8 Smart Ways to Save on College Textbooks

College is back in session. That means skyrocketing tuition, high-priced campus food, and even higher-priced textbooks. We can’t help with the first two, but we can save you big on books.

College classes start today for many schools up north. Down south, it was last week. So at the Florida university I attend, I’m just starting my second week – but I haven’t bought a single textbook. It’s not because I procrastinated. It’s because I’ve learned that waiting a week can save me big bucks on books.

Textbooks can easily cost more than $100 – and some even go to four figures, according to CBS Money Watch’s list of the most expensive textbooks. But even the cheapest books add up. The College Board estimates that a student in a four-year school will spend $1,137 on textbooks this year.

But I won’t. Here’s why…

1. Know your professor

Wait to see if the professor will even require the textbooks the class description says you need. Sometimes they don’t. Also check out what past students have said on RateMyProfessors.com. Some of the ratings reek of spiteful students who just make fun of the professor’s hair, but others let you know how much you’ll really use the required textbooks, if at all.

2. Get a second-hand education

If you must buy, buy used. InsideHigherEd reported that used books are still at the forefront of cheap textbooks, even when compared to digital and rental competition (see below). Sites like Half.com and Amazon.com have entire sections dedicated to used textbooks.

3. Rent

MSNBC’s School Inc. reported that now more than ever, the demand for textbook rentals is rising. When you rent, you get the book in the mail, use it for the semester, and then send it back. Shipping the books back is free.

Here are some of the biggest and most reliable sites that rent out textbooks:

4. Go digital

Amazon will let you rent a digital copy of a textbook for the semester. You download free software to read the book on your computer, tablet computer, or Kindle.

The Chronicle of Higher Education crunched the numbers and found an accounting book that normally sells for $197 hard copy – and even $109 for the e-book version – can be rented for just $57. That’s a discount of almost 75 percent, not far from the 80-percent savings that Amazon boasts you can regularly get.

There’s a downside, though. Since the tech is new, it’s not widespread. MSN Money grabbed required textbook lists from three undergraduate classes at large universities. They searched for the books on Amazon’s site and didn’t find a single one.

Look for your own textbooks on Amazon’s rental site before deciding to make the switch.

5. Make some friends

You’re not the first person to take this class. Find people who’ve taken the class before. Maybe they still have the book.

How do you find them? Tell the professor you’d like to touch base with an alum of the class, since you have some questions. I’ve done this before and it works. I got a whole list to choose from.

If you happen to be taking multiple classes with people you know, share. They can buy books for one class while you buy books for the other.

6. Use social media

Bookstores and rental stores are both using social media to promote themselves – that means savings for you.

For example, Chegg.com’s Facebook page offers special deals on both textbook rentals and concerts. The first one is practical, the second one is fun!

7. Shop and compare

As with most purchases, comparison shopping helps. If you’re going to buy, rent, or download, check out the competition. Here are some sites that do the work for you:

8. Become a copy machine

Check out your syllabus, the guide the professor gives out to show what’s going to be covered this semester. If the book will only be used for a handful of chapters, it might make sense to borrow the book and make copies of the necessary pages.

My university charges between 5 and 10 cents per copy – or between $5 and $10 for 100 pages! While this is a cheap option, it might be frowned upon, since it’s technically a copyright infringement.

Finally, check out 4 Places to Get Free Textbooks, 6 Tips to Pay Less for a College Degree and 5 Saving Tips from a Starving Student.

Stacy Johnson

It's not the usual blah, blah, blah

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  • Anonymous

    Good advice, I rented  books this semester and saved over $450.  I shopped around the local book stores then checked the rental options and got free shipping.

  • Thanks for posting this list of great ways to save on textbooks. The other way to save on college textbooks is by using a price comparison engine. We offer one, and so do many other sites. Consider buying used and selling back for the ultimate savings – but renting can save you money up front if people are really strapped for cash. Thanks!

  • Anonymous

    Open textbooks offer the best long-term solution to ridiculously expensive textbooks. Flat World Knowledge lets students choose from 7 formats, including print, for $40 and under.  The $29.95  “All-Access Pass”  gives students unlimited access to their textbook and study aids for the iPad, Kindle and other e-readers, MP3 player, online
    reader, PDF. The files are DRM-free and never expire.  http://www.marketwire.com/pres

  • only problem is when a college uses “boutique” editions, like Central Texas College is famous for, and you have to get an internet access code, which is the bulk of the cost. You generally have to have the bundle, although some of the books in the bundle are not used

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