Buying used books vs. trading by mail: Which is cheaper?

Exchanging books by mail is an incredible bargain, but shopping at a used bookstore has the added benefit of supporting a local business.

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    In this file photo, bookseller Rich Fitzpatrick holds stacks of used paperback books at his used bookstore, the Braintree Book Rack. Hamm argues that swapping books through the mail is cheaper than buying them used, but buying used books supports a local business.
    John Nordell/The Christian Science Monitor/File
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Saving Pennies or Dollars is a new semi-regular series on The Simple Dollar, inspired by a great discussion on The Simple Dollar’s Facebook page concerning frugal tactics that might not really save that much money. I’m going to take some of the scenarios described by the readers there and try to break down the numbers to see if the savings is really worth the time invested.

Connie writes in: I trade books by mail. It costs me about $2 to send out a book via media mail and I have to also spend the materials to wrap it. If I just swap page turners at my local used book store, I can get them at $2.50 a pop if I buy a bunch at once. Am I really saving anything trading by mail?

This sounds like you use PaperBackSwap, a service I love and have been using for years. Much like you, I’ve been curious at times whether or not it’s worth it and I’ve ran the numbers several times. Each time, I’m pretty sure I’ve decided it’s a good deal.

For starters, my estimate of the cost of my supplies is about ten cents. I use a sheet or two of printer paper, a single printed page with black and white ink on it, and some packing tape. Media mail varies by weight, but the typical range for me is $2.41 for a paperback in the mail. So, my total cost for shipping out a book is $2.51.

Now, let’s compare that to the used bookstore. At my local used bookstore, they will take most books in trade for anywhere from $0.25 to $1. They also sell used books at varying prices, anywhere from $1 (for Harlequin romances and the like) to $5 (mostly hardbacks). There’s also sales tax on your purchases, so that tacks on another 7%.

If I were just swapping for Harlequin romances, the local used bookstore would probably be cheaper. I could trade in one for $0.25, buy a new one for $1 (minus the $0.25 credit), and walk out of there having paid about $0.80 for a novel.

However, most of the books I want to read there are on the $3 or $4 shelves. I tend to read a lot of nonfiction, some science fiction and fantasy, and some general fiction, too. I might get $0.50 in trade for the books I bring in, but my net cost is either $2.50 or $3.50 for a book I want to read, plus the sales tax. That means either $2.68 or $3.75 for a new (to me) book after paying the sales tax.

If you add on top of that the fact that I can do PaperBackSwap at home whenever I want and there’s a much more extensive selection there, it starts to become a no-brainer.

In Connie’s case, she’s shipping out books for $2.51 via media mail, or she’s buying them for $2.68 at her local used bookstore. For her, the cost is pretty close, so it really comes down to other values. Would she rather support the local business? Or would she rather enjoy a larger selection online?

As for me, I’ll just keep using PaperBackSwap. It’s a service I’ve used for many years to recycle my read books because it’s convenient and the selection is pretty good.

There’s also another take-home point here. If you’re an avid reader, trading used books is really a bargain. Let’s say I spend eight hours reading a book that I swapped for $2.51. That means I was entertained for a cost of about $0.30 per hour.

While that’s not as cheap as the library, it’s pretty cheap, and there’s no danger of late fees or other such things if you don’t get your book finished or if your son drops a library book behind his bed.

Not only that, if you read something at least a little challenging, you’re growing your mind, too. You’re learning something new and improving your literacy. That’s what I call a real value.

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