Find books for cheap or free reads

If you love to read, you know the cost of books can really add up. A tempting new hardback can run $25 or more. It’s a small price to pay for hours of enjoyment — and sometimes, years of memories, a new skill or a new perspective on life. But when times are tight, books are an area where you can trim costs.

Not so cheap

As a writer myself, with writer friends, I find the idea of not supporting authors to be really sad. And yet, in the interest of both money and decluttering, I know all too well that books take up a lot of room — and very few get read again, even for a household of avid readers like ours.

Books are collectible, you say? Perhaps a signed first edition. But my grandmother died with a house full of thousands of books — many of them collected intentionally — and more than 500 are still in my garage, listed online for sale but unsold. And we kept only the best.

I also like to support my wonderful local bookstore. Unfortunately, the nature of expanding information means they very frequently don’t have the title I want — so supporting them means planning ahead and having them order the title, which they happily do.

As a solution, I buy books of friends, and I often buy and have autographed a copy of a book when I attend an author’s reading. This isn’t a huge expenditure; I attend a reading every year or so, sometimes a few times a year. These books are special to me. If a book is not so special (like the reading where the author acted put upon to be there, insulted our city, and then the book wasn’t even good), I resell it.

Cheaper

New books are available at a discount on Amazon.com (where, for instance, Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day costs $16.77 instead of the cover price of $27.95). Discounts on bestsellers and classics are available at Barnes & Noble online (where AAA members save an additional 5% and get free shipping) and Borders.

Used books are available online aplenty, and they add the benefit of re-use to that of saving money.

Used books on Amazon are even cheaper than new ones (usually  — but do double check). And Alibris and ABEBooks have millions of used books, from inexpensive paperbacks to valuable collectibles — including textbooks. Do a search online and you’ll find services comparing prices for the book you need. Be sure to check shipping costs for the total cost to receive a book.

Cheapest

Thrift stores typically have a motherlode of books. In our area, prices range from 50 cents for children’s paperbacks to $10 for special volumes. On a half-price day, those prices are cut in half. Also, stores now assign their colored stickers to books, too, and those tags are featured on sale for half off on certain days.

During garage sale season, books can be found even cheaper — sometimes 10 cents each or whatever you can bargain the seller down to. Face it — they’re just glad to get those dusty tomes out of the basement, so your gain is their gain.

Local used book exchanges can be a great deal. My grandfather, who is far cheaper than I, made a science out of getting cheap reads when he and my grandmother traveled the country in their fifth-wheel trailer. He would take a grocery sack of paperbacks to a used bookstore in any location and trade them the sack for a sack full of different books. Grandma didn’t get to pick and choose what she read — but she had a plentiful supply to carry her to their next stop, without cluttering up their tiny portable living space.

Online book swaps serve the same function, but you do get to pick and choose. PaperBackSwap.com currently has over 3 million books available; BookMooch.com has some 500,000 and has ways to share books with charity. The books themselves are free: You list what you have to give away, and then you earn points to claim others’ books. The only cost is postage for shipping. Use the U.S. Postal Service’s “media mail” option to save significantly on shipping costs, although transit will take a bit longer.

Free books

If you like the idea of book swapping with a “random acts of kindness” angle, a nod to “Where’s George,” and a dash of geocaching, check out BookCrossing.com. On this site, you give your book a tracking number, “release” it somewhere in your community, and note on the site where you left it. Other participants can “catch” the book, log it at the site, read it and pass it on.

Many communities have places where books are available for free. Check your work lunchroom, your local coffee shop, sushi restaurant or bar for a discreet stash of books. You can read while you sit, and in some places, you can take a book, leave a book.

Have similar-minded friends over for brunch and a book swap. Everyone can bring books they no longer want and go home with a few good reads, prescreened by friends.

The library is, of course, the queen of free reads (well, funded by your tax dollars). If your library’s collection leaves something to be desired, learn your way around Interlibrary Loan. Even in rural areas with small libraries, readers can access the world’s collections this way.

