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How to Turn $500 Into $7 The Hard Way

This article was written by in Consumer. 14 comments.

This is a guest post from J.D. Roth, who writes about personal finance and related topics at Get Rich Slowly.

Back in our young and foolish days, my wife and I bought a set of encyclopedias from a door-to-door salesman. This was in 1995, at the very cusp of the digital age. We had been on the internet for about a year, but we had no way to know that one day very soon the World Wide Web might make printed encyclopedias obsolete.

So we bought an encyclopedia set. Naturally I charged the $500 to my credit card.

We used the encyclopedia for several years. Then in 1999 we discovered Google. The encyclopedias began to gather dust.

Even so, when we moved to a new house in 2004, we took the books with us. We installed them prominently in the living room, but we never used them. Eventually we moved them to storage. For the past two years, we’ve tried to sell them at our neighborhood garage sale. The first year, we priced them at $50. This year we priced them at $20. Nobody wanted them.

On the last day of this year’s sale, a man stopped by and sorted through our book collection. He was rather particular about his selections, so I struck up a conversation with him. (Bibliophiles are happy to meet kindred souls.) He told me he owned a used book store. “You’ve got some good stuff here,” he said, patting his stack of books.

“Thanks,” I said.

He turned to leave, but then paused. “You know,” he said. “These encyclopedias are worthless. I have a dozen sets in my store. They used to sell pretty regularly, but nowadays I can’t even give them away.” He waved good-bye and left.

World Book EncyclopediasIt hurt to think that our $500 set of encyclopedias was worthless, but I had to admit it was true. I put them up for free on Craigslist.

The next day a man stopped by to pick them up. He was ecstatic to find them. “We don’t have a computer,” he said. “And my daughter is in the fifth grade. She loves to learn. She’ll use these all the time. Thank you.”

I helped him load the books into his car, a mid-80s Honda Accord. The rear of the vehicle sagged beneath the weight. Before he left, he fished out his wallet. “Do you have a Blockbuster Video around here?” he asked. I said that we did. “Here,” he said, handing me a Blockbuster gift card. “Take this. I mean it. You don’t know how much I appreciate this.” I thanked him and took the card, which I tucked in my wallet and then forgot.

A few weeks ago, I found the Blockbuster gift card. “I wonder how much credit is on this?” I said to myself, scanning the fine print. I tried to call the toll-free number, and to check the web site, but neither would give me the balance. To obtain the balance on a Blockbuster card, you have to actually go to the store. So I did.

The card had $16.50 on it. I thought maybe I could pay for part of a game for my Nintendo Wii, but nothing looked appealing. I scoured the DVDs, but couldn’t find anything I wanted. At last I spied The Godfather. Aha! Hadn’t I been wanting to purchase that for a long time? It’s been three or four years since I last watched it. I bought The Godfather and a pack of Red Vines and headed home.

But when I went to put the DVD away, I was dismayed to find that I already owned a copy. When did I buy it? Why hadn’t I remembered purchasing it? I considered giving the new copy as a gift to somebody, but then I recalled Cady’s guest entry at Get Rich Slowly about how to use the Amazon Marketplace for fun and profit. Taking inspiration, I listed the movie for sale.

The Godfather sold last night for $7.02. After fees are settled, I will have netted $7.16.

And that, my friends, is how I managed to turn $500 worth of encyclopedias into $7.16 in Amazon credit. That is personal finance at its finest.

There’s no real moral to this story. Each of us makes the best financial choices we can. But sometimes our information is imperfect. Sometimes we don’t know what the future holds, and sometimes what we think is smart (charging encyclopedias to a credit card) is actually pretty darn stupid.

Image credit: –Mandie–

Updated February 6, 2012 and originally published November 21, 2007.

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About the author

J.D. Roth has been blogging since before "blog" was a word. He is the mastermind behind the personal finance blog, Get Rich Slowly and now writes at More Than Money. View all articles by .

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar 1 Anonymous

I have a World Book set of encyclopedias. But they are green. Yes they are worthless, but they do look nice on the shelf.

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avatar 2 Anonymous

I never spend that type of money on “stuff” like that. This is EXACTLY what “stuff” turns into over time.

That $500 back in 1995 could have got a nice vacation to one of the countries inside the books you bought.

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avatar 3 Anonymous

Sounds like any number of foolish things I have purchased in my life. So many mistakes and foolish ideas, I can’t even believe it’s true.

Sadly, I’m just now getting started on finally paying all the debt from all of the stupid stuff.

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avatar 4 Anonymous

At least you got a couple of years of use out of them. Putting the $500 on the credit card was unwise. The Internet making the books obsolete was just unlucky timing.

Not remembering that you already owned the movie and purchasing another copy is a classic move in our house. Welcome to the family. Or should that be The Family, since we’re talking about The Godfather?

Hopefully you can find somethihng remarkably discounted at Amazon and turn that $7.16 back into something worth a little more, at least worth more to you.

And, hey. You could always look to the “One Red Paperclip” guy for inspiration.

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avatar 5 Anonymous

Why didn’t you return or exchange the DVD at Blockbuster?

BTW, I think you got your money’s worth. That little girl will love the encyclopedia. Who knows where it could lead for her. You probably did more good than a $500 donation to charity would have done.

I think spending money on a DVD collection is just as poor an investment; it’s the same or more dollars spent, just in smaller installments. I recently gave away my old VCR and dozens of videos, many of which I hadn’t even opened. I learned my lesson and won’t spend a dime on DVDs. The only ones I have were given to me for free.

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avatar 6 Anonymous

I’ve been selling off junk I don’t need, and it can be discouraging thinking about how much money I paid and how much money I’m getting now.

I think it’s more productive to learn from these kind of mistakes, try not to repeat them, and focus on the fact that you’re turning annoying clutter into cold hard cash. No matter how you cut it, you have another $7.16 to invest.

Incidentally, if you forgot you owned The Godfather, maybe that means it’s not that important to you and you could sell the first copy too.

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avatar 7 Anonymous

Microsoft Encyclopedia on CD costed only $50 10 years ago.

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avatar 8 Anonymous

Thanks for the story, JD! I remember when my family bought a 486 PC in early 1994, it came with Encarta on CD. :)

I recently sold 2 Apple IIc computers, tons of software and peripherals to a family on craigslist. $50 for everything. I spent a LOT of time during my preteens using my Apple and saving up to buy more stuff for it. Although it seems like a huge sunk cost to let go of two computers (originally priced at $1300 each in 1984!) and a ton of peripherals and software for such a low price today, the value I got from using that Apple is inestimable. I have so many good memories of tackling simple programming problems and playing games. Those experiences were formative in my decision to study CS in college, which has led to a very satisfying career so far.

Maybe the young girl who received the encyclopedias will find something that piques her interest and becomes a great intellectual investment!

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avatar 9 Anonymous

Thats funny, I remember those. My parents bought me a set from a door to door salesman too. I don’t kow what happened to mine though.

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avatar 10 Anonymous

Harping over $500 spent several years ago is a sure way never to become wealthy. Focus on the dollars, not on the pennies. I’m several years younger than you are and have a net worth of 5 times yours and it’s liquid (not talking about home equity here). I did it by focusing on bringing in “big” dollars and not about how to save a few bucks here and there or earn a few extra bucks here and there. I remember a show like 20/20 did a profile on wealthy people once to argue that they were out of touch with the average person. They asked them things like how much is a gallon of milk, or a carton of OJ, or a Big Mac, etc. None of them knew the answers to these, but the “average” people they asked did. To me it didn’t tell me that the rich people were out of touch, obviously they are in touch with more important things given that they have been able to make the millions most people never make. But they were more focused on making a lot of money, that’s where their efforst went, not into moaning about the price of a gallon of milk.

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avatar 11 Anonymous

I think Encyclopedia’s even in today’s age can be worthwhile. I’m not sure I’d pay 500 for a new set. I think any good old set will do. As a kid, I used to read through the old set I had that was dated from the 40s. It was out of date, but I still learned alot. I think a good encyclopedia can still be a good launching point for further study.

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avatar 12 Anonymous

I’m wondering why you bought an encyclopedia, but when I was a kid, my mom and dad bought the whole she-bang. Thing is, I actually read them back in the olden days before there was a computer in every home. I used to do my vocabulary homework in front of the TV with the dictionary set, get lost in the encyclopedias when I was looking up something else for school, yanked out a Great Book and read a few chapters of Montaigne when I wanted to feel erudite and arcane. I probably wouldn’t know half the things I know without reference books at home to inspire me to learn more.

It sure beat running to the library all the time. The interwebs are great these days, but there’s still something nice about sitting on the couch with a book on your lap and just flipping the pages till you get to a picture of something weird and interesting looking and reading the entry.

Alright. I’m a dork. I know. I admit it. Better here than on my own blog! LOL!

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avatar 13 Anonymous

Nowadays it is not expensive at all if we want to be frugal and smart at the same time. The Internet has most answers to all of our questions & appetite for information.

I really like your story. You are several steps ahead of me. I still have my thick textbooks at the garage.

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avatar 14 Anonymous

Good story, I liked it. Money, you can’t take it with you anyways and you got a nice little story to tell.

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