Back-to-school season means college students will soon be buying textbooks. According to The College Board, the average cost for books and supplies for the 2012–2013 school year was $1,200 at public colleges and $1,244 at private colleges.
Fortunately, there are affordable alternatives to buying new at the campus bookstore. Let’s look at some options.
Rent your textbooks. Instead of buying new or used textbooks, you can now rent textbooks through services like Chegg and BookRenter. For instance, “The Economics of Money, Banking, and Financial Markets” by Frederic S. Mishkin (2012, hardcover, 10th edition) costs $174.50 new from Barnes and Noble, but you could rent it for $48.49 from Chegg or for as little as $44.11 from BookRenter. Now even Barnes and Noble offers textbook rentals (renting the same book for 130 days costs $48.95). Check the company’s policies on highlighting, late returns, or damage to books to avoid paying extra fees.
Buy used online. Numerous sites — including Half.com, Barnes and Noble, and Amazon — sell used textbooks. David Bakke, an editor at the personal finance blog MoneyCrashers, recommends looking for sellers with a high feedback score to ensure that you’ll get the books you need in a timely fashion. I was able to find used copies of the economics textbook that I mentioned earlier for $129 on Half.com, $124.52 on Barnes and Noble, or $129.90 from Amazon.
Choose eTextbooks. A growing number of companies offer eTextbooks that you can download to your PC or tablet and highlight digitally. Bakke recommends FlatWorldKnowledge. “It offers open source textbooks for free download,” he says. “You can also print them for a nominal fee.” Amazon also has some extextbooks; for instance, the Kindle edition of the economics textbook costs $118.59.
Borrow from the library. Act fast and you might luck out and find the books you need from your campus library or the local library. “Check the campus library as soon as you have your syllabus in-hand and you might be able to check out your textbooks for the entire semester for free,” Bakke says. “Just make sure you keep up with renewals.” Also find out the allowed borrowing period before relying on library books. The last thing you want is to have to give up a book right before finals or get hit with hefty late fees.
Look for older editions. In some cases, you can get away with buying an older edition of a textbook instead of a new one. For literature classes, there’s unlikely to be much variation between different editions of “Mansfield Park” or “Moby Dick,” although page numbers might differ. For books that have been translated from their original language, look for the same translation as there may be subtle differences in word choice. “Check with your professor first,” Bakke suggests. “Some are strict about using the newest edition.”
Sell your textbooks. Once you’re done with your books, be sure to sell them back to recoup some of the money you spent originally. Rented books and etextbooks can’t be resold, but purchased books can be — especially if they’re in good condition. “The better the condition of your textbooks when you go to re-sell them, the higher the price you can list them for,” Bakke says. “Avoid highlighting, dog-earing pages, and taking notes in the margins.”