Saving money on textbooks

You’ve paid tuition, fees, room and board plus purchased all the stuff you need for the dorm room. You arrive on campus to move yourself or your child into their room, head to the bookstore and WHAM! Another $800 – $1,000 for books. Textbooks are insanely expensive but there are ways to cut your costs. You need to do your homework and possibly send a few emails to professors, but you could potentially save 70 – 90% on your textbooks with these tips.

There are so many options for your textbook purchases: in-store, online, new, used, buy, rent. Which are the best options? Let’s discuss.

Saving money on college textbooks

Original photo by John Lui, copyright 2011.

Start early

If you know the class schedule, you can start looking at books immediately. Instructors are required to put in their book orders in the spring for fall courses and the fall for spring courses. Generally, I am required to have my textbook orders in shortly after students have started registration. This allows students to possibly purchase the books from other students at the end of the semester. Also, used textbook prices tend to rise as the demand for the book increases. There is less demand for books at the end of the semester when students are selling books rather than buying them.

Contact the instructor

There are a number of reasons why you should do this. First, most instructors will give you the name of the book, the authors, publisher and ISBN to insure you are purchasing the correct book. I can’t tell you how many times a student has purchased the wrong book online because he/she found the title of the book and through the correct book was being purchased.

When making your inquiry, ask how much the book will be used in class. Will it be needed for homework assignments or just for reading? Will all the books listed in the syllabus actually be used. I have experienced instructors who inherit a course and syllabus from another instructor and then later decide not to use all the materials listed in the syllabus. By asking the particulars, you can save yourself from purchasing books you will not need. If the book is just used for reading assignments, you can save a lot of money by purchasing a previous edition of the textbook. This managerial accounting book is $230 new and $42 used, but a quick search shows that the previous edition
can be purchased for $7. Most textbooks do not change a tremendous amount from edition to edition.

This is also a good time to ask if there is an online component required for the course. Many courses now require online homework managers. These products are usually an additional cost but sometimes the online component includes an e-book, which could save you money since you would not need to purchase a printed copy of the book.

Custom Editions

Sometimes, students feel like they must purchase the book from the bookstore because it is a “custom edition”. While some custom editions are a compilation of sources, most are just one textbook with some of the chapters removed, bound in soft cover to lower the price. Many times, you can purchase a used hardcover copy for less money. Check with the professor if you can’t find the ISBN online. You might be dealing with a custom edition.

Rent vs. Buy

Many colleges and online sites allow you to rent textbooks. This can be a great option to save a ton of money. You can rent the same managerial accounting book with the online component (which is $60 if you purchase it separately) for $42. This is actually less expensive than just the online component.

Make sure that when you rent textbooks, you understand the terms and conditions. Can you write or highlight in the book? When must it be returned? Who pays for the return?

Also make sure that you are getting all of the components you need for the course, like the online homework manager. I have had students end up paying more than the bookstore price because when you add the rental fee plus the online component, the cost is higher.

Don’t wait until the last minute

There is nothing worse than waiting until after classes start to begin researching textbooks. I have had a number of students fail my first exam because they took too long to purchase their textbooks. Most of my courses have a homework manager with a 2 week free trial and I still have students that do not get their books within that time frame. Typically, if you contact the instructor, you can make arrangements to get your books before classes start. You don’t need to wait until the first class meeting to determine if the books are needed because you have already made the inquiry.

The most important thing I’ve learned about life is that you must be proactive. Don’t wait for things to happen to you. Go make things happen.

What tips do you have for saving on textbooks? What is the most you’ve ever spend on textbooks for one semester?

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Hello Flecks

    I was very lucky, in that the books I did have to purchase were usually smaller and under 50 bucks. I only spent a lot on the general studies books, and I could get those used.

    I also had a TON of engineering professors that basically only required a bound powerpoint slidedeck that I could get at the local copier store for like $20, which was amazingly helpful, in retrospect.

    • That’s great. Most of the business textbooks run $250-$300 new and 60%-70% of that used from the college bookstore.

  • Kara Bacon

    I think part of the reason the textbooks at the school bookstore are priced so high is so that they can trap the kids with financial aid into buying their books at the store. A low income family may not have the extra money in their budget to buy books online before school starts. Instead, they have to wait for their financial aid, which can only be used on campus. It’s great that they get financial aid to cover school plus books but anything over tuition and fees gets taxed just like regular income. However, they don’t have the freedom to choose where to buy their books.