We are fortunate in that our college girl is good at finding jobs and earning scholarships and such. Still, we have a large family and a modest income, so there is always a certain amount of suspense about paying tuition.

In the spring, it is not so bad, since we just send our tax return to the college. But in the fall, it requires scrimping and prayer. This is particularly true this year, since my husband’s company is having a month-long shut-down between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Why they do this at the most expensive time of year is unclear to me, but it is a pretty good economic indicator. If you have been watching for signs of how the economy is going, this is one not to ignore.

So I have been reading the frugality blogs in hope of finding encouragement, inspiration, and good suggestions. Did you know that frugality blogs existed? Frugal for Life is one that I like because it is about voluntary simplicity, not just miserliness. Some of them are about spending as little as possible, regardless of ethics or quality of life, an approach which does not appeal to me. But, just as with knitting blogs, once you go to one, you can click your way around to others. My Adventures in Simple Living may not be a frugality blog per se — I don’t know the genre well enough to be sure — but I find it interesting, and sweet, with updates about carrots and children and things like that, as well as points about environmental issues. I also like Wenchypoo for her abrasive, obnoxious style, though I have to admit that I sometimes don’t grasp her references and often disapprove of her philosophy. I am sure that she wouldn’t care, which is part of her charm.

None of these sites has much in the way of new information. As with knitting blogs, it is more a matter of philosophy and encouragement. After all, “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without” is about all you can say on the subject of frugality, so it is just a matter of saying it in interesting new ways.

But I have been surprised, as I have strolled around these blogs, to find so many of them cautioning against the buying of books and music. Wenchypoo assures us that we need no cookbooks — shove everything in the oven at 350. Several blogs repeat the advice never to buy new books or music, and many say not to buy books at all.

Now I am assuming that they are not speaking out against reading. After all, they do not caution us against buying original art, or scuba diving, or any other hobbies or amusements at all. So I assume that they are counseling us not to buy new books, but rather to find less expensive sources of reading matter.

Let’s say that I am a typical reader. Since I keep track of what I read here at this xanga, I know that I read a pretty consistent dozen books a month. I also buy books for gifts, books for my kids, and what I would think of as reference books — cookbooks, knitting books, that sort of thing.

This week, I bought the following books, for the following reasons:

* a new cookbook by a favorite cookbook author
* a Terry Pratchett hardcover for my mother’s birthday
* Eldest, requested by #2 son
* Beethoven’s Hair, for Book Club

These are all new books, and this is a pretty typical week. However, you may notice that there are not, on this list, any ordinary mass market paperbacks just to keep me in reading matter. This category of reading I have determined to fill by other means.

What other means are available?

First consider the free sources of reading matter.

You can read online for free. Here is a list of sites. In general, this will get you the classics. And that’s a good starting point. It will not get you books to read in bed or in the bathtub, on the porch, on the sofa, or out under your favorite tree.

You can also get free books at the library. My local library is small, and cannot be counted on to provide a steady stream of books for me, although it is a great place to spend a morning. You can trade with friends. I see people reading books for free in comfy chairs at big bookstore chains, too, but I think that is dishonest. A browse through a new knitting book, sure, but reading entire novels that way is over the top. You can also reread books, as I do. I think this is a good option for those of us who already have large home libraries; if you only own ten books to begin with, rereading is not going to supply you with much satisfaction.

There are used books. We have several used book stores in town, and many people have books at their yard sales. You will pay between 1/4 and 1/2 of the price of the book this way — the lower price being either at yard sales or at stores which give you credit for trading in your own used books.  I think that a romance novel reader could use this method successfully. #2 daughter and I invested $34 this summer at one of those places, and I still have not read all the chick lit we garnered. We got a grocery sack full of hot pink and teal-covered books with line drawings of perky girls in heels. Those of us who want to read something else will find that we have far fewer choices.

You can also find used books online. For example, at Bibliofind, you can find this bargain: a $39 book for $120. This happens to be the only online example I have found of a used copy of a rather expensive book I want to buy. It is not typical. Most of the used books I found were priced at less than the retail price, but shipping makes this less of a deal. You are going to pay $3 to $4 for the shipping, before you even count the price of the book. For paperbacks for daily reading, this option is not very good — especially for me, since I have an employee discount. As a means of finding out of print books, this is good, but for everyday reading, it is a washout.

The remaindered or “bargain” racks in bookstores can be a good source of some books, including seasonal books and imports. I like them for reference-type books, but they are not useful for recreational reading. You will not find a good selection of paperback novels there, and the hardcovers will cost more than alternate sources of paperbacks.

Then there are book clubs — not Book Club like my monthly reading group, but the kind that offer you books at a discount in return for a membership. This site claims that you save money that way, but does not offer evidence, and looks rather as though they may being paid to say that.

However, I do belong to a book club of that type. A rough calculation suggests to me that I pay an average of $15 per book by this means. Since most of the books I have gotten from them are craft books with cover prices in the $25 range, this is not bad. However, I think I can also say that I have bought more books of this type than I would have without the club membership. Organized people who do not forget to opt out of the automatic deliveries will find these more economical than people like me. True Scrooges will get the introductory offer, buy the two required books or whatever, and drop the club, then move on to another introductory offer. This can get you lots of cheap books, but it is Wrong.

I also belong to two online sources of books, and they are at present my main source of everyday reading matter. Booksfree is a service like Netflix, but for books. Frugalreader is a book-exchange system. I have used both for months, with complete satisfaction. In both cases, I can get books I want to read for less than $2 a pop. Both are fairly random, but both are also pretty regular. I can expect 4-6 books per month from each of these sources. And while this is not a method for getting to read some particular book as soon as you want it, both offer much more selection and control than used books or clearance racks — at least where I live. Both also have environmental advantages, in that they get books read a lot of times before they hit a landfill. Frugalreader is allowing me to swap my chick lit (see above) for books I actually want. And it is a direct exchange — one book for one book — whereas a used bookstore that gives credit for turned-in books generally nets you one book of theirs for three or more of yours. Booksfree has a subscription fee (it has worked out to about $1.85 per book for me) and Frugalreader costs nothing but the shipping charge (usually $1.42) for the books you send out. You can keep the books you get through Frugalreader.

Others of this type include The Book Cart, Bookcrossing, and Paperback Swap. I haven’t tried any of them, so I can’t speak knowledgeably about them, but I don’t want you to think I have stock in Booksfree and Frugalreader.

My recreational reading costs, when I use these services, are down to less than $20 per month, as opposed to my previous $75 or so. $20 is still more than nothing, but it is still a significant savings, with no loss of civilization.

None of these alternate methods would have gotten me any of the books I bought new this week. If you want a particular book, and especially if you want something at all obscure, you will just have to buy it new. What’s more, somebody has to buy these books new, or the publishers will not continue to publish them. But if you have flexibility and are doing your part to keep the publishing industry afloat, these alternatives might help you cut your book budget without actually having to read less.