And I just found this great service — if you’ve always wanted to read War and Peace, but you just never found the room on your nightstand, you can now do so, one day at a time. DailyLit.com will deliver a manageable chunk of a book to your e-mail every day. In just 663 installments, you’ll be done with War and Peace — and you can read it guilt- and back-pain free on your smart phone while waiting for the kids at soccer, or have it arrive for a fast pick-me-up at work in the afternoon.

What have I missed?

What are your secrets for finding great values on books?

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Green and cheap go together

Busy Monday here!

I don’t have a full post for you today, but I will direct you to this list of “Green and Cheap” articles on Wise Bread. This excellent blogger collective has pulled together their top 21 posts on how to be frugal and eco-friendly.

I know, that topic sounds familiar, doesn’t it? I am oh so proud to have been ahead of this curve here at Cheap Like Me. For my part, I started this blog as a way to share my tips for saving money … and also living life the way I like it (that is to say, indulging my weaknesses for coffee, yarn, eating delicious food and remaining at least near the realm of fashion). But being me, I also feel a responsibility to attempt to minimize my impact on the planet. Et voila, by being more environmentally friendly, you can save loads of money … to apply to travel, or sushi, or finding gorgeous sweaters at Goodwill, or building a henhouse, or building a nest egg, or whatever suits your fancy.

As the economy has drifted south (or shot there quickly in a handbasket), the “green” trend that grew last year has embraced the frugal trend and now they are entwined as consistently as characters on The Real World. But we’ve been here all the while. Thanks for riding along.

Sign up now for CSA vegetables

Some of us are complaining about holiday debt. Much of the North American population is bellyaching about the frigid temperatures. But for some of us, the worst part of this time of year is opening the fridge and finding that we have to actually go to the store to purchase vegetables.

Sure, we miss the food we grew in our garden. But honestly, between the kale overload, the dog eating all of my beautiful haricots verts, the tomatoes that didn’t get ripe enough, the peanuts that didn’t grow and the Brussels sprouts that (as usual) did not manage to finish their sprouty business before winter arrived, the garden was a bit of a drag.

What we are really lacking is the produce from our CSA, which overflowed our refrigerator from June through December.

That’s because last year, we joined a community-supported agriculture program that supplied our veggies from mid-June to mid-December. We’ve just signed up again, and I hope you’ll think about doing the same.

What is a CSA?

If you’re unfamiliar with CSAs, here’s the rundown. Community-supported agriculture is just as it sounds: The community supports an agricultural enterprise directly. Members of a farm’s CSA arrangement pay a subscription fee for a “share” (or a portion of a share) of the farm’s produce. Some CSAs require members to pick up produce at the farm. Others set up convenient locations where members collect their shares.

  • Farmers benefit from having a predictable income stream, and gaining income that comes in before they have to start purchasing seeds and other supplies.
  • Members benefit from paying ahead for their produce, obtaining local (and usually organic) produce nearly direct to their door. Usually, the price for the share is a fair deal — and sometimes it’s a great deal.

Joining now is a great idea

Ideally, CSA members pay the fee as early as possible, so that the farm can purchase seeds, equipment, hire employees, pay for insurance, and handle all the myriad expenses that go along with growing our food.

In the words of our CSA, Grant Family Farms:

This is a very important time for the farm, for when there is nothing to harvest, we have no cash flow, and with the CSA we have embarked on an attempt to become a sustainable farm model, a new chapter to the history of farming.

Here in Colorado, where our CSA is based, farmers are facing challenges heading into this growing season. Again from Grant Farms:

As you know we took a very direct hit this season with a very angry August hail storm. Thankfully, you all had patience and understanding as the crops recovered for a great bounty in the fall.  To make a long story short, with the hail storm and the devastatingly strong winds in October, blowing much of our corn harvest to the ground, Grant Family Farms had a very bad year and are in need of cash flow to start buying seeds, making payroll, fixing tractors and all that goes into growing food.

