Back to School: Saving on College Textbooks

By Kelly Kehoe on 17 August 2012 (Updated 18 August 2013) 6 comments

Heading into the fall semester, many new college students and their families may be shocked by the prices of textbooks, which generally range from $50-$200+. Some community college students may even find they’re spending more on books than tuition. (See also: 40+ College Resources for Parents and Students)

Inflation on college textbooks is nothing new; the United States’ Government Accountability Office has been studying this trend for years. On average, the GAO reports, the cost of textbooks increases approximately 6% per year. In between December of 1986 and December of 2004, the cost of textbooks tripled.

This news is devastating for those who can barely afford the ever-increasing rates of college tuition, let alone the books that accompany the courses. If you don’t want to be on the hook for hundreds of dollars of textbooks each semester, check out the following techniques to help you keep costs down.

Rentals

A relatively new concept in recent years is textbook rentals. This option has its pluses and minuses. For one, you can usually rent a hard-copy book at a significantly lower price than if you had bought it outright, and you’re not stuck with a textbook you’ll never read again after the semester is over. On the other hand, buying a used textbook might be more cost-effective than renting in some circumstances, and if you miss the turn-in date, the fines you pay are steep.

An alternative to renting hard-copy textbooks is digital rentals. Since there are no paper and ink costs, these are generally much cheaper and easier to carry around (on your tablet or laptop) than a heavy textbook.

Cost Comparisons

If you’re looking to buy books, don’t immediately jump on your college bookstore’s bandwagon without doing a little research first. Online sites such as Chegg, Amazon, Powell’s Books, and Textbooks.com offer new and used books for sale (and some offer rentals), sometimes at much lower prices than what you’d find in your college bookstore. Case in point — I recently found a book I need for a psychology class for less than $5 on one of these sites, while my college’s online bookstore priced the exact same book at $45!

Buying a textbook without comparing prices from other stores or websites is like buying a new car at sticker price. Don’t get caught in this trap!

If you’re looking to sell last semester’s textbooks, check out BookScouter for the best comparison service. Just type in the title or ISBN number, and BookScouter will show you a comprehensive list of all the sites that are buying your book and how much they’re paying. Selling books, although not a full return on investment, is a great way to cut down on the cost of books for next semester.

Co-op

If you’re taking a class with a friend or colleague, consider splitting the cost of the textbook(s) and sharing the book throughout the semester. Or, if your friend already took the class, ask if you can buy or borrow the book at a discounted price.

School Bulletin Board

These aren’t just for club announcements; with permission obtained from the school, some people sell their textbooks by posting for-sale signs with phone number clippings at the bottom. These aren’t always the lowest prices, but call them up and see if they’re willing to haggle.

Google Books

Sometimes, textbooks are legally available online for free. Check Google Books or other credible sites before purchasing your textbooks; you may find that you don’t need to buy or rent the book after all.

The Library

As with Google Books, the library is a great resource when it comes to finding textbooks without the exorbitant cost attached. Contact your professor or the library itself to see if there are any copies of the current or older editions of the textbook set aside for students.

What about you? Do you know any clever ways to save money on textbooks? Tell us in the comments below.

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Guest's picture

I saw this ad on Craigslist where a person claimed to have paid $237.50 for a new Spanish textbook. The person ended up not taking the class after all and wants to sell the textbook for the discount price of $200.00. College textbooks are nothing but a huge criminal racket! The prices are getting so ridiculously high that some students are even opting not even to buy them. I wrote an article on this topic last month. http://extrememoneysaving.com/2012/07/23/5-great-ways-to-save-money-on-c...

Guest's picture

Great Read, Kelly. I always used to buy my books at a discount store online like amazon.com or half.com - the campus book store were a rip-off!

I personally had great success making my money back at the end of the semester by re-sell your books on Ebay or Amazon. You may not get all of you money back, but it was well worth it for some of my more pricey books. That way I had some funds to spend on the next semester of books!

Guest's picture
Henry Bloom

Just wanted to add to the library suggestion. By and large libraries, especially college libraries, do not carry textbooks (latest editions or otherwise) in their general collections. I work at a community college library and we get asked this a few times a day when classes begin. Usually these students asked their professors who shrug and say try the library. I've been told we're actually not allowed to carry textbooks for current classes unless professors have put their own copy on reserve for student use.

However, the library is still an excellent place to get non-textbook required reading (like that copy of Hemingway short stories or Stephen Hawking's latest book). If they don't have a copy themselves, the library can likely get one for you through interlibrary loan.

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Dave Leonard

This is one thing I made sure I did when I was doing my undergrad and honestly a lot of people are still unaware of. A couple other sites I used was Textbooksrus.com, Textbooks.com and some of the sites you listed above.

Its important to determine if the book is a book you may want to keep. Books that I felt could be beneficial later on, I chose to buy and keep; however most books I would either buy used or rent (buy backs normally arnt that great).

Have an iPad? CourseSmart.com and Kno are two great apps that let you rent textbooks. This is great because they have cool features and you always have your books with you without carrying around a ton (literally ha) of books.

Guest's picture

I'd like to recommend asking the professor if the book is even going to be used often. I once had a class where I purchased a book for $150 and it was used a mere 3 times. Most people in the class didn't purchase one and I was left feeling like an idiot.

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James Krewson

Students who are textbook shopping can benefit from a price comparison website such as FindersCheapers.com that specializes in used, rental, and new textbook prices. A price comparison website will search the inventories of 1,000's of book sellers and present the lowest prices along with free shipping offers and textbook coupons. Textbook coupons and more about textbook price comparison can be found here:
http://finderscheapers.com/textbook-coupons/