6 Tips for Cheaper Textbooks

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When Naomi Moneypenny started college, she had to almost immediately make a difficult, but important choice. “I spent so much of my budget on specialized books that I had to make a decision between purchasing food or textbooks,” she tells MainStreet. “The textbooks won and I bought expired canned food from a hole-in-the-wall store [that year].”

While not all are regulated to a diet of Spam and Vienna sausages, any college student will invariably tell you they spend too much money on books. In fact, a recent study by the National Association of College Stores found that students spent, on average, $667 on required course materials over the last 12 months. Part-time students paid around $531 for their required reading; full-time students shelled out $693 … and these costs can be expected to go up.

A separate study completed by the University of Michigan found that the price of textbooks has risen, on average, 6.9% each year since 1978. This is less than the average annual inflation rate for general college tuition, but more than the 4% increase in the cost of medical care through the years.

“[It] depends on the semester,” Aubey Layno-Moses, a student at University of Southern California, says, backing these studies up with her sentiments. “But [I] usually spend between $600 and $1200.”

While the price for particular textbooks may fluctuate, just how much money a course load costs ultimately comes down to how and when you purchase your materials (it may be the middle of the summer people, but now is a great time to start looking for textbook deals).

“Freshmen year, I bought all of my books at the bookstore, spending over $1000,” 2010 college graduate Lisa Cuesta says. “Fortunately, as time went on I got smarter with my textbook shopping techniques.”

To help you bypass the trial and error process (and to prevent you from a similar first-year pitfall), MainStreet has some suggestions for how to save on school books.  

Buy Used:

While your on-campus bookstore is convenient, it’s certainly not cost efficient. Your campus bookstore may offer used books at a lower price, but many college students swear by sites such as Amazon.com, Half.com (a division of online auction house eBay), BigWords.com and Craig’s List. Even Barnes & Noble, which owns many campus bookstores, has an online division that sells discounted used textbooks.

“Sophomore and Junior year, I shopped online, using marketplaces such as Amazon.com, ultimately saving a few hundred dollars,” Cuesta says. The trick is to give yourself enough time to make use of these resources. Buying used books online obviously takes longer than picking them up directly at a local bookstore and supplies are far more limited given the demand for these books. You can allot for this lagtime by obtaining the International Standard Book Number for any textbook required for classes. (Most are published online prior to the start of the semester, but you can always email professor’s directly to ask what books you will need.)

Rent:

“If you don’t care about keeping your books after the end of the semester, renting is a great way to save money,” Alexa von Tobel, CEO of budgeting web site Learnvest.com says.  Popular rental sites include Chegg.com and CampusBookRentals.com. Both offer flexible rental periods and permit you to return the book within a certain timeframe at no cost, so, if you drop a class or your professor axes the book, you won’t be stuck with it.

Comparison Shop:

You can certainly find great deals by purchasing used books or borrowing from others online. However, you can’t guarantee you’ve found the best bargain if you don’t compare prices for all vendors. Going to local Borders, Barnes & Noble and other book dealers may be worth the effort. However, there are many online websites that do automatic cost comparisons for you. Check out Textbookprices.com or CampusBooks.com to get started. These two sites will list prices for all of the aforementioned online retailers plus textbook rental and e-Book options so you can sort out the best bargain.   

Borrow:

You can potentially bypass a purchase by taking advantage of your school’s resources. According to von Tobel, many professors will put a few copies of their required texts on hold at the campus library. You may only be able to take these books out for a short time period or, worse, restricted to reading them on premises. However, those hoping to save a lot of money can consider logging in the hours in their library’s research section.

If you can’t find a specific course book, at least rely on local institutions as your primary source of supplemental information. “I took out textbooks for my dissertation from the local public library,” Rhoda Weiss, who recently graduated from a Ph.D program at Antioch University, says. “Since a number of these books were not ‘bestsellers’, I was able to get an extension on the time allotted for borrowing the book.”

Beyond that, Weiss also borrowed for her fellow students, who were willing to share books they no longer needed either at minimal-to-no cost. Many colleges and universities have e-communities set up so students can trade and borrow textbooks with one another. If yours doesn’t, you can always consider starting your own.  

Be Proactive … and Patient:

It may sound unfathomable, but, many times college professors list necessary course materials they don’t intend to use. This is mostly due to last-minute syllabus changes. However, a book may also come with supplemental materials (such as a CD, DVD or workbook) that aren’t needed to complete the course-work.  Conscientious students should verify with professors what they will or will not need for class. Students should also ask what particular edition of textbook is required (new editions often vary very little from their less costly predecessors). Those reluctant to touch-base can wait it out on their own.

“I personally will buy my books a week or two after classes start to get a feel for which classes actually require the book,” Layno-Moses says, before pointing out.  “I once bought a $200 macroeconomics book that we didn’t use all semester … that really pissed me off.”

Sell:

Those not looking to keep their textbooks can sell them back at the end once they are finished with them. However, remember to comparison “shop” for the best buyback prices. Campus bookstores often offer buyback programs as do Amazon, Chegg, Half.com and CampusBookRentals. However, no matter what vendor you chose, the better the book looks, the nicer the price.  

“If you want to sell your books at the end of the semester, remember that you almost always get more money back from books in good condition without much highlighting or writing in them,” von Tobel points out. “If you want to get the best price for your books, keep them in the best condition possible.”

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