buying college textbooks

How to Buy College Textbooks

This is the sixth  in a series of posts that college finance expert, Laurie Peltier, is writing about her own experience going through the college application and enrollment processes with her kids. Her previous posts focused on how to stay organized during the college search and final decision-making processes, getting to know your school, the Federal Work Study program and the Army ROTC Scholarship. Here, she discusses the various ways students can buy books and save money at the same time. 

One of my most vivid memories from my college days is standing in a long corridor among hundreds of other college students, my class schedule in one hand and a blank check from my parents in the other, waiting patiently to get to the front of the line.  I think I remember buying my college textbooks so clearly because it was such a long, boring, and expensive process.  Luckily today it doesn’t have to be that way!

The Shopping

It pays to shop around for college textbooks these days.  Typically the most expensive place to purchase a book is the college bookstore.  In a quick review of an entry level U.S. Politics paperback book the college bookstore price was $90, while the price for the same new textbook was $71.90 on Amazon. An EBook version was $39.50, or I could rent the book for as little as $28.77!  Because it was a new edition there were no used book options, but if there were the price could go even lower.  With the cost of tuition, fees, room, and board through the roof, why spend more on textbooks than you have to?

In order to buy the textbooks required for your classes, you need your class schedule and the syllabus from the professor. If you would like to order your books prior to the first day of class, your schedule will work just fine. Log into your college’s website and go to the bookstore page. Enter your course code and section and it will show you what books that professor requires. It will also show what your options are for purchasing from their site (new, used, and rent) and the pricing. Note all the options and the book title, edition, author and ISBN number. Now you can use that info to shop for college books online. Two that I would recommend are Amazon and Chegg, but there are many more out there!  Of course, if you order online you have to contend with shipping times and costs, but you may be able to save enough money on the price to have them shipped quickly before the class gets too far along. Consider an Amazon Prime Student account – which is half price ($49) and includes free two day shipping on all purchases, not just books.

The Decision

When should you buy new versus used, and when should you rent?  If the book is for a course in the student’s major, and she plans on using it for more than one semester, marking up the pages with her own highlights and notes, perhaps buying it new will be worth the investment. If it is an elective and the student can be trusted to return it on time, renting the book makes the most sense. If the student  currently uses an E-Reader (Kindle, Nook, Etc.) on a regular basis and likes to read that way an EBook maybe the way to go. Some books that are recommended or required by the professor can even be read in the library; most college libraries will stock books in their reference section that are requested by the professor. A student could also share a book with a classmate, roommate or other sorority and fraternity members. Freshmen year tends to be expensive because the student does not have those networks built yet, but in later years they will figure out some of these cost cutting strategies – especially if the cost of the books is coming out of their funds!

The Return

Just as in the ‘old’ days when I went to college, college bookstores will buy back your textbooks at the end of the semester. They typically only buy the books they sold, will require that they be in good condition, and only offer the service for a few days. If you have a lot of books to sell it may make sense to sell them online with an account on EBay or Alibris, but know that the site will keep a portion of the profit. If you rented the book – whether paper or electronic – you do need to return it at the end of the semester or extend the rental for a longer term. The site you rented from will send you emails with return instructions and shipping labels. Whatever you choose, it’s impossible to get through college without books, so make sure that you’re starting with awareness of all the options, from start to finish.



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Written by Laurie Peltier
Laurie Peltier is a college finance expert at College Coach. Before joining College Coach, she was a Senior Financial Aid Officer at Becker College and Anna Maria College.