Over the last few days, I’ve heard from a handful of college students that are facing the start of their fall semester in college and are looking for smart strategies for trimming their expenses when it comes to textbooks. Here’s an example message from Jen:
I just priced out my books for fall semester and the total was $950 from the campus book store. Even on Amazon they are really expensive. There has to be a better way to do this.
You’re right, Jen. There is a better way to do this. Over the past few years, I’ve had a lot of younger friends and family members ask me for help in finding cheap textbooks for them and here are the strategies we’ve used that have really worked.
Check Your Syllabus First
The usual routine that people go through when buying college textbooks is that they head to their university bookstore – or, more often these days, the online bookstore for their university – and search for each of their classes. For each, there’s likely a book or two or three listed, so you’ll just add them to the shopping cart and pay.
That’s a mistake. The first place you should look is at your class syllabus that lists the textbooks for the class.
Why look for the syllabus? The syllabus will usually indicate which books are actually required and which ones are optional. It will also usually indicate whether the most current version of the book is necessary or whether older versions are clearly acceptable.
Just by looking at the syllabus, you might cut the number of books you need to buy and, at the same time, expand the number of editions that can fulfill your needs, making it easier to find used books.
Ask the Professor if Older Editions Are Acceptable
If a professor has a syllabus that lists a specific version of a textbook, send your professor a quick email (or, if you’re in class on the first day, raise your hand). Simply ask whether previous versions of the textbook are acceptable and, if so, which versions.
In many of my classes, previous versions of a textbook were perfectly acceptable, up to a certain point. Usually, each version of a book has a few changes, but over a number of editions, those changes accumulate and significantly alter the textbook.
Most professors are fine with the students using the previous version of the book or even an earlier version than that. You just need to make sure what versions actually work for the class.
Check the University and Community Libraries
Once you’re certain that you know what books are needed for the class, start checking the university and community libraries.
For a lot of classes, this won’t be helpful, but for some classes, such as literature classes or some history classes, the library may in fact have the book that you’re looking for.
If you can find books you need from the library, the book becomes free, at least for a while. A friend of mine was able to check out a book for his English Lit course from the community library and renewed it twice, meaning that he was able to keep it for the full time that he needed it for the course.
So, you’ve finally realized that you do have to pay for some of your books. If that’s your situation, I highly recommend using Occupy the Bookstore, a free Google Chrome add-on that will make this whole process much, much easier.
Just add the extension to your browser at the link above, then head to the website of your university bookstore. Look up the books you need for your classes. As you visit the page for each specific book you need, the extension will pop up, giving you a long list of options for other places to buy the book – and that list is sorted by price by default.
What I usually suggest that people do is use Occupy the Bookstore, find the book they want, then browse the list for the first store that they trust (like, say, Amazon) and buy from there.
Rent, Don’t Buy, Most of Your Books
Many online sources for textbooks, such as Chegg, offer rentals rather than purchases. It’s a simple process, really – you pay a lower price than you otherwise would, they send you the book, and you have to send it back at the end of the semester. Then, they’re likely to “rent” that book again to someone else at the start of the next semester. Most of these stores usually have a “buy” option if you realize that you’ll actually need the book beyond the semester.
For most of your classes, you won’t actually need or want that book for longer than a semester, so this kind of service not only saves you something like 60% on your textbook, it also gets rid of that textbook for you at the end of the semester so you don’t have to deal with reselling it.
I actually rented a couple of textbooks using a very early textbook rental service near the end of my college career and found it to be very useful and a great money saver.
If You Must Buy, Try to Buy Used
If, for some reason, you have to buy a textbook instead of simply renting one, try to find a used version of that textbook. Most online textbook sellers – Amazon included – offer used versions of the textbook at a discounted price.
Sure, sometimes you’ll get a book with margin notes and highlights in them, but those things are pretty easily ignored, especially since you’re really just after the text and images of the book.
Buying a used version of a textbook will save you a surprising amount of money. I was largely a used textbook buyer in college and I often found that I was saving as much as 60% by buying used books. (Of course, back then, I mostly had to rely on notes tacked onto bulletin boards around campus rather than the Internet.)
If You Must Buy New, Try an eBook
Sometimes, the worst possible scenario happens. A class requires a brand new version of a textbook. Used ones aren’t available. The professor will not allow older editions of the book and has assignments requiring the new edition.
It happens. It’s frustrating. It’s going to wallop your pocketbook, no matter what you do.
The solution here is also pretty simple. If you find yourself in that kind of situation, just buy the electronic version of the textbook. The electronic versions are usually substantially cheaper than the print version of the book and it’s far easier to search through it for specific terms when you’re studying.
I’m old school – when I’m studying, I still prefer print. However, I’ve also studied using electronic sources and, honestly, if you’re in a studying mindset and know how to turn off distractions, they work fine.
Share Books with Friends
Another approach worth considering is sharing a textbook with a friend who is taking the same class as you. If you’re both taking that class, you can just buy one textbook and share it, splitting the cost.
The biggest problem with this approach is that there will probably be a key point or two during the semester where you both want to use that textbook at the same time. For example, the night before a test, you both may want to use that book.
The solution here is to study together, so if you consider following this kind of plan, make sure that the person you’re sharing the textbook purchase with is a person you can study with in a conducive fashion.
Sell Your Unnecessary Books at Semester’s End
At the end of the semester, provided you didn’t buy an ebook or rent a textbook, you’re going to be facing a decision. Do I need to keep this textbook or not? Will it help with my future classes or with my career?
If you decide to keep it, good. I found several textbooks to be useful references during my early career and was glad that I kept them around.
If you decide not to keep them, sell them during that gap between semesters. There are a lot of avenues for selling books, but it makes sense to go where the people are and sell in a high-traffic place like Amazon or Craigslist.
You won’t recoup all of your investment, but you will recoup some of it, and that money will come in just in time to buy the next semester’s books.
College textbook buying is an expensive routine for every student. Textbook manufacturers charge ridiculous prices which can really add to the financial burden of postsecondary education.
However, we live in a world of (mostly) sympathetic professors and easy access to information tools that can make it easy to locate and buy used textbooks. Take advantage of those tools and use them to shave some serious money off of your textbook expenses.
If doing so can help you reduce your student loan burden, even by a few hundred dollars per semester, that will add up to thousands over the course of college and thousands more in saved interest over the subsequent years.