10 tips to save on college textbooks

College students, as well as their parents, can experience sticker shock when they shop for textbooks. Books for a full schedule can easily add up to $1,000 or more a year. I asked my daughter, a rising sophomore who is the most resourceful and thrifty textbook shopper I know, for some tips.

One thing I learned is that the absolute worst place to purchase a textbook is usually the campus bookstore. To compare costs, she uses the textbook from the introductory biology class she took freshman year. ISBN 9780321696816, Campbell Biology: Concepts and Connections. At the campus book store it was $186.80 new, $140.10 used. Here’s what my daughter says:

  1. Email your professor before the class starts. Ask what textbook will be used for the class. That gives you a jump start over the other students looking for the cheap books.
  2. Consider international editions. They have the same content, but they’re paperback and have thinner paper. They may have a different cover. There's a risk of the page numbers being slightly off but I’ve never had a problem with it. Shipping is usually more expensive though. BIOL 101 international edition is $40.93 on abebooks.com (but with $19 shipping.)
  3. Use eBooks. They’re available on devices like Kindle, or in PDF format for viewing on computer. Allows searching for words and highlighting, and you don’t have to carry around giant books. I don’t use eBooks because I’d get distracted easily and reading on the computer hurts my eyes, but I know a lot of people who use them. BIOL 101 PDF at Ten or Under Books $9.99
  4. Loose leaf is a good option for some classes. It's the same textbook,  but in loose leaf format. You’d have to get a big binder, which might not be practical for really big books. Also, I doubt it’s possible to sell back loose leaf books to places like Valorebooks and Chegg (see below) but I’ve seen people selling loose leaf books on the school’s Facebook pages with no problem. BIOL 101 loose leaf for $69.99 on abebooks.com
  5. You might not need the latest edition. Some instructors may not mind if you don’t get the latest edition. I had one professor who told us many times that the previous edition of the text book was way cheaper and they only changed some minute details. Professors are usually just as annoyed at expensive books as the students (unless they wrote the books themselves.)  My astronomy prof gave us lots of links to buying the textbook in the international edition and the previous edition. But it’s best to check with the professor before buying an older edition.
  6. Connect on Facebook. If the school is pretty big and has active Facebook groups, there are usually people posting around the beginning and end of semesters selling and buying books. This is an easy way to get books for popular classes without using credit cards or paying for shipping.
  7. Renting isn’t necessarily best for everyone. I think it’s a pain. I like to write and highlight in my books and the last thing I want to be worrying about after finals is returning books. (Those who are interested in renting textbooks can read about it here.)
  8. Explore some of the websites that allow you to sell the book back.
    • Valorebooks.com: buy, rent, and sell back. They cover shipping when you sell books back. All you have to do is enter in the ISBNs of the books you’re selling back and print out a packaging slip and a shipping label to ship them. BIOL 101 new/used/rent at ValoreBooks at $115.81/$65.50/$38.79
    • Chegg.com: buy, rent, sell back, eTextbooks. It also has free shipping for selling books back. BIOL 101 new/used/rent/eText at $120.99/$86.49/$49.49/$83.29
    • Amazon.com also has free shipping for selling books back, but pays with Amazon gift cards. BIOL 101 new/used/rent: $80.18/$71.00/$46.75
  9. Abebooks.com is a great website for buying books. Abebooks does not have options for comparing new and used books. You just enter in the ISBN or other information and it pulls up a list of books. It includes new, used, international editions and loose leaf copies.
  10. Google. The easiest way I’ve found to buy textbooks is just to google the ISBN and look at the results under shopping. It includes all the big textbooks websites as well as some less known sites. It's good for less popular classes. I got my Hebrew textbook by googling and finding it at the Jewish Museum.

I just learned one more thing that I'll add to my daughter's suggestions. OpenStax College makes available free textbooks for viewing online or as a PDF on your computer. There are more than 200 colleges and universities that are now using OpenStax for textbooks. If you or your child is attending one of these schools, make sure to check this out.

Looking for other ways to save money while you (or your child) is in college? Living on the Cheap has a Guide to College Savings, which includes tips of managing money, getting scholarships and getting rid of student loan debt.

-- Jody Mace, Charlotte on the Cheap

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