Reading on a Budget

By Trevin Wax

Many planters want to read more, but finances often are tight. Here are six suggestions for how to read when you can’t afford books.

I remember well my days as a full-time student in seminary (also working three part-time jobs and trying to be full-time husband and dad). It was difficult to steal away a few precious moments of time to read.

But even more difficult than finding time to read was finding money to buy books! It took all the spare cash I had to buy the books required for school. Looking at the new books at the seminary’s bookstore, I sometimes thought to myself: “If someone were willing to donate to me all of the books I really want to read, I’d write a five-page review of each one – just to show them their money didn’t go to waste!”

I understand the dilemma many of you may have: You want to read more, but you can’t afford the books. As church planters, finances often are tight and there may not be much money in the budget for extra books. Yes, cost can be very prohibitive.

Here are a few suggestions for how to be a reader when you can’t afford books:

1. Read good book reviews

There is nothing more frustrating than spending your precious few dollars on a book that winds up being a disappointment. The more book reviews you read, the better you will understand which books are worth picking up.

Book reviews also give you information about the theological conversations taking place in the book world. Check out book reviews in the back of theology journals. Read author interviews and book excerpts so you can find out “in a nutshell” what different authors are trying to say. When you don’t have the time or money to read a book, find a book review instead.

2. Read your favorite books again

That’s right. Take the books you already have and give them a second go. Not all of them, of course. But the good ones – the ones you remember well.

Reading the same book twice is never the same experience. I remember reading a book when it first came out and liking it a lot. Then, I remember reading it again a couple of years later and being horrified at the lack of discernment I’d had the first time.

Some books that you love the first time will leave you dry the second time. Other books that seemed too deep or uninviting the first time may be just what you need the second time. Be a good steward of the books you already have. Read them again!

 3. Beg, steal and borrow (Actually, just beg and borrow!)

My dad and I are both history lovers. So, he is my resource for biographies and books about American history. I don’t need to buy a lot of books in that field. Dad always finds interesting titles and then passes them along to me. Find friends and family that read and then rely on them to “feed” you books! Theology-lovers: Make sure to ask for recommendations from friends who also work in ministry.

The best thing about borrowing? You can ask the person if the book is worth your time and attention. So, you not only get to borrow books – you get a screener too!

One caveat: Make sure you return books you borrow. If you don’t, you won’t be borrowing many more.

Are you a beggar instead of a borrower? Then, I encourage you to keep your Amazon wish list active and up-to-date.

4. Go to the library

Sounds crazy, I know. But you can find good titles (generally secular) at the library. If you have a seminary in town or a theological institution, get a library card and enjoy the books available there. Many public libraries now also offer digital libraries available through apps like “Libby, by OverDrive.” Similar to checking out a book from the library, you can browse and borrow available books, audiobooks and magazines. If titles are currently in use by other patrons, you can put them on hold. The app will notify you when the book becomes available.

5. Get used books cheap

If you discover some books you would like to buy, try to find used copies on Ebay, Amazon or an online used bookstore like ThriftBooks.com. Used books are just as good as new books (for me anyway). Bestsellers from two or three years ago often are sold online at ridiculously low prices. You might have to spend a little time searching, but you will make up the difference in money. And sometimes you have more time than money!

6. Find classic books online

GoogleBooks is incredible. There is no excuse for us today to not read the classics of Christian history. More and more books are being scanned and entered into Google’s database. The amount of knowledge available at the click of a mouse is simply breathtaking. Spend some time sorting through the books that have stood the test of time. And then enjoy the insights of those who now form the great cloud of witnesses cheering us on in the race.


Published September 19, 2022

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Trevin Wax

Trevin Wax is Vice President of Resources and Marketing at the North American Mission Board and a visiting professor at Cedarville University. A former missionary to Romania, Trevin is a regular columnist at The Gospel Coalition and has contributed to The Washington Post, Religion News Service, World, and Christianity Today. He has taught courses on mission and ministry at Wheaton College and has lectured on Christianity and culture at Oxford University. He is a founding editor of The Gospel Project, has served as publisher for the Christian Standard Bible, and is the author of multiple books, including The Thrill of Orthodoxy, The Multi-Directional Leader, Rethink Your Self, This Is Our Time, and Gospel Centered Teaching. His podcast is Reconstructing Faith. He and his wife, Corina, have three children.