How to Shop for College Textbooks and Save Money

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I never realized how much the phrase "it depends" matters when you're shopping for college textbooks! Definitely will be using these techniques to save money next semester.

I hate that it’s July and we’re already thinking about textbooks for the Fall semester. Alas, college.

In the past I’ve covered different ways we’ve saved money, including getting the books directly from kind professors for free or using the reserve section of our library. But today, I want to cover different ways to get the book in your own backpack via some type of purchase, and which kind of purchase is best.

Should you rent or buy your textbook? Get a hard copy or an electronic version? A lot of it comes down to your own personal needs and the pricing for your specific book.

Cheap Paper Rental

The first commandment of buying textbooks is to never, ever buy a new paper copy. Never. It’s way expensive, and it depreciates so quickly that you’re not likely to be able to recoup a meaningful portion of your costs.

So we know we’re either buying used or electronic. We’re either purchasing or renting. For Scenario A, let’s look at a textbook that was required for both the husband and I in our respective English writing courses:

Writing and Reading Across the Curriculum

On Amazon, you can buy it used starting at $61.99. When  you buy used, you can always resell when the semester’s over to recoup some of your costs.

However, Amazon gives you the option to rent a hard copy for $12.98. This is crazy low. It’s low enough that even if you bought used and resold, at the end of the day you’d probably be out more than $12.98.

Amazon also has a rental option for Kindle that would run you $47.85. Or, you can buy the Kindle version for $81.47. eTextbooks typically don’t include digital extras—in this case MyWritingLab (which neither the husband or I were required to use.)

Amazon’s eTextbook prices aren’t always the best on the market, though. When we hop over to VitalSource, we find a rental price of $44.99, or a purchase price of $64.99. With eTextbooks, the only reason I can think of to buy would be if it’s a text that’s going to be critical in your chosen career path.

Is it cheaper to buy or rent textbooks? Should you go electronic or stick to old school paper versions?

In this specific scenario, renting the paper version off Amazon is the clear win. However, if paying an extra $32.01 is worth it to you to save the planet, then you’d want to rent off VitalSource.

Buy and Resell

Sometimes buying used may not appear to be the cheapest option at first glance, but when you account for the fact that you can resell you realize it may be your best bet. Let’s take a look at this book:
African Traditions in the Study of Religion in Africa

The current cheapest used paper version on Amazon is going to run you $57.00 plus $3.99 for shipping, for a total of $60.99.

The next cheapest option would be to rent on VitalSource for $67.48 for four months. If you like the idea of not having to lug around a textbook in your backpack, the extra few dollars may not seem like a big deal.

african religion

That ignores, though, the fact that when you buy a paper version, you have the ability to resell it at the end of the semester. Let’s say you only sold it for 75% of what you bought it for originally. In the end, you still would have only lost about $15.25 on the book. Fifteen twenty-five is a lot less than $67.48.

Niche Down and Own eTextbooks

In my experience, eTextbooks provide the most value when you’re really niching down to your specific course of study and want to hold onto the text to help you in your career. For example, this textbook is clearly specifically for geologists who will need to convey their research and findings to other scientists:Communicating Rocks; Writing, Speaking, and Thinking About Geology

If I were a geology major, I’d want to hold onto this one tight. Because it’s so career-specific, there aren’t as many paper copies flooding the used book market as texts for general ed courses or electives. In fact, the cheapest used version on Amazon is going for $44.62.

You could do that, or you could own the e-version from VitalSource for only $30.99. Because you’re not reselling, you’re not going to recoup any costs, so the e-version is truly $13.63 cheaper. The Kindle version costs $38.27 to own.

Many times, when you're buying career-specific textbooks that you want to keep, eTextbooks are the cheapest way to go.

When you’re getting into higher level courses that provide information that will be useful in your career, definitely look at the eTextbook option.

Note for Pell Grant Recipients

This tidbit of advice is specifically for Pell Grant recipients, particularly at community colleges, or anyone who has excess funds that their school has not yet released to them. Your school will tell you that you can purchase at the bookstore on credit. Then the money will come out of the excess funds they would have released to your further into the semester.

Avoid doing this at all costs. While it’s a convenient solution if you don’t have the money to purchase the books today, buying at the bookstore will cost you a heck of a lot more than buying almost anywhere else. Besides, most professors aren’t going to require you to have your books on Day One. Wait to see if you’ll actually need the text, and then, if you do, find a way to scrounge up enough money to purchase them anywhere but your bookstore. Doing so will save you hundreds.


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6 thoughts on “How to Shop for College Textbooks and Save Money

  1. Emily @ JohnJaneDoe

    Good advice on checking with the teacher first. So many textbooks get bought that just aren’t needed. If you know someone who has taken the class before from the same teacher, it can be worth your while to talk to them about the book usage. (sometimes professors will tell you to buy a book for reference or that they plan to use but usually don’t get around to.)

    One caveat: lots of textbooks now have codes to access electronic content. Those codes are generally one use. If your class requires you to have that content (say, to do assignments) then you may be cheaper to get the bundle from the school. (An example I saw when I was selling textbooks was with math. You could pick up a used copy of the textbook for $15-20 cheaper than the school bookstore easily, but the publisher charged $25 to get the online access. Which was where all of the homework was.) The codes are another reason to check to see what the professor actually requires.

    Also, some schools use custom editions. The content may not be that different, but it does make picking the books up and reselling them more difficult.

    If your book has just moved to a new edition, it may be really hard to find used ones. You can check with your professor to see if they will allow you to use the old edition. If so, you may be able to find a really cheap copy used, but the demand may be low when it’s time to sell it.

    1. femmefrugality

      Only $15-$20 cheaper than the bookstore? That sounds like a cheap bookstore! That’s awesome.

      And you’re right…there is so much digital content now. None of my professors, or my husband’s, have required it, though. Usually if they’re going to supplement with digital content they have something set up on Blackboard. Just our experience, though. I’m sure not everyone is the same. Always best to check first!

      Our math books have been custom editions. It’s annoying as all get out. All the same content, except they’ll change a negative to a positive and it changes the entire question/answer. Our best luck for that has been buying locally on Craigslist.

      And truth and great ideas on the newer edition books!

  2. Done by Forty

    I hadn’t heard of renting before but, dang, that’s a clever way to take the library model and make a profit off of it.

    I majored in English so a lot of my textbooks were just novels or other literature that were available at our university’s library. A sneaky good benefit of working full time as a staff member and taking classes at night was that I could borrow books for a full six months, and students couldn’t request them from me.

    A few classmates realized that I was doing this and didn’t like it but, hey, first come, first served at the library, yo.

    1. femmefrugality

      Ha! Especially for digital content that doesn’t actually get any physical abuse semester to semester! It’s a newer option I’m pretty sure. It wasn’t available to me the first time I went to school traditionally.

      Sneaky librarians. Gosh. I always just used the reserve section. You have to either photo copy or stay in the library to do your homework, but at least it’s free and always available.

  3. Kalie @