Can You Save Money by Renting Textbooks?

By Xin Lu on 4 September 2009 (Updated 18 August 2013) 14 comments

When I went to college it was unheard of to rent textbooks, but a number of outfits such as Chegg, Campus Book Rentals, and BookRenter.com have sprung up in the last few years that allow students to rent good quality textbooks at a fraction of the purchase price.  Additionally, some book publishers are also getting into the business of renting out textbooks at campus bookstores. As an experiment, I checked out these sites to see if it is really worthwhile to rent a textbook.

Example 1: A classic book

I graduated from college just four years ago, so a lot of the textbooks I had are still being used in classrooms. First I looked up the classic computer science text Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs 2nd Edition by Abelson and Sussman and I selected the rental term of one semester. One semester is 125 to 130 days on the three book rental sites Chegg, Campus Book Rentals, and BookRenter. The rental prices are:

  1. Chegg: $40.06
  2. Campus Book Rentals: $44.68
  3. BookRenter: $63.86

As a comparison I looked at Amazon, and the price to buy a new copy is currently $68.80 and the cheapest used copy is $40.00. This tells me that a student could potentially do better than renting by just buying the book and then reselling it later. It gets even better when you search for this particular book in Google, because MIT Press has been offering the entire book for free online for a few years now. In this special case, free wins hands down.

Example 2: A book with a brand new edition

Next I looked at  Introduction to Algorithms by Cormen, Leiserson, Rivest, and Stein. This popular computer science text is also commonly referred to as CLR or CLRS for the authors' initials and a new third edition just came out this year. The rental prices for one semester are:

  1. Chegg: $58.55
  2. Campus Book Rentals: Out of stock currently
  3. BookRenter: $75.69

So far it seems that Chegg has the best rental price, but when I went to Amazon I found that buying a new copy only costs $62.64 with free shipping. In this case it actually costs more to rent the book at BookRenter. Although renting at Chegg is about $4.00 cheaper than buying, I am sure you can sell the book for more than $4.00 after using it because it is brand new and chances are it will be used again next semester.

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Example 3: A book that is a couple years old

Next I looked up Physics for Scientists and Engineers Volume II 4th Edition by Giancoli which came out in 2007. When I went to college I borrowed the third edition of this bulky book from the engineering library and kept it in my locker. The rental prices are:

  1. Chegg: $31.25
  2. Campus Book Rentals: Out of stock currently
  3. BookRenter: $59.41

Once again, Chegg wins on price and availability. BookRenter actually charges almost twice as Chegg for the same rental period for this particular book. On Amazon the book is selling for $86.16 new, and the cheapest used copy is around $47 right now. In this case it seems that the best deal is to rent from Chegg since the difference between buying and renting is quite big and even the used copies are more expensive than the rental price.

Conclusion

My takeaway from this experiment is that it is possible to save money by renting a textbook, but how much you can save depends on the particular book. It seems that brand new books are generally more expensive at rental sites, and it may be more economical to buy these and resell them while the resale value is still high. Older books are more likely to be freely available online or in libraries so it is better to check there first. The sweet spot for rentals seems to be books that are a couple years old such as the last book I looked up. It may make more sense to rent these books because their resale values might suddenly drop due to upcoming new editions.

Additionally, textbook rentals are great for people who do not want to deal with reselling books after a class ends. It is easy to just get rid of the book in the return box provided by the rental companies. I like the idea of renting a book because it encourages reuse, and Chegg actually plants a tree for each book you rent, buy, or donate so that makes the earth a little greener. The bottom line is that renting a textbook is definitely an option for saving some dough during school, but you still have to comparison shop a little bit to get the best deal.

Disclosure:  This post contains affiliate links to the books mentioned and Chegg.

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Guest's picture

The answer is definitely yes. It's just let renting your cap and gown during graduation. Heck, you can go one step farther to rent the wedding dress and tux! All a waste of money.

Shogun

Guest's picture

You gave a balanced perspective, but I wouldn't say it's any greener to rent than it is to buy and resell, except the tree thing.

Guest's picture
Guest

The problem with shopping around for the cheapest price is that the "required" list of books isn't always accurate, and you might not get the real story till you show up in class the first day.

So you're stuck balancing buying the cheapest book online a week before classes with showing up and hearing the professor say "Now, everything on the tests will be from lecture, but the book will be a good reference.".

