Surprising free library services that can help you save money

My money-saving summer getaway? The public library

There are few things I love more than a good public library. It’s free, it’s open to everyone, and (very important in summer) it’s crisply air-conditioned. Most of us know that these institutions deal with more than just books—maybe you’ve checked out a CD or DVD, browsed the web or printed a document there, or noticed a poster for Saturday morning story time.

But there are tons of other great, free services libraries offer that often go unnoticed. Of course, this varies from branch to branch, but doing some research on the services your local library provides could save you some extra bucks this summer that could go toward your rainy day fund, or maybe that road trip you’re planning. (Speaking of travel, place a library hold on that Rough Guide rather than ordering it from Amazon.) Here are some more of my favorite cost-saving library services. In many cases, you don’t even need to go to the branch to take advantage of them. But where’s the fun in that?

Free e-books and audiobooks

Many libraries offer e-books and audiobooks that you can download directly onto your phone, via apps such as Libby or Overdrive, which allow you to access multiple library systems so long as you’re a card-carrying member. You can easily send the files to your e-reader (like a Kindle or Nook) if you don’t want to read a novel on your smartphone. Another plus: no late fees! E-books and audiobooks expire and are checked back in automatically. If magazines are more your thing, some libraries offer digital access to titles like Sports Illustrated, Bon Appétit, Time and more through an app called Flipster.

Like Netflix and Spotify, but free

Your library’s DVD, VHS, and CD collection has likely gone digital, too. Kanopy is a mobile app that allows you to stream a certain number of films each month. (The number of monthly “play credits” depends on your library system.) Once you start watching, you get three days to finish. The collection leans toward classics, indie flicks, foreign-language films, documentaries, and kids’ fare. (Some library systems offer downloadable content from a Kanopy alternative called Hoopla Digital.) If your library offers a subscription to Freegal, sign up for free streaming music. Who knows, you might even be able to cancel your Netflix and Spotify subscriptions.

Tuition-free education

Your library probably hosts community workshops and classes, too. The New York Public Library, for example, currently lists a whopping 2,664 courses on everything from meditative coloring for adults to mastering Excel pivot tables. I recently met a librarian in Chicago who’s been hosting personal finance workshops for years at his branch. Doing research for a project? Some libraries offer access to academic journal libraries such as JSTOR, which would otherwise cost $19.50 a month or charge per PDF download.

If you’re hunting for a job, check to see if your library offers vocational services, such as resume workshops, mock interviews, job search databases, or even one-on-one career coaching. All of these services would normally cost a pretty penny.

Other educational resources may be less obvious. Your local library may loan out tools such as telescopes and binoculars. Check your library’s calendar for guest speakers, book discussions, author talks, and other events. If you’re studying for a test like the GRE or GMAT, or if your kid is prepping for the SAT, many libraries offer free practice tests and studying tools so you don’t have to shell out for the latest Kaplan tome. Finally, story time at the library is a great way for parents and kids to get out of the house, meet other families, sing some songs, and learn how to read a children’s book like a librarian (in other words, like a pro).

Music, toys, and more

Some libraries lend out musical instruments, toys, and even offer 3D printing facilities. One library in Connecticut boasts a soundproof recording studio exclusively for teenagers. (No more banging the drum set in the garage!) New Yorkers with a library card can even reserve free admission to dozens of local museums and attractions using Culture Pass. Chances are, there’s more than meets the eye at your local library. If you do your research, you might just find that it offers plenty of free services that you’ve been paying for this whole time.

One last thing: In this era of shrinking budgets for so-called “non-essential services,” many public libraries have been hit hard. When open hours shrink and staff is cut, the whole community suffers. So do what you can to make sure your local library stays robust!

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