How To Save Money On College Textbooks

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I was the quintessential poor college student. When I hopped on a train to head off to school I had less than $1000 in my bank account, which just happens to be the average amount a college student spends on textbooks alone in one year. My luggage consisted of huge canvas bags that I bought at an army surplus store for under $100 dollars. I was excited. I was nervous. I was waiting for my student loans to come through. And well, I wasn't completely clueless about money but I still had a lot to learn. One of the first financial decisions you will make on campus is about college textbooks. Do you buy them used? New? Get them from the library? Which is the best way???

I knew that I probably couldn't afford to spend $500 on books each semester, not if I ever wanted to eat outside of the caf or go anywhere besides the library. The internet was pretty young in my freshman years and I was figuring out things all on my own. I didn't have people like College Girl who saved almost $300 on her textbooks to learn from. It took me a few semesters to really figure things out but in the end I decided there was no single best way. There were lots of different ways to do things and it was the combination of them that worked for me. Here's what I learned.

The Library Is Your Friend
The Bargain Babe offers up great tips on some to save money on college text books. Her second tip is one I used for some of my classes - checking books out of the library.

Your school’s library will often have a copy of the class textbook(s) for you to check out for free for a few hours. Ask your teacher to make it happen. This is a great alternative so long as you get to the library before any of your classmates.

Whether or not this works for you really depends on the class. I had one history class that had been on offer for years and the textbook had gone through multiple editions with only minor changes to each edition. My school's library had the most recent edition in the Reserved Section but the older editions were in regular circulation and they had at least ten copies of it. I'd check one out and keep renewing it until I couldn't any more and then I'd go check out another one or wait a day and check out the one I just returned. It worked for that class. There were some classes that it really wouldn't have worked for, like some of the science classes I took or my class on human evolution. Dates, theories and discussions in some fields change more quickly than others. You have to be smart about what classes you use this tip for. Also, class size can play a part. My history class was fairly small (less than one hundred students) where as some of my science classes were quite large (more than six hundred students).

Buy Used Books
Now, if you go looking on the internet for advice on how to save money on textbooks you will find that almost everyone will tell you buy textbooks used. Personally, I had mixed success with this. For some classes it was easy to find used versions of the book (again, be conscious of what edition it is), for others it was difficult or the savings were minimal. Now I know that some of you are saying that you find used books icky. I only have one thing to say to you - get over it. If you can get a $150 text book for $75-100 do you really care if there is some highlighting or the odd written note in it? No. You really don't. I'm sure that you can think of a few other things you'd like to do with $75 rather than have a perfectly clean textbook.

Poorer Than You offers up some textbook buying strategies. Personally, I had the best luck, both buying and selling textbooks, with on campus bulletin boards or with my school's online classified ads. I have to agree with her that my campus bookstore did not give me the greatest deal on used textbooks. On the other hand, sometimes I was able to find used books there that I couldn't find anywhere else.

Buy Your Books Online
This is something that was really just becoming popular when I was a student. You can get better deals online than you can on campus, both on used and new books. Plus you now have an option that I didn't have in school - e-books. Like the Financial Aid Finder I have to encourage you to comparison shop.

Let's start with e-books. If you are buying e-books do not forget to check the DRM settings. I strongly urge you not to buy anything that you can't read on more than one device. Be smart and keep a backup of the file. If you have a device that lets you take notes, keep a backup of your notes. Losing your notes is way more painful that losing the book. Also, get your e-book reader laser-sketched with your name and email address (make sure it's one you actually check). Don't leave your e-book reader or laptop lying around. Libraries and cafes are not secure, even though there may be security. I had friends have anything from laptops to credit cards to their lunch stolen in the library and we were considered a "low crime" area.

If you are buying physical textbooks online you need to watch more than just the price and shipping costs. You need to check how long it takes to ship. Saving $30 may not be worth it if you don't get the book for a whole month. You cover a lot of ground in a week of classes. A month is a lot of catching up you will need to do and can hurt your grades. That being said, as long as you know you can plan. The library can help you here. If you have to wait a week or two to get your books you can probably work with the library's reserve copy. Bonus: it will get you into the habit of going to the library. Or you can borrow the reserve copy and compare it with an older version of the textbook and see if there are any major changes between the two versions. If there's only a few changes make note of them, check out the older version and you are good to go until your copy shows up in the mail.

Only Buy The Books You Need To Buy
There are two different types of books for classes, those that are required and those that are recommended. I don't think I bought any recommended books, aside from a book with tips on how to write essays. It only cost $5 and honestly, it was one of the best $5 purchases I made in university. I still have it. But even the required books can be tricky. I went to the campus bookstore a week before classes started one semester and found there were eleven required books for just one of my classes. It was a history class and I bought the one textbook that was clearly the general history text (saving the receipt just in case) and waited until class to see what was up with the rest. It turns out it was a smart decision. While all the books were required for the class not every book was required for each student. We all needed the general history text I bought but we each only needed one of the remaining ten. We had to sign up for the books we wanted to read and there were a limited number of spots.

If you are buying any books online or in a store buy smart. Keep your receipts. Know the return policies of the places you buy from.

If I had to share one don't it is this - don't share books with a friend or roommate. I *know* it seems like a really good cost saving idea at the time. I've been there! But it really isn't a great idea because you will have midterms and finals at the exact same time. You do not want to add to that stress by having to figure out a custody arrangement for the book.

A final note on campus bookstores - in my final year of university I got a job that many students on campus wanted. Yep, I got a job at the campus bookstore. Because I worked there I got an employee discount of 10-30% on books and materials. It's not an option that will be open to everyone, but if you are student looking for a campus job you might want to check it out. As a bonus, our bookstore had a cafe where I also got a discount. Who doesn't like a discount on coffee and lunch?

Did I miss a tip? Did any of these strategies not work for you or your child?

Contributing Editor Sassymonkey also blogs at Sassymonkey and Sassymonkey Reads.

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