If you're looking for ways to stretch your family's entertainment dollars, the library is a good place to start. Among my friends, those who excel at sticking to tight budgets also tend to be devoted library enthusiasts. They visit their local branch a few times a month and not just for books - they borrow movies, magazines and even museum passes. These library power-users are savings hundreds of dollars a year by making the most of our city's free resources.
The recession has led a lot of us to visit the library more often. Libraries typically experience an increase in traffic of up to 20 per cent during an economic downturn, estimates the Federation of Ontario Public Libraries. In certain U.S. cities, where the economy has had the harshest impact, public library use has grown more than 30 per cent.
My family's library usage lapsed over the summertime, when our city's branches reduced their weekend hours. But as I look for ways to fine-tune our expenses, we're once again making a trip to the library part of our routine schedule.
To make the most of your local library, consider these tips from my power-user friends:
Reserve books online If you want to read the latest bestseller rather than an old classic, you may have to wait a while for your turn at the library. But instead of rushing out to buy it, plan ahead and reserve your books in advance.
Most public libraries have websites with a feature that allows you to put books on hold. The books will be set aside for you on a special shelf.
One friend uses this feature regularly to save time. "I can see online when they are ready for pickup and then, when I have a chance I just go to the bookshelf and pick up all my items."
Borrow movies Instead of renting the latest release, pick it up from the library. Most have a broad selection of movies for kids and adults on DVD. You may have to wait a few months for the new releases, but you can reserve movies through the library website as well. If you've been renting a movie a week at $5, the savings quickly add up.
Download ebooks and audio books Libraries have moved right along with the rest of us into the electronic information age. Not only can you reserve books and movies online, you can download ebooks and audiocasts from many libraries across the country. My municipality's libraries have a website with a large catalogue of both. Users borrow the right to read or listen to the electronic file for a few days at a time. Once the file becomes inactive, you can consider it returned. If the ebook or audiobook you want is being used, you can add it to your wish list and will be notified on its availability.
Score free museum passes You may be able to use your library card to gain free entry to museums and art galleries in your city. For example, insurance company Sun Life has partnered with Toronto libraries to distribute a number of family passes each week to many of the city's top arts and cultural venues. With a valid adult Toronto Public Library card, passes can be borrowed from any of the library's 99 branches. Similar programs exist in several other Canadian cities.
Suggest a book for purchase Another friend whose taste in reading runs to small-press books or academic texts often finds that these tomes are unavailable at the library. Most public libraries, though, are happy to evaluate suggestions for materials to purchase. My friend has recommended several obscure books to her local library and each has been purchased. When you request an item, you also get the first opportunity to borrow it when it arrives.
Use the Internet for free With your library card number you can access all the free Internet you want. Libraries are filled with computer kiosks and they're not just there for searching the library catalogue. Last week, while my daughters browsed the children's section, I checked my web-based email using the high-speed terminal nearby.
Watch out for late and loss fees The one pitfall to watch for at the library is the fees for late or lost items. It's important to keep your due dates straight to avoid the penalties. You can typically borrow DVDs for seven days while books are yours for three weeks. If you forget to return a movie, you could be looking at a fine of $2 per day. Although the fines typically max out at $10, a late video will cost you more than renting it from the store. Keep in mind that neglecting to pay the fines could result in a call from a collection agency, as one of my friends recently learned.
To keep our books and borrowed items organized, I store them in a canvas bag that's designated as our "library bag." We make sure to put each item back in the bag after we use them.