Heading back to college this fall? One of your biggest expenses (outside of tuition, of course) is likely to be textbooks. The College Board estimates that college students will spend anywhere from $1,200 to $1,300 on books and supplies. That’s a big chunk of change, but there are plenty of ways you can save on textbooks.
1. Avoid the Bookstore, Except for Essentials
While the college bookstore is tempting in all its shiny, fully stocked glory, it’s also generally the last place you want to go to buy textbooks. Even used textbooks at the bookstore typically will be sold at a higher markup than you’ll see online. And the new books often are more expensive there than anywhere else.
One exception to this rule: custom-printed packets assigned by particular professors. Some professors will require custom-printed anthologies or companion books for their classes. These are printed and bound ahead of time, and you won’t be able to get them anywhere but the bookstore.
2. Wait Until After the First Class to Buy
Some college professors are just as fed up with the rising cost of textbooks as their students. Unfortunately, academic departments will sometimes strongarm professors into choosing more expensive books.
Still, some professors will work with students who simply can’t afford to pay $180 for a single textbook. While the expense may be unavoidable in some classes, in others, professors will tell you straight up that you’ll only use a few sections of the textbook over the course. Or they’ll offer supplementary options that are free or really cheap.
While not bringing books to class on the first day may seem like a huge risk, it’s typically not a big deal. That first class day is typically spent discussing the syllabus and course expectations. And you can use that information to gauge which of the following options you want to use to buy, rent, or borrow textbooks for each class.
3. Buy Used Whenever Possible
The market for used college textbooks is huge, since many students buy these books only to use them for a single semester. Chances are there are multiple used book stores near any major college campus, and you can also buy used online from bookselling marketplaces. New books are worth the investment only in limited circumstances, which we’ll discuss later. Otherwise, go for used versions of physical textbooks.
4. Check Out the Price of E-Books
More and more publishers are offering their textbooks in e-book format. This can make sense for most of your classes. Plus, purchasing a slim e-reader and most of your textbooks in e-book format can save you from having to haul loads of heavy textbooks all over campus.
E-books may not always be appropriate, especially if you’re an in-book highlighter or note-taker. But with today’s e-book technology, most books can be “highlighted” and bookmarked virtually, so you can still reference certain passages or sections as needed.
5. Split Costs With a Friend
If you and a friend are taking the same class at different times or between semesters, consider splitting the costs of a used book. This can be tricky to work out, as you need to be sure you each have access to the books when working on homework and going to class. But if you’re taking the same introductory course on different days, textbook sharing can be a viable option.
6. Buy Older Editions
One reason textbooks are so expensive is that they’re constantly “updated,” even when the update involves only very minor edits. For classes with course content that’s stable from year to year, you probably don’t really need the latest edition. And used versions of out-of-date editions can be even cheaper.
Just be aware that page numbers and figures don’t always line up from one edition to the next, so you’ll need to be extra careful that you’re completing the correct coursework. Also, older editions may not work as well for classes like math and science if the professor relies on homework from the book, as questions can change from edition to edition.
7. Try the Library
The campus library or the local public library are both great options for finding copies of more-common books. Libraries may not have a copy of a $175 quantum physics textbook. But they are likely to have copies of many texts used in liberal arts courses. English majors and the like are at a particular advantage here. Many literature classes are built around easy-to-rent classics that are simple to pick up from the library.
One potential caveat to this strategy: availability. If others in your course also borrow their texts from the library, you may be unable to find a copy when you need it. Your best bet is to look well ahead on the syllabus, and to reserve copies of the books you need at least two or three weeks ahead of time.
8. Rent Your Textbooks Online
Textbook rental services are becoming more common these days, and they’re another good option for saving on your overall costs. You can sometimes even rent e-book versions of your textbooks, which are cheaper since you’re not purchasing a lifetime license.
Just be careful if you decide to rent physical textbooks, as they’ll have to be in excellent condition when you return them, or you’ll pay extra fees.
9. Buy Certain New Books Online
Sometimes it does make sense to buy books new. For instance, if your math professor will use the specific homework questions in the latest edition of a book that just released, you’ll have to spring for the new version. Or if you need to purchase workbooks, which some lower-level math courses still use, you’ll need new versions of those.
Also, if you’re an upperclassman, you might consider purchasing new, or used that are in excellent condition, versions of books from some of your senior-level courses. These could be texts that you’ll reference after college once you’re in career-related courses, so having nice versions that will hold up over time can make sense.
[Editor’s Note: While you’re in college, you might not be thinking too much about your credit, but bad credit can be even more costly than your textbooks. That’s why it’s a good idea to check it every now and then so you can make sure your financial future is on track. You can get two free credit scores, updated every 14 days, at Credit.com. You also can get your free credit reports ever year at AnnualCreditReport.com.]