This farm is absolutely not alone. In Colorado, 24 counties received a disaster designation following these storms. Tornadoes, dry weather, wet weather and all kinds of unexpected conditions dashed farmers’ hopes around the world. It’s part of being a farmer. And by joining a CSA, you can share the risk — and the joy — of growing and enjoying local food.

What will you get?

We chose a small or half share of produce. Each week, we picked up a large, reusable plastic box (or emptied its contents into our own bags).

Inside we found a variety of items. I detailed our first CSA pickup here. It was our skimpiest; in Colorado in June, without greenhouse conditions, the pickings are slim (most often including lettuce, radishes, possibly peas, and spring onions).

Throughout the season, the selection expanded. In October, the heart of harvest season as Colorado farmers and gardeners hold their breath, hoping Jack Frost will wait, I wrote about putting some of our stash away.

Each week, I would estimate we received around 20 lbs. of produce. Toward the end of the season, boxes were even heavier, loaded down with weighty beets, enormous cabbage and a wide variety of winter squash.

The cost breakdown: Less than $1 per pound!

And we didn’t even receive the peppers and tomatoes we had hoped for, because they were demolished by the brutal hailstorm. Better luck in 2009 is likely.

What can you do with it?

  • Of course, you can eat it!
  • We had extra veggies many weeks, and we happily shared bits and pieces: kale and corn to a neighbor, cabbage and greens to my massage therapist, parsley to my mother-in-law’s bunnies, cauliflower to my knitting group’s fearless leader, and a variety of goodies to our parents.
  • We also put a lot of it away. We cooked and froze cauliflower, sliced corn off the cob and froze it, chopped and blanched and froze spinach and kale.
  • From our basement laundry room/root cellar, we have been gradually working our way through potatoes, cabbage, squash and onions.

What it means for us this year

This year, we plan to grow our own garden differently. We’re going to grow just for fun:

  • The tomatoes we love.
  • A tomatillo for salsa.
  • Some jalapenos.
  • Our fruit trees.
  • Lettuce and radishes in the spring, before the CSA is operating.
  • My beloved okra.
  • And a few things we’ve heard of but never tried.

Join Grant Family Farms

If you are on the Colorado Front Range and are interested in joining the Grant Family Farms CSA, you can sign up here.

They offer all kinds of goodies:

  • 26 weeks of great organic vegetables
  • 5% off every share paid in full by Feb. 28
  • 5% off shares PLUS a free T-shirt AND a free canvas tote bag if paid in full by Jan. 31
  • Full, half and single shares and the opportunity to split shares with a friend or neighbor to accommodate all household sizes
  • Or the opportunity to put down a deposit now and finish paying later
  • A great annual party for all CSA members at the farm
  • Opportunity to purchase meat, egg, flower and fruit shares — or whatever they come up with this year!

I can assure you from our experience this year that Grant Farms has a fabulous, generous spirit. We received unexpected goodies including a bottle of their own wine, a holiday evergreen wreath and samples of fruit preserves from their fruit share partners. YMMV, but it was fun to be surprised.

If you do join Grant Farms, please mention that you heard about them here!

Find a CSA

If you are one of many readers outside this area, and/or if you want to check out all your options, there are many ways to find the perfect CSA near you. Try these avenues:

Some CSAs specialize in staples, some in exotic produce. Some ask you to commit to working on the farm; others offer working shares as an option for those who can’t afford to join.

Whatever option you choose, a CSA is a great way to truly put your heart — and your dollars — behind local agriculture.

21 ways to save on groceries

Welcome Denver Post readers! 10 of these tips appeared in today’s paper, and more are added below. If you like what you read, please subscribe for a regular dose of Cheap Like Me.

We all know the bad news: Food prices have been going up as employment, home values and credit lines go down. The scenario can be even worse if you are trying to make your shrinking dollars pay for more organic foods … or so it seems. But you can squeeze more out of your grocery receipt with some tried-and-true methods.

Ready to pinch a few more pennies at the grocery store? Here are 21 ways to trim your grocery bill.

