11 Ways to Save Big on College Textbooks

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Most college students will be returning to campus later this month, and they’ll spend an estimated average of $655 on textbooks for the school year.

That sounds low to me – more like what I’d spend in a semester as an English major a few years ago.

The National Association of College Stores says today’s prices are less than two years ago ($667) or four years ago ($702), but it’s still a lot. And $47 in savings isn’t all that comforting when you consider the average total cost of college has jumped 28.6 percent – almost $4,000 – over those same four years, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Anything you can do to offset costs counts. So here are some strategies to save on your textbooks, starting with this video from Money Talks founder Stacy Johnson. Check it out, then meet me on the other side for more…

Now let’s add more details and tips…

1. Contact your professors now

Class may not start for weeks, but chances are your textbooks are already decided – professors have to give college stores advance notice so they can order copies. So email your profs and ask for the syllabus or required textbook list so you can snag the cheapest copies before your classmates get the chance.

If you know students who have had that professor before, talk to them. They might still have a copy for cheap. And the professor might say you need a certain book, but your friend who had him might tell you they only used it in class once, and there was nothing from it on the tests. But either way, before you buy…

2. Visit the campus library

Why pay anything 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.

And don’t forget digital libraries. As Stacy mentioned in the video, 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, so that’s not a concern. 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 a little highlighting or writing) or were missing anything essential for the class.

4. Check rentals

Companies like CheggBookRenter and CampusBookRentals helped create an active market for textbook rental. Now many college bookstores offer the option, which can save a third or more over buying. (If you rent from an online store, shipping is usually covered.)

Just be aware that if the book is relevant to your major and you might reuse it, the savings might be greater by buying. It can be hard to tell whether you’ll need a book again, but if it’s by an author important to the field, the odds increase you’ll want to own. 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. Last year, The Chronicle of Higher Education found an accounting textbook that “retails at $197 in print and $109 as an e-book, [but] would cost $57 to rent from Amazon for three months,” with the option to extend the rental or purchase it later. 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 among both new and used copies, and online isn’t always cheaper. You can easily save 20 percent even on new books by comparison shopping.

At a minimum, I would suggest checking 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 can still save by buying it 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 drop a class. Being in a hurry to open it can hurt you – unwrapped or marked books might not get you a full refund.

9. Keep receipts

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

10. Pay smart

Your school may offer textbook advance loans to ease you into the semester before financial aid comes in. You might also be tempted to charge books to your credit card. Both those options risk extra fees and possibly interest, so read up before you swipe or sign.

On the other hand, credit cards are smart to use for online purchases, in case there are any disputes. Just pay off the balance as quickly as possible.

11. Sell back

Digital books and rentals may save you money up front, but until they dominate the market, most textbooks will still have good resale value. For now, you ultimately keep more money in your pocket by buying used and reselling before a new edition is released. (When a new edition comes out, the value plummets – which is why you can buy old editions for so little.) But notice we say “sell,” and not “trade in.” Selling to your college store after finals is fast, but it’s not the way to get the most money back.

If you have the financial flexibility, reselling is the way to save the most. In May, we did an in-depth post on how to turn your textbooks into cash. Here’s a sample of Money Talks News writer Ricky Michalski’s analysis…

I found Chegg sells [my chemistry book] for:

  • $165.49 new
  • $155.49 used
  • $117.99 as an e-book
  • $50.99 for a rental copy

But I bought the same book used on Amazon for $75 – and when I was ready to sell it, one bookstore near my campus offered me $72 for my copy. Final price: $3 for a textbook!

Bottom line? There are tons of ways to save on textbooks, some mutually exclusive. But a little legwork can mean really big savings.

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