicated ones to him. It really seems to add up over time – we’ve read him somewhere over 50 full-sized novels during the normal bedtime reading sessions, including most of the Harry Potter series and more recently Ender’s Game.

Mrs Money Mustache heads upstairs and loads up her backpack with books about gardening, parenting, and intelligent-looking Lady novels with obscurely artsy titles and drawn-out and emotional subject matter.

I’ll usually end up in the non-fiction section and get books about economics, investing, technology, social trends, as well as cheesy self-help books, construction guides, and on a special occasion a little bit of science fiction or action – like Snow Crash or Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson.

Between all of us, we tend to have 30 books checked out at any given time, and we make the most of the generous six-weeks-including-renewal holding period.

What a wonderful place. When you visit the library regularly, you start to notice that it’s not just a local government service that lends you books. It’s a place where the whole community of people interested in learning gathers together, secretly avoiding the TV and the shopping mall that gets the attention of everyone else. Local experts come in and give free talks in the conference rooms. People stop by to donate their recent issues of magazines after reading them. Volunteers raise and donate money and books.  Surplus library books get sold off for a buck each.  Little display tables get set up with currently applicable themes. There was a “peak oil” display recently with some articles, magazines, and books all laid out, free for anyone to sign out and read. And there is free wi-fi access throughout for those who want to just tune in and read on their laptop or phone.

Overall, you can get the equivalent of another complete University education in a different field, every few years,  just by being a regular visitor and letting your curiosity lead you around. You’ll learn new skills even while you enjoy the ultimate free leisure activity. All in a nice building surrounded by relatively cool people.

So your local library is much more than just your well-stocked home bookshelf. It’s really a Temple of Mustachianism, at which you would do well to start worshiping if you are not doing so already.


  • Kathy September 26, 2014, 7:11 am

    For those who own a Kindle, like me, don’t feel guilty. Amazon has an owner’s lending library now :) Free to borrow and no due dates- there’s just a limit to how many books you can rent at one time. The selection is decent too!


  • Tigerlily October 14, 2014, 11:23 am

    I have always been a major library user, and we have both a great city library (around 500,000) and a good county library, but best of all we have the BookThing of Baltimore where I have been volunteering for 9 years. We are open to
    the public, to take books, on the weekend, and in between we restock. All books are free with a stamp we put inside them so the booksellers won’t take them for resale. When we are stocked for the weekend we have around 250,000
    on the shelves, and happy folk from the community take home around 25,000 a week. Yes, that is for real, and even better we have a changing stock. It is volunteer staffed by the founder. A few times a year folks from the Philippines
    and a few African country’s come and take enough books to fill half a shipping container, which they have raised money for at home. They do get to come during the week. Our signs say ‘be greedy’, and the tongue and cheek limit
    it 50,000 per person.

  • YzTufo March 8, 2015, 10:03 pm

    …better return your books to the library!

  • Mark Richards March 17, 2015, 7:37 am

    I wonder if there is some connection between the Mustachian lifestyle and the anti-establishment and anti-corporate themes that run so prevalently in Cyber-Punk literature. Man that’s cool, if so.

  • jedsbud March 21, 2015, 2:12 pm

    I do love the library and thank you for bragging on your local library. It is a shame I don’t use it for all of my book needs as I still buy about one book a month for me and my sons to read, but I do always have something checked out or on order from the library.

    I just found your site about a month ago and I am slowly working my way through your posts. Your article on ‘No Impact Man’ intrigued me but was not available via Netflix, so I turned to the next best thing, my local library. Ordered it three days ago and picked it up today. How about that for service!

    Now I just need to get off my tail and start biking to the Library. It’s only 3.6 miles away!

  • Rachel August 25, 2015, 11:54 am

    I just discovered that my library even has *FREE* online classes on a variety of topics for library card holders. I signed up for one to check it out!

  • Marcus November 16, 2015, 2:32 am

    It would be interesting to see an update that mentions some of the online resources that libraries have. Overdrive media console is one program that I enjoy using to read and listen to books on my kindle and phone.

    • ActiveAnton January 5, 2017, 12:10 pm

      Hey MMM,

      I 2nd that. I use Overdrive and it’s totally awesome. You can get audiobooks, e-books, movies, and more with your library card! It’s legal and FREE. Mention it!


  • kindoflost August 11, 2016, 6:01 pm

    I confess I am guilty of wanting books in my shelves. But I haven’t bought a book new since college. And the public library is my favorite source of old books. The friends of my local public library have a permanent place in the lobby where they sell books out of circulation from 25 cents and about every quarter they also host a big sale where you can fill a bag for $5. Another good place for old books are the local thrift stores. Our Disabled American Veterans also has a store solely dedicated to old books. If I look for a specific title I try eBay or AddAll.com for used books.

  • Be September 28, 2016, 12:07 pm

    I enjoyed a small victory yesterday in convincing my spouse to use the library instead of purchasing a book.
    Personally, I hate owning books because it eventually means packing and moving books. Books are heavy! They get dusty! Let the librarians dust, sort and stack them. I completely agree.
    My only exception there is 3 recipe books – one from my homeland (New Zealand), one inherited from my late grandmother and one for dietary requirements. It would be impractical (and in the case of the inherited book, impossible) to borrow these each time I needed to refer to them.