1.    Use coupons. Some people claim coupons aren’t worth their while (i.e., “If I spend 20 minutes cutting coupons to save $2, I’m only making $6 per hour”), but unless someone is actually paying you for the 20 minutes spent clipping coupons, you’ll come out ahead — especially considering that most local groceries double them. But only cut out coupons for things you usually use — you’re spending, not saving, if a coupon drives you to buy something extra.

2.    Use the grocery store “club” card. It lets you access grocery store sale prices, and after you shop for a while, you can receive extra coupons in the mail that make a big difference.

3.    Check prices by the ounce, not the package. Packages can be deceiving. Be sure you’re comparing apples to apples. Consider it good exercise for your brain — even if you use a calculator.

4.    Go with a list — but not too much of a list. Don’t plan meals and shop to the list. Instead, buy what’s on sale and cook with what you get for maximum savings.

5.    Piggyback coupons and sales. Use more than one coupon if you have one. For example, tea costs $2.75 a box, but it’s on sale for 2/$5. If you buy two boxes and have two coupons for $0.55, which will be doubled to $1 each, you will pay $1.50 per box — saving 45 percent. Stores usually will accept coupons even for “manager’s special” or markdown items.

6.    Price check. Use a price book. (This blog post explains how.)  Record the lowest prices you see on items, and consult it before you buy. For instance, cream cheese is sometimes “regularly” $1.14, and sometimes $1.50. It might go on “sale” for $1.25, but you might see in your price book that it has gone on sale in the past for $1.00. If you can wait to buy until it hits that point, and if you can use a $0.20 coupon (with doubling) you actually paid $0.60 — which makes the $1.25 price look like highway robbery. Buy several of an item at the lowest price (but do check expiration dates and be reasonable about how much you can use up) to keep your entire stock of that item priced low.

7.    Take advantage of manufacturers’ programs. For instance, I buy a brand of fish oil tablets that offers rewards. Typically, I stock up when the tablets are on sale for 40 percent or 50 percent off regular prices. I try to also use a coupon. Then I record the vitamin purchase at the manufacturer’s site, and after a few bottles, they send a coupon for $7 off. I choose to accept the coupon in the form of a check to Costco, because then I can be sure of using all $7 — if I use it at King Soopers, it’s a regular coupon, and if the vitamins I buy cost only $5.50, I won’t receive the full $7 value. Counting the value of the coupon, the bottle of fish oil tablets might cost just $5 or so instead of the listed $12. That’s a savings of nearly 60 percent.

8.    Look at local coupon books for extra savings. In the Denver area, the E-Book has King Soopers coupons for $5 off a $50 grocery purchase every other month. The book costs $10. If you regularly shop there and buy a book now (available at King Soopers) you can still save $15 on groceries alone. See a full list of offers here and consider if you would save enough to make the book buy worthwhile.

9.    Use meat sparingly — it is expensive. But enjoy it on sale. Stretch smaller amounts of meat to fill out multiple meals, and you’ll benefit your health and your wallet. Think of adding leftover chicken to chili or salad, dicing ham to add to fried rice, soup or potatoes, and saving bacon grease (if your health permits) to add smoky, rich flavor to sautéed onions.

10.    Always check the sale bins. Grocery stores have “manager’s special” sections in the dairy, cheese section, meat department and for general items. Buying “gourmet” bread at half off makes it a reasonable expenditure. Sunflower Market and Vitamin Cottage put older or bruised produce in bags for a few dollars or less. But always compare prices — once I almost bought some manager’s special natural sausage for $3 — a good savings from the regular price of $4.99. But then I saw the same brand of sausage, with a regular expiration date, was on sale at 2/$5.

11.    Watch for deals on new products. Often, a coupon for a new product signals that it also will be on sale. I recently got salsa for free, because it was on an introductory sale of $1 (from its regular price of $3.99), and I spotted a $1 coupon.

12.    Don’t buy what you won’t use. It’s not a great deal if you’ll throw it away or it will just take up room in the cupboard.

