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9 Ways to Save Money on College Textbooks

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We all know it: College is expensive, and the cost of tuition keeps going up. According to the College Board’s Trends in College Pricing 2019 report, between the 2009 – 2010 school year and the 2019 – 2020 school year, tuition and fees for in-state students at public four-year schools went up by 2.2% per year (adjusted for inflation).

It’s not just the sticker price of college that’s high. The materials most students need to succeed in class, such as textbooks, also tend to be pricey. And the cost is going up, often rapidly. The Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Price Index reveals that the price of textbooks went up by 135% between the end of 2001 and the start of 2020.

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The high price of textbooks leaves some students with a tough choice to make. You can try to scrape together the cash to buy the books you need or use student loans or other financial aid sources to cover the cost of textbooks. Some students just skip buying them, which can negatively impact their class performance.

If the start of a new semester finds you scrambling to afford all the books on your course syllabi, there are ways to save money without skipping out on buying the book entirely.

How to Save Money on Textbooks

How much you can save on textbooks depends in large part on your major and the type of books you need for class. Plenty of courses ask you to buy books that aren’t technically “textbooks.” You might need a copy of Toni Morrison’s first novel, “The Bluest Eye,” for an American literature class or a copy of Brené Brown’s “Dare to Lead” for a business leadership class. Your theater class might call for copies of “Tick, Tick… Boom” by Jonathan Larson or Aeschylus’ “Oresteia.” For literary works, you can use the same strategies any reader uses to find cheap books.

If you’re taking a course in a STEM subject, it’s a different story, as you will most likely need to buy the most up-to-date version of the textbook. According to Vox, producing a STEM textbook is often labor-intensive, and that is usually reflected in the price.

Depending on the subject, you might need to get somewhat creative when it comes to reducing your books’ cost. Several strategies can help.

1. Look Beyond the Campus Bookstore

Your school’s bookstore is basically like a convenience store. It’s there, it’s easy to get to if you live on campus, and it has what you need. The trouble is you might not be getting the best price if you exclusively buy books (both new and used) from your school’s bookstore. It pays to shop around.

There are so many other options available now. You can find your books at an online retailer or bookstore like Amazon. Some schools have a locally owned bookstore situated just outside the bounds of campus, and that store often sells books for much less than the official college store.

Comparison-shop to get the best price possible. Tools like Bookfinder.com or Capital One Shopping search the web for the titles you need and show you which store has them for a better price.

2. Buy Used When You Can

With the exception of rare books, used books are pretty much always going to be cheaper than new ones. Unless you need to buy the most recent edition of a book and the most recent edition was only published a month ago, you can pretty much always get by with a secondhand copy.

Used textbooks are all over the place. Your school’s bookstore is likely to have a few copies scattered in with the new editions. You can also look online at websites that specialize in selling textbooks or that sell books in general.  The list of sites that sell used textbooks is long, but some popular examples include:

One thing to pay attention to when buying a used book is the condition. If you’re shopping online for your books, pay attention to the notes included by the seller. Some used books have a lot of highlighting, underlining, or notes scribbled in the margins. If that bothers you or will interfere with your use of the book, try to get a copy that is as clean as possible.

Another thing worth noting is that you often don’t get access to bonus material, such as online content (which requires a one-time use access code) when you buy a secondhand textbook. For the most part, you should be fine without the additional content. But it’s worth checking with your professor to see if they expect you to use the online material.

3. Swap With Friends

The odds are likely you’ll take the same class as one or more of your friends throughout your college career, whether you have the same major or just need to fulfill similar general education requirements.

If you don’t take the same courses simultaneously, you might be able to swap books with friends, provided the instructor hasn’t changed the syllabus from one semester to the next. Your friends might be kind enough to give you their old books or let you buy the book for way less than it would cost at a used bookstore. When I was in college, my friend took an American literature survey course the semester before me and was all too happy to sell me the literary anthology required for the course for the bargain price of $10 at the end of it.

4. Rent Instead of Buy

Let’s get real: Once your applied mathematics or chemistry course is over, you’re probably never going to look at the course materials again, let alone find yourself curled up on a Friday evening reading up on probability and distributions or kinetic molecular theory. You only need the course materials during the class, so it doesn’t make sense to lay out your cash (or worse, student loans) and buy the book.

A better option is to rent your books for the semester. Luckily, plenty of stores that sell textbooks to students have also figured this out and will now happily let you rent texts. Many of the sites that sell used textbooks also allow you to rent, such as Amazon, Chegg, sellbackyourBook.com, or CampusBooks.

