Given the ever-increasing cost of tuition—not to mention room and board—it’s easy to forget that you also have to plunk down a sometimes jaw-dropping figure for your textbooks. Seriously? $130 for Adventures in Calculus? Worst adventure ever, especially if you’re already paying at least a few hundred dollars per credit hour.
The American Enterprise Institute recently reported that textbook prices are 812% higher (no, that’s not a typo!) than they were in 1978, meaning college textbooks have risen more than three times the amount of the average increase for all goods and services. The rise in the cost of textbooks has also outpaced the rise in the cost of tuition, which increased 559% between 1985 and 2011.
What’s a frugal college student to do? Luckily, these days you don’t necessarily have to buy brand new textbooks—and in some cases, you may not need to buy a hard copy of a textbook at all.
Your first line of defense against pricey textbooks is to look for used editions. You can find them at your campus bookstore, second-hand bookstores like Half Price Books, and websites like eBay. Just make sure you’re buying the exact edition required for your course.
Websites such as Chegg and Amazon allow you to rent textbooks, potentially saving you a tidy some compared to buying them. Some campus bookstores also now give you the option of renting your textbooks for a fraction of the price of buying, provided that you return them in good condition.
Many textbooks are now available in electronic versions, which can save you some money as well as some space in your backpack. Chegg, Amazon, and other sites let you buy or rent electronic textbooks and read them on the device of your choice. Worried about highlighting and making notes? Many e-textbooks let you highlight the text with different colors, display your notes, and even filter important concepts to help simplify studying. However, as great as e-textbooks can be, it’s worth noting that they aren’t always cheaper, so it’s important to crunch the numbers before you decide which version to buy.
Which textbook option is best?
Once you’ve registered for your classes, make a list of all your required textbooks and shop around for each of them. Renting is often the cheapest way to go, especially if you’re short on cash. But if there’s a book you’ll need for more than one semester, in the long run it may be cheaper to buy it (either used or new) rather than renting it. If one of your required textbooks is an older edition, you likely won’t get much money if you try to sell it back at the end of the semester, so renting may be the best option, or you could look for a used edition rather than shelling out the full price of a new copy. And if you’re notorious for spilling drinks or dripping pizza grease on your books, you’d probably be well-advised to buy instead of renting your textbooks, since there are usually fees for returning a damaged book; damage-proof e-textbooks might be an especially good option for you.
Long story short: textbooks are expensive, but you can save yourself some serious sticker shock if you take the time to do a little research and weigh your options.