13.    Learn new ways to use cheap food — like beans, cabbage and squash. These foods are nutritious and very inexpensive. Stretch them into your menu in a variety of ways that will hold your interest.

14.    Learn to make some of your own staples, like bread, pizza, soup and yogurt. You’ll save money and create healthier foods.

15.    Minimize purchases of prepared food. It is expensive, more likely to be encased in wasteful packaging, and less healthy than home-cooked food.

16.    But save on dining out by buying “luxury” foods. Judicious use of packaged “luxuries” can save big bucks on going out. Keep a few things in the freezer to whip out when you are too tired to cook, but you won’t really enjoy a meal out. Prepared pasta from the freezer section can cost $4 to $8 for a family’s meal, compared to $12 a plate at a restaurant. A bag of prepared dumplings costs $9; whip up some fried rice for about $3 using frozen veggies and an egg. You can feed a family of four for under $10, compared to $40 ordering in. Frozen pizza can be had for $5, compared to $15 delivered.

17.    Buy items where they are mundane. Cilantro, shrimp and avocados might cost less at a Mexican market. Spices are available in inexpensive bulk at Indian markets. Some “exotic” ingredients (like artichoke hearts) might cost less at Whole Foods than at Albertson’s.

18.    Leave wiggle room in your budget so you can stock up on good deals. If you set aside a few grocery dollars every month, you can afford to invest in items like a CSA share (community supported agriculture) for local, organic veggies (last year we paid $18 a week for six months of more vegetables than we could eat), a portion of a locally raised beef cow, or a great manager’s special, like last year’s after-Christmas deal on Coleman beef roasts for more than 50 percent off.

19.    Be wary of non-food expenditures. Non-food purchases at the grocery store can be priced much higher than elsewhere. On the other hand, if all you need is a box of laundry soap, and you know in your heart that if you go into Target or Wal-Mart to buy it you’ll come out with a cartful of goods, you might find that paying a few cents more at the market will save you $100 at Target.

20.    A freezer is a good investment. It lets you stock up for the future, make your own freezer jams, buy in bulk and freeze goods to eliminate any possible insect infestations (like when you open that older bag of cornmeal and … ugh).

21.    Bulk foods can be great savers. Think staples: flour, sugar, beans, rice, coffee, nuts. Calculate how much you can save on these items (and non-food items like pet food, cat litter and diapers) to determine if a warehouse membership (Costco, Sam’s or the like) is worthwhile for you.

Making reusable gift bags

I kicked off Christmas Eve day by whipping up some gift bags from the materials I bought at Goodwill last week. In 1 hour and 15 minutes, I made 10 bags — here’s how I did it.

If you don’t have the time or desire to make these before your holiday giving, check out thrift stores and giveaways for *post-holiday* deals on these items, and make some in January. Put them away with your wrapping supplies and be prepared next year.

You will need materials to make into bags (fabric, pillowcases, blankets, pajamas, or whatever you find), thread, matching cloth ribbon (about 1 yard per bag) and a sewing machine, unless you are very industrious. Pillowcase bags could be hand-sewn without too much psychic pain.

First, at the top are a few packages under our tree, made from a pillowcase and a pillow sham I cut in half. And here’s a glimpse of a couple of bags I made from two pillowcases:

I attached the ribbons with a zig-zag stitch on the seam of the pillowcase:

The first 5 bags I made from a pair of flannel holiday pajama pants from Goodwill. They were a size XL with an elastic waist (with little stretch left) and a missing drawstring:

First, I cut the pants. I wanted some smaller, squarish bags, so I cut off each leg and then cut the legs in half. If you wanted longer bags (for wine bottles or a similar shape), you could use the whole leg.

Then, I sewed the bags. I turned each leg section inside out and sewed a hem across the bottom. At the cuffs, I simply sewed across on the outside of the right side.

Next, I cut a length of ribbon about 3 times the width of the bag. (Be sure to cut the ribbon ends at an angle to reduce unraveling.)

The next step, completing the top of the bag, can be completed two ways.