Renting could help avoid that scenario, though I think buying cheap/international versions and then re-selling them is the best way to go.

Guest's picture
Jennifer N Johnson

In law school, I found buying used, or even sometimes new, beat the rental prices every time. The only time rental worked for me was when I needed a book for a few weeks and didn't feel like fighting over the reserved copy in the library.

The biggest tip I could offer to save money on texts? Buy the second most recent edition. Rarely was there enough of a difference to justify the cost for the newest edition and I could always double check a classmate's book or the reserved copy. I never had a problem and I saved a ton of money!

Guest's picture
AJ

I am a fan of paying for required books. I like being deeply involved in with my textbooks. I like taking light notes on the sides to help me remember a point. I usually do this in pencil so I can resale it. If I did the same with a rented book, they would probably fine you or something like this. There are some books that would be good rented like books you may not need as much during the semester.

Guest's picture
David

I've used Chegg, bought on Amazon Marketplace and resold books.

It really boils down to availability. The books I've rented on Chegg were because nothing else (other than the $120 new edition) was available Amazon.

Usually I go for the marketplace, one edition or two back depending on the book and the class. Some required course which has nothing to do with my focus of studies, I go for the oldest and cheapest.

As far as reselling, don't expect huge profits. It all depends on the book. Many times there's an enormous glut of books on there for under $1-$5. Other times, you can set your price but may have to wait 6-8 months for a sale.

It does feel good when you know you only paid $15 for a book, even if you only sell it back for around $7.

Be advised that if you are selling your book via Amazon Marketplace, selling anything under $3 means taking a loss after fees and shipping.

Guest's picture
Stacie

The value depends on what you want to get out of it too.

I rented with Chegg.com for the first time this semester and have been happy with the results. If I decide I want to keep the book after taking the class, it's an option for an additional fee. I like the non-hassle of reselling too.

I used bigwords.com to find the best prices, which led me then to Chegg. With Bigwords.com you can also exclude international copies which can lead to problems.

Chegg is on twitter too, with some savings options if you want to contact them. I got a 5% discount, which saved the shipping costs.

Guest's picture

Another thing, studies say we only retain 10% of what we learned in college. Hence, you want to minimize education expenses such as textbooks completely! Just a thought.

Guest's picture
Katy

As a full-time student I have come up with a way to save money on textbooks. It is called the LIBRARY.

Guest's picture
gt0163c

Another thing to think about when renting text books, something I haven't seen come up in any of the articles I've read recently, is that many books are useful references to have throughout the rest of your time in school and even beyond. This probably depends on the major and individual class, but, eleven years after getting out of school, I still use two or three books for reference fairly regularly in my job. And, while I was still in school, my calculus, chemistry and some of my engineering core class text books were very useful references. Had I rented the books it would have been much harder to look up the information I needed.
Now, the books from my English, history and other non-major elective courses are another story.

Guest's picture
Sarah

I prefer to rent from Chegg because if the bookstore won't take the textbook back (a new edition is coming out, for example), Chegg has to take it back. Granted, you won't get anything for it, but at least you know how much you're truly spending up front.

They also allow you to return books free of charge (shipping is covered) for a refund so long as the package is postmarked within 30 days of purchase. Perfect for when you find out that the professor really doesn't use the book.

The downside to their new policy? You used to be able to put a book in your cart to lock in the price (prices go up as the start of the semester nears). Now, Chegg will change prices in cart.

Guest's picture
Jake

I love how they come out with new editions of books in subjects where they make absolutely no changes in the material. Take math for example, you can't tell me there is any ground breaking discoveries in college algebra for them to need to change books every year or so. Renting is definitley the way to go!

Guest's picture
Sean John

eCampus.com offers rentals and eBooks, along with new and used titles. they also have a marketplace like amazon so you can sell your books to other book lovers or buy some books super cheap.

Check them out: http://www.eCampus.com

Try coupon code: GOLDFISH for 5% off of your order total

Guest's picture
Guest

I wanted to share a code for a discount on renting texts with Chegg. Put in the code when ordering and hit the "apply" button. The code also gives you back an additional $5 when selling Chegg your used texts.

The code does not have an expiration date so it can be used with every order. Here it is:

CC123047

Hope you find this useful!