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, 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, let’s take the textbook from an introductory psychology class that many students take: ISBN 9781305498204, Psychology: Themes and Variations (CL). At the University of North Carolina campus book store (Go Heels!) prices ranged from $78.49 for the e-book to $216 for a new hardback. (Keep in mind that all the prices below were accurate when this was written but will change frequently, especially for used books.)
Here’s my daughter’s advice on saving money on college textbooks, with comparisons given for the introductory psychology book mentioned above, Psychology: Themes and Variations (CL):
- 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.
- Consider international editions: Same content, but they are usually paperback and made with thinner paper, with a different cover. Sometimes the page numbers are off or the chapters are out of order, but I’ve never had a problem with it so far. Shipping may be more expensive. On Abebooks, a new international edition of Psychology: Themes and Variations (CL) is $42.30.
- Try eBooks: Depending on where the textbook is from, an eBook may work on a Kindle, iPad, iPhone, or Android, or it may be available as a PDF. This allows you to search for words, and you can avoid carrying around heavy books. I can’t use them because I get distracted too easily, but I know a lot of people do. At ecampus.com, the psychology text above is listed for $39.31 — half the price of the ebook at the campus bookstore.
- Used books: Always a simple option, unless you’re vehemently against marks in your books that you didn’t make yourself. On Amazon, the used psychology book’s cost is $51.65.
- Loose leaf: This is sometimes an option, but probably not for larger books since binders only get so big. Also, I doubt it’s possible to sell back loose leaf books to places like Valorebooks and Chegg, but I’ve seen people selling loose leaf books on the school’s Facebook pages with no problem. Add “loose leaf” to your search terms on an Internet site.
- Earlier edition: Textbooks are often updated every few years, sometimes with minute changes. Some professors may insist that you use the most recent edition, so it’s best to check with them beforehand. On Amazon the used, paperback version of the 8th edition of Psychology: Themes and Variations (CL) is $9.45.
- Renting: If you don’t need to write or highlight in your books, renting can be an option, although I think it’s a pain to have to worry about returning books right after finals. Many sites, including Amazon, are in the book-rental business; just do an online search for “textbook rental” and see what comes up.
- Sell back:
- Valorebooks.com: Buy, rent, and sell back. The site covers 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 shipping label to ship them.
- Chegg.com: Buy, rent, sell back, e-textbooks. Also has free shipping for selling books back. Chegg also gives you seven days free use of the eTextbook while you wait for your book to ship.
- Amazon.com: Has free shipping for selling books back, but pays with Amazon gift cards.
- Facebook: If the school is pretty big and has active Facebook groups, people post books to sell and books they’re looking for at the beginning and end of semesters, as well as around the drop/add deadline. This is an easy way to get books for popular classes without using credit cards or paying for shipping.
- Google: The easiest way I’ve found to buy textbooks is just to Google the ISBN and look at the results under the Shopping tab. Your results may include some lesser known sites, which is good for less popular classes. I got my Hebrew textbook by Googling and finding it at the Jewish Museum.
The cheapest option of all: Free
I’ll add one more thing to my daughter’s suggestions. OpenStax College makes available free textbooks for viewing online or as a PDF on your computer. More than 60% of U.S. colleges and universities are now using OpenStax for textbooks. If you or your child is attending one of these schools, make sure to check this out.