  • Jarrett November 14, 2016, 10:07 am

    Hey there Mustachians,

    I am a public librarian and I thought I could add to this thread by sharing a useful tool for quantifying the value of a public library. For Excel Sheet nerds like me, I like to see exactly how much I’m saving versus what I’d spend if I bought a service (like a book or a magazine) myself.

    The American Library Association has a handy calculator for quantifying the value of your public library, it is available here: http://www.ala.org/advocacy/advleg/advocacyuniversity/toolkit/makingthecase/library_calculator

    Thanks and keep up the great work!

  • Shfarmgirl October 27, 2017, 9:30 pm

    Since we live in a rural area which is not bike friendly for children, unfortunately we do not use the public library very much. When I have tried we always end up having to pay fines for being late. Though my children utilize their school Library every week and bring home many books. When I see a book mentioned that I am interested in I look on ABEbooks.com. Many times it is the same advertisers that are on Amazon but because the fees are much less the books are always a few dollars cheaper. Most of the books that I buy are only three dollars and that includes shipping. The fire stations, parks and other public areas around here have little boxes in front of them called the little free libraries. They are a great place to donate your used books and pick up new book or 2 free. It is basically a free swap box and we use them frequently. By the time I figure what I would pay in gas to get to the library and bring the book back to the library, probably with a late fee, it has worked out to be far more economical for me to purchase on ABEbooks.com. I have found their prices to be the best, and they usually have some sort of promo code for a percentage off your order.

  • Jessi February 20, 2018, 10:05 am

    Hi MMM,

    the problem with the libraries around me is that they just dont have the latest books or a good selection. I rent books from there, but they mainly have year old books if that when it comes to areas like business, investing, finance etc, which interest me. Any tips on that?
    This is a problem as it means the library really isnt a substitute for buying books for me.
    btw, reading through all your posts, loving it:)

  • PetrusB March 26, 2018, 8:20 am

    I’m a huge Kindle fan as I find reading on it much easier than fiddling with pages of a heavy book or always needing some form of light. Problem of course is that this limits your lending options. As an English speaking person living in Germany the Amazon lending is mostly in German. In time this will be okay as my German improves, but for now it is problematic. One last point of course is the authors. As with any frugality decision it means that someone is not getting paid. I would love to see a system where we can still give something to the authors directly. I am sure if everyone starts to only use public libraries the authors would not be happy.

  • Hex16 May 26, 2018, 6:03 am

    You’ve inspired me to bike to my local library today and check out “A random walk down Wall Street”.

    I also like checking out audio books from the library. Our library has a mobile app that allows you to check out some audio books directly from your phone!

  • Denise Melanson October 25, 2018, 6:45 pm

    So, that is all well and good. And when I am in the US or another english first language country, i hook up with folks who have library cards. But i live in The Netherlands, in a small town , biking distance from work (and walking from my daughters school) but the library has 1 -ONE shelf of english language books. I went through them in month 1 of my moving in. For my daughter, not 1 shelf but one crate of books in english ranging from 1 – 6 qua difficulty. so amazon unlimited is my friend…
    thoughts? (and yes i could read Dutch for pleasure but then it isn’t quite as pleasurable although i do read only a dutch paper).

  • SkyH May 21, 2019, 12:44 pm

    Man, not to mention all of the other Amazing things at the library such as Movies, TV Shows, Internet access not just at the library, but also portable hotspots to borrow, etc. It’s worth asking your library what they have, I found out ours also has a bicycle, thermal camera and some other odd stuff. I know the original post was several years ago, but even back in the 2000s, my small time library had VHS and some DVDs.

    And not only do you have the selection of your local branch, but most times, branches are under an umbrella district that can share even more from one to the next so be sure to check the inventory online, because the other branch may have it if yours doesn’t!

  • jcwords October 7, 2019, 7:01 am

    I’m a lifelong reader (have never owned a TV), and have enjoyed the library during many seasons of life. However, the library rarely has anything I want anymore. Most of my reading is in educational philosophy, theology, peace and justice (and I do a lot of writing in those) or in the classics for fiction. I occasionally read mysteries, and I’ve ended up collecting used editions of the early-mid-20th century authors I prefer as they have been discarded by the library. In addition, I’ve kept my childhood collection of fiction, purchased for 10-15 cents each, and it’s been enjoyed by my children and now my grandchildren and their friends, and I still re-read it. For me, a home library has been valuable, but I know that a public library is tremendously valuable for families who don’t already own books or people who move a lot. Now that I know it’s helpful to library support to check out books, I will definitely make an effort to check out something at least once a month. I just wish they had more items of interest.

  • Josh October 5, 2022, 3:45 pm

    Ouch. This one hit close to home. I’m an avid library user, but I find that my taste in books is a little atypical for a few genres, namely philosophy and urban design/planning, which my local library has a tiny selection of. Instead I tend to accumulate these books used either online or at awesome used book stores you’ll find in hipster small cities and in big cities where unpopular hardcovers can be as low as $5. I tend to sniff them out whenever I’m traveling. I know it’s not very Mustachian, but my goal is to accumulate a small library of these books to pass on to another nerd like me who struggles to find “Fourth most popular work by famous (to philosophy nerds) philosopher.” Considering urban planning is my profession, I like the idea of having a concentration of urbanist works to leave in my office when I retire or pass on to interested colleagues. As for my habit of reading Sir Terry Pratchett novels, I check those out at the library. And I never buy books new unless I have a specific one I want to read have no other choice.


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