  1. You can just sew a hem and then attach the ribbon to the outside seam, as I did with the pillowcases. To do that, keep the bag wrong side out. Fold the top edge over twice. Then stitch close to the fold farthest from the top edge of the bag (i.e., not right on that edge). Turn right side out and stitch on the ribbon.
  2. Or you can make a channel for a drawstring. Because I felt like flirting with stitchy danger, I inserted the ribbon and sewed the hem (for the drawstring channel) with the ribbon already inside. If you try this, be forewarned that if you catch the ribbon in the needle, you will need to rip out those stitches and-re-sew. Be sure to leave an opening for the ribbon to emerge.

Turn the bag right side out and tie knots in the ends of the ribbons, so the ribbon cannot slide back into the channel.

Voila! One bag completed.

Then I did the same thing on the other parts of the pants.

I didn’t do a drawstring on all of them — on some, I simply stitched ribbon on.

Those bags look like this when they are tied up:

In about 45 minutes, I had finished all the bags, including the top of the pants. For those, I snipped off the area where the leg seams met and stitched across the bottom to make a wide, floppy bag.

Then I did a similar process with a table runner …

… and a double-sided flannel blanket I had found at the thrift store. All told, we have 10 new bags now.

Just in time for me to finish my gift wrapping tonight! Happy holidays, everyone.

Quick tip: Cheapest gift bags ever

The holidays are here, and it is time to wrap those gifts.

So start eating cereal!

And save the empty bags. Wrap your gift in colored tissue paper, insert it in the plastic bag and tie with a bow. You could customize with Sunday funnies, draw on the outside and use any kind of ribbon — maybe a reusable hair band for a child, a headband for an athlete … you get the idea.

Goldfish crackers have a beautiful silver bag (just wash it out and/or wrap up your gift to avoid any leftover grease rubbing off on your present inside).

The possibilities are endless … and oh so frugal.

Quick tip: Whiten teeth for less than 1 cent

Among the latest trends in the United States is having white, white teeth. It’s not natural, it’s cosmetic — if you don’t believe me, check out an episode of Faerie Tale Theatre and look at the 1970s stars (and their teeth).

Perhaps the trend hit its pinnacle in 1999 with the episode of ‘Friends’ where Ross super-whitens his teeth.

Whatever the reasons, if your teeth aren’t white today, it’s easy to feel out of it … even ugly. But it’s hard to be frugal AND have white teeth — the average cost of tooth whitening is around $500 at the dentist.

Of course, you can take home dental trays to whiten your teeth. You can also try a variety of home methods. Unfortunately, the latter link centers on tips like avoiding cigarettes, coffee, tea, wine and fruit juices. Uh-huh. That’s not going to work so well for me.

So I decided to try a tip a friend from my knitting group recommended. “I just swish with hydrogen peroxide,” she said.

The key: Dilute the hydrogen peroxide 50/50 with water, then swish in your mouth for about a minute. The solution will foam slightly and strip the gummy coating from your teeth. Check the label — hydrogen peroxide is approved as an “oral debriding agent.” It is, however, rather harsh; I am prone to canker sores, and when I used it daily, I noticed more sensitivity in my mouth. But the swishing solution is definitely similar to Crest Pro-Health Whitening Rinse, which foams when you rinse.

The best part? Crest Pro-Health Whitening Rinse costs $5.96 for 16 ounces. Suggested usage is 1/2 ounce, so the end cost is nearly 19 cents per swish. I bought my hydrogen peroxide on a half-price sale at King Soopers for 50 cents for 16 ounces. I use 1/4 ounce at a time, diluted with 1/4 ounce or so of water, for an end cost of less than 1 cent per swish. That’s a 96 percent savings — for whiter teeth. Even at full price, the hydrogen peroxide would run 1.4 cents per swish.

Even with limited usage — a few times a week — I can see some of my coffee stains are disappearing. Thanks, Anne, for the tip.

Have you tried it? Let us know how it worked for you … or if you have an even cheaper tip.