A Home Library on a Budget: 9 Places to Find Free and Low-Cost Books

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It’s hard to beat your local library for an endless supply of free reading material. However, it’s nice to have a personal library, too — keeping your perennial favorites and books that you want to reference often close at hand.

On one hand, having your own books means you don’t have to worry about limited library hours or using gas to drive to the local library. On the other, books can be expensive. With new books often costing $10 or more each, it’s not easy to justify buying very many. What’s a penny-hoarding voracious reader to do?

Fortunately, there are several ways to build your own personal library for free or with a very small cost. Here are my favorite places to find free and low-cost books.

Where to Find Free Books

Books from these sources won’t cost you a cent, but will require some of your time. You’ll need to request books, write short reviews or earn points to convert to gift cards.

1. Review Copies From Publishers

Bloggers in any niche can get free copies of soon-to-be-released books from major publishers in exchange for reviews on your blog or social media.

For example, Book Look Bloggers requests a 200-word review posted to a book retailer’s website before you can request your next book. Library Thing, First Reads, Bethany House, and Tyndale House Publishers also have programs that offer free books in exchange for honest reviews.

2. Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library

Lucky kids in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia can get a free book every month from the Dolly Parton Foundation.

You must live in an area that offers the program; click the “register my child” link to see if your child is eligible. If you don’t qualify — or you don’t have kids — why not share this opportunity with friends or family members who might?

3. Swagbucks

This isn’t exclusively a way to get books, but as a member of Swagbucks, you can earn virtual cash doing simple everyday things like searching the web, checking your credit report and shopping online.

Redeem your Swagbucks for genuine $5 gift card codes on Amazon. Once you’ve built up a few of these cards, you’ll be able to pre-order your favorite author’s latest release, instead of joining a waiting list with 29 other library patrons.

Where to Get Nearly Free Books

For just the cost of postage or fuel, trade an unwanted book — or one you’ve finished reading — for one that you’d really like.

4. Little Free Libraries

The premise is simple: take a book and leave a book in one of the small boxes in various locations around the world.

If you haven’t seen Little Free Libraries’ book houses around your town, check out their website to see if there’s one in your community — or even start one. Last summer, I found one outside a McDonald’s near my home. I made sure to always keep a few books in the car so that I always had one to leave in case I found one that I wanted.

5. Paperback Swap

This online community boasts an ever-changing inventory of more than 4 million books with more being added every minute. When you join and list 10 books you’re willing to give away, you get two credits to request books from other members. Each time you send a book and the recipient marks it as received, you get a credit.

I’ve used Paperback Swap to send and receive several dozen books since 2009. The site estimates that I’ve saved over $400 as a result of swapping! I’ve only had one problem when a recipient’s mail carrier was in an accident and the book was ruined in the snow.

Finding Cheap Books

To maximize your ability to participate in the Little Free Library and Paperback Swap programs, invest a few dollars in bargain-priced books by popular authors or bestsellers so that you can trade them for books you do want to read and keep long-term. These are my favorite places to find cheap books:

6. Scholastic Reading Clubs

In college, I built up a 200+ book elementary classroom library on my dish-room employee salary with the 99-cent specials and low-priced paperbacks through a classmate who ran a Scholastic Reading Club.

Check with your child’s teacher to see if they’ll make the book orders available, or sign up if you’re a teacher in a public, private or home school. As a bonus, teachers who organize reading clubs earn points to redeem for free books.

7. Thrift Stores

The kind and quality of books you’ll find in local thrift stores vary by the store and region. I find that the best books are at thrift stores in more affluent neighborhoods or towns. A friend of mine once found a set of hardcover Harry Potter books in excellent condition for a dollar each and resold the books on Ebay for a nice profit.

8. Garage Sales

Again, you’re not guaranteed to find anything you like, but if you’re looking for children’s books, keep your eyes open for garage sales held by retiring teachers. They usually have immense classroom libraries and often just want to pass on their books to eager readers as they downsize and enter retirement.

9. Library Sales

To make room for all their new books and generate money to pay for guest lectures and programs, most libraries have book sales once or twice a year. I’ve bought hardcovers for $1 to $2 and paperbacks for $0.50 to $1.

For the best selection, be there when the doors open on the first day. On the last day of the sale, prices are usually slashed even further, allowing you to get a bag full of books for just a few dollars.

Charlotte Edwards is a freelance personal finance and parenting writer whose work has appeared in Incomes Abroad, We the Savers, and My Kids’ Adventures. She’s the wife of a great penny-pinching guy, and mom of two kiddos who are learning about saving and wise spending by earning commission for housework.