It’s a common trope: going to college is expensive. There’s tuition, the overpriced cafeteria plan, and the cramped dorm room that costs more than your parent’s mortgage. College costs have outpaced inflation and wages for years, and the costs can be seen everywhere. Especially in textbook prices.
According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, college textbook prices have increased more than 1,000% since 1977. This means prices for textbooks have outgrown inflation by more than three times. Buying textbooks is a necessary evil, but if you plan ahead, there are ways to spend less.
Buy Them Used
Buying used textbooks is an old trick and can save you hundreds of dollars a year. Unfortunately, most people know about this strategy. The key is to start shopping for books as soon as you get the class book list. You can find used textbooks online at sites like BigWords.com or AbeBooks.com. You can also look for books on eBay or Half.com.
Take the time to compare prices on all those sites before buying your copy. Make sure to look up the ISBN number instead of the title or author or you might wind up with a Spanish version of your Econ textbook. Once you’re done with the books, you can resell them on those sites to earn some money back.
Buying Older Editions
When you get your textbook list for the next semester, you probably see the latest edition listed. The newest editions are almost always more expensive and there are fewer used copies, especially if the edition was released recently. There are often little to no huge differences in these new editions, except for the price. A 2019 copy of a textbook can be 10% more expensive than a 2009 version.
Here’s a real-world example. The fourth edition of “Microeconomics” by Paul Krugman and Robin Wells costs $16.99 to rent and $27.49 to buy from Chegg.com. The fifth edition of the same book costs $37.49 to rent and $50.99 for a used copy. A new copy of the fifth edition costs $97.49.
That’s a difference of $10-$20 or more for what could be a few different pages. If you have to buy a dozen books for all your classes, you could save hundreds of dollars by getting an earlier edition. Sometimes page numbers may be slightly off so be sure to verify what chapter or section you need to read for homework. Still, this small inconvenience may be worth it.
Contact the professor or teacher’s assistant and ask them if you have to get the latest edition. Ask your professor how many books you actually need. It’s common for a professor to include suggested books on your list that you don’t actually need for the class. Email the professor as soon as possible to find out what’s necessary and what’s optional. I once had a journalism professor who asked us to buy almost 10 books for the class, but we only ever read a couple of them.
Renting textbooks is usually cheaper than buying them used, and you don’t have to worry about selling them back at the end of the year. This is handy if you’re going to study abroad or live far away and hate lugging your heavy books to the campus bookstore.
The only downside to renting a textbook is that you’ll be charged a fee if you return it late, if the book is damaged or if you accidentally highlight a passage. If you lose the book, you could also face some hefty fines.
Renting may not be possible for every edition, and sometimes is reserved for more popular books. Before renting a textbook, compare the final cost to a used copy you can find. Then, see how much you can get when selling that used copy. You’ll often get between 30-50% of what you paid for it, depending on the book. The cost of renting may outweigh buying a used copy.
Sharing with a Friend
If you’re in the same class as a good friend, consider splitting the cost of your textbooks with them. This works best if you’re in a class with a roommate or someone in your dorm.
This is a great alternative if you can’t find a used copy of the book, but don’t want to spend hundreds on a new copy.
Figure out how you’ll divide up the readings. If this is a person you already study with on a regular basis, you’ll know if you work well together.
Some textbooks have e-books that you can buy or rent. These may be less expensive than buying a new version, but you should still compare prices before purchasing. You can find ebooks on Amazon or Chegg.com, two of the most popular online retailers for digital textbooks.
E-books are handy if you have a tablet or e-reader and don’t mind not having a physical copy to mark up. If you need to take notes in your book, then using e-books will only hurt your studies.
Remember to compare e-book prices with used copies. Some e-books are more expensive because you have access through a variety of platforms.
Borrowing them from the Library
Some college libraries keep spare copies of textbooks on hand for students, but they’re often limited and on a first-come, first-serve basis.
If you need to borrow a textbook from the library, put it on hold as soon as you can. This method works well if you only need the textbook for a short period of time or if you can copy the pages you need without spending a fortune on Xerox fees. It may also be cheaper to pay a late fee to keep the book for the whole semester than to buy your own copy.
You should also check your local city library to see if they have any copies. Those may be more available than copies from your school’s library.