It’s useful to crunch some numbers before you decide to rent a textbook instead of buying it. In some cases, renting might cost as much as getting a used version of the book. It’s also worth noting that the rental term might not be the full length of the semester, so you may need to schedule your rental accordingly or risk having to extend it and pay more for the book.

5.  Go Digital

Digital copies, or e-books, of textbooks often have a lower price tag than print copies. If you have a Kindle or another type of e-reader, you can usually get a better deal on the e-book version of a text than a print copy.

In some cases, it’s possible to get e-book versions of texts for free. Almost any text that is in the public domain is available to download for free. You can browse Amazon for free Kindle books or look on Project Gutenberg.

E-books have some advantages over print copies. You can highlight sections of the book or take notes without obscuring the text itself. You can also easily navigate to your notes and highlights rather than flipping through the text.

A potential drawback of e-books is that some textbooks can be unwieldy when converted to a digital format. A book with a lot of images might load slowly or be difficult to flip through. It might also be challenging to manage an e-book version of a textbook that requires you to jump around from page to page a lot.

6. Use the Library

Your school’s library or even your local library might have the books you need for free. Although some school and public libraries do have popular textbooks on their shelves, students who need to read literature like plays and novels or nonfiction works like biographies are probably going to have the most luck going this route.

For example, my local public library, the Free Library of Philadelphia, has over 100 copies of “Hamlet” by William Shakespeare. It also has several copies of the Norton Anthology of English Literature.

If you do plan to use a library to score textbooks for the semester, you might have to be a bit strategic about it. Place holds on the books you want to borrow to reduce the chance they’ll be unavailable when you go to check them out. But be mindful of return limits or checkout limits. Most libraries let you renew books you’ve checked out, but only if another person isn’t waiting to use them.

7. Join the Open Textbook Library

Depending on the books your professors assign, you might be able to find them in the Open Textbook Library. The library consists of nearly 800 titles that have been faculty-reviewed and are available to students for free.

Some professors even assign books exclusively from the library. But even if they don’t, you might find the book you need in the library without any effort from your instructor.

If you like a particular professor and regularly take classes with them, it’s worthwhile to let them know about the program. If you’re lucky, they’ll decide to structure their course syllabi around books available in the Open Textbook Library in the future.

8. Share Books

Taking classes with friends can make even the dullest of general education courses a bit more fun. It also gives you a chance to save money on your books, especially if you and a friend decide to split the textbook’s cost.

Back in college, my friend and I took a class together. We shared our textbook, splitting the cost in half. We sat next to each other during the class and kept the book open between our desks.

If you’re going to do the same, make sure the person you’re splitting the book with is someone you’re close enough to that you see them regularly (preferably every day). It helps if you also live pretty close to each other to facilitate book drop-offs. In case of breakups, it’s better to split books with friends rather than romantic partners.

Along with coordinating how to share the book during the class, make a plan for the end of the course. It’s best to share books for courses that aren’t in your major or that you’re not particularly interested in. That way, it’s unlikely you’ll both want to keep the book at the end of the semester as a reference. Either way, having a plan (and a backup plan) can keep the peace.

We sold the book back to the bookstore and split the amount we got paid evenly. But if one of you wants to keep the book, you can find out how much you’d get if you sold it back to the bookstore and pay the other their half.

9. Space Out Your Purchases

Does this sound like you? At the start of every semester, you head to the bookstore or browse online with your syllabi in hand, purchasing every single book on your list right away.

While that’s a great way to knock out your book-buying to-do list, it’s also a great way to spend more than you need to on textbooks. Despite what your professor says, those syllabi aren’t written in stone. They can change during the class, meaning you might not need a textbook until the last few weeks of class — or never at all. It’s better to buy, rent, or borrow your books as you need them so you don’t end up overbuying.


Final Word

Even if you get as many books from your local library as possible or borrow textbooks from your classmates, you’ll most likely have to buy at least one or two books. Luckily, you can recoup some of your textbooks’ cost by selling them at the end of the term.

Just as you should avoid buying your books from your campus bookstore, it’s also a good idea to avoid trying to sell the books back to the school store at the end of the term. Campus bookstores are notorious for offering a pittance for used textbooks or for flat-out refusing to buy certain copies. You’ll have better luck selling privately or through another reseller.

How do you plan to save money on your college textbooks?

Amy Freeman
Amy Freeman is a freelance writer living in Philadelphia, PA. Her interest in personal finance and budgeting began when she was earning an MFA in theater, living in one of the most expensive cities in the country (Brooklyn, NY) on a student's budget. You can read more of her work on her website, Amy E. Freeman.

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