11 Ways to Save Big on College Textbooks

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Students at public four-year colleges spent an average of $1,298 on books and supplies during the 2015-16 school year. Here are ideas for slashing those costs.

Most college students will return to campus soon, and they’ll spend a lot of money on textbooks.

Students at public four-year colleges spent an average of $1,298 on books and supplies during the 2015-16 school year, according to the College Board.

The total was a little less for private four-year colleges ($1,249) but higher for public two-year schools ($1,364).

Anything you can do to offset such costs helps. Following are 11 strategies to save on your textbooks.

1. Contact your professors now

Class may not start for weeks, but chances are the textbooks for your course have been selected. Professors have to give college stores advance notice so the stores can order copies.

So email your professors and ask for the syllabus, or the required textbook list. That way, you can snag the cheapest copies before your classmates get the chance.

Talk to students who have had your professors before. Such students might still have copies of the textbooks you need and sell them at a cheap price.

2. Visit the campus library

Why pay for a textbook when you can borrow it free? If you’re quick enough, you may be able to get one of the library’s precious few copies. If it’s checked out, see if you can reserve a copy that’s due back soon.

The only flaw in this strategy is that you might not be able to check out the book for the entire semester. So, this strategy may work best for texts that will be used only briefly during the course of a semester.

Don’t forget digital libraries. Many out-of-copyright works are available on sites such as Project Gutenberg and Bartleby.

3. Buy used

Used books have to be in decent condition for stores to resell them. The savings can be significant, especially on an older edition.

On several occasions in college, I bought used books online for less than $10 (including shipping) when the new price was $60 or more. None had significant defects — sometimes they had a little highlighting or writing. Nor were they missing anything essential for the class.

4. Check rentals

Companies like CheggBookRenter and CampusBookRentals helped create an active market for textbook rental. Many college bookstores now offer the option, which can save you one-third or more in costs compared with buying. (If you rent from an online store, shipping usually is covered.)

Just be aware that if the book is relevant to your major and you might reuse it, the savings might be greater if you buy the text. It can be hard to tell whether you’ll need a book again. But if the book is by an author important to the field, the odds increase that buying makes more sense.

I had books overlap in different English classes, and I also reused a few books from undergrad in my graduate courses.

5. Look for digital

As the number of tablets and e-readers grows, so does the selection of digital textbooks. And you can also rent digitally. Amazon suggests you can save up to 80 percent with its Kindle rentals, and you don’t even need to buy a Kindle — there are compatible reading apps for computers and smartphones.

6. Compare prices

Prices can vary widely for both new and used copies, and online isn’t always cheaper.

At a minimum, check at Half.com and Amazon.com in addition to your school bookstore and any nearby off-campus competitors.

BookFinder.com, DirectTextbook.com, and TextbookPriceComparison.com can help you compare.

7. Make sure you get everything

Sometimes books are packaged with software, codes for required online access, digital content, study guides or workbooks. If the course requires any of that stuff, make sure your copy includes it — or that you will still come out ahead financially even if you have to buy such materials separately.

8. Know the rules

Understand the refund policy when you buy, so you don’t get burned if you end up not needing a book or if you drop a class. Unwrapped or marked-up books might prevent you from getting a full refund.

9. Keep receipts

Not only will you need these for returns, but you also might want them for tax deductions.

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