Check It Out: The Real Best Investment

“What is the best investment?” Back when I was a financial planner, I got asked that a lot. In those days, I would always respond “Well, there is no one best investment. The answer is different for everybody.” Blah blah blah big long CFP® school explanation about the listener’s goals, current portfolio allocation, risk tolerance, risk capacity, years until the money is needed, blah blah blah.

But I’ve recently come to the conclusion that there is indeed one right answer. So I would like to apologize now to everyone I led astray and make amends by revealing it.  Here it is: The single best investment for everyone is… drum roll, please… a library card.

This week's haul

This week's haul

Awwww, man, I can almost hear you groaning, couldn’t she have said “closed-end unlimited partnership” or some as-yet-undiscovered risk-free gem with sky-high returns?   Before you call me an old fuddy duddy and hop online to resume day trading, hear me out.  I admit it was kind of a trick question, but I defy anyone to tell me where else you can get an infinite return on investment, lifelong dividends, and 24/7 access to really valuable free stuff.

24/7 Access To Really Valuable Free Stuff

Let’s start with the really valuable free stuff.  Most people think of the library as a building with a bunch of books in it. Traditionally, that’s what it was. And it still is. But that’s just a tiny piece of the puzzle.  If you haven't checked out (pun intended) what libraries offer lately, you will no doubt be as stunned – and thrilled – as I am.

  • Hard copy books (duh!) – that oldie but goodie, still beloved, still best at the beach. 
  • Ebooks – travel light, read without a light, or keep a titillating title to yourself.
  • Audiobooks – become a smartypants while driving, folding laundry, or doing calf stretches.
  • DVDs – catch a movie or binge watch “The Closer” instead of whatever show (and commercials) NBC declares “must see”.*
  • Internet access – without having to buy a Triple, Venti, Half Sweet, Non-Fat, Caramel Macchiato.
  • Community activity flyers, brochures, etc. – even more opportunities to learn for little.
  • Magazine Share – “community organizing” at its finest: a repository of magazines contributed by other patrons. You don't even need a library card for this one!

Every time I look, I discover a whole new corner of the library with something useful in it.  Just today, I clicked on the Magazines link on the library’s Home page, and found myself wandering around a ginormous virtual Out of Town News. My library offers 167 titles, with everything from Inc. to Inked, Elle to Dwell, Audubon to Automobile, Poets & Writers to Popular Science. Best of all, I could flip through any one, read just the good stuff without feeling guilty, and then not have to toss/store/share/recycle it.  All the perks of going to the dentist with none of the downsides.  

If your library is part of a network like mine is, multiply the number of available resources by... well, maybe not infinity, but if you ever run out of new materials, my hat’s off to you.

I've yet to attend a movie night, author lecture, or book club meeting, so I'm sure I'm barely scratching the surface of what's available through my own library.  Never mind what's trending at libraries across the country! My longtime pal and fellow library zealot tells me that libraries in her network have begun offering cool items, such as special size cake pans, knitting needles, and sewing machines, that are often better shared than purchased.     

Let's not forget the other lesser-known, more modern feature of libraries: their 24/7 availability.  Yes, the brick-and-mortar ones still have limited business hours, but because so many resources are online, you can get them at any time of the day or night.  All the perks of patronizing online retailers with none of the cash outlay. Yes, folks, it's Ben Franklin era wisdom ("A penny saved is a penny earned.") in an instant gratification world.

Infinite Risk-free Return On Investment

Since statisticians have been paying attention, the US stock market has delivered an average annual return of about 10%, bonds about 6%, and cash 3%. Balchem, the stock recently named by The Wall Street Journal as the best performing stock over the last 3 decades, delivered a 107,099% return. 

Now that's an eye-popping number but as any math geek worth his abacus knows, anything divided by zero is infinity. So a library card has ‘em all beat by a country mile. You don't pay a darn thing, but you get so much - as much as you want - in return. 

But wait!  It's even better than that, because you get to give all this stuff back when you're done. This saves you the additional cost, time, and aggravation of having to store, maintain, and eventually dispose of it.  Never mind what it would cost to move, especially if you chose to relo across the country. (Tip from one who knows: They charge by the pound.)

Lifelong Dividends

OK, so here’s the part where I get kind of old school and trot out that old saw about the benefits of investing in yourself. I was reminded of this recently while listening to the Radical Personal Finance podcast episode, You Are 100% Responsible For Your Income.  In the podcast, CFP® Joshua Sheats cites best-selling author Brian Tracy as having recommended an hour a day of reading as a way to increase your income.  The premise is that you can’t help but get smarter, thereby making yourself a more valuable member of the workforce who commands higher compensation over time. 

While I am not aware of any data that specifically quantifies the relationship between library use and prosperity, there are myriad stats to support a correlation between income and education level. And the math regarding how that adds up over time is eye-opening. Imagine the ROI if, instead of spending $100k+ for your education, you could get at least some of it for free.

So don’t delay! Get down to the library and start sharing the wealth.  No brokerage account, no minimum investment, no prospectus, no fees. Check out a world of information and receive limitless returns compounded over time. I guarantee that you’ll be the richer for it.

* Sorry! Still bitter I couldn’t stream the Rio Olympics without a cable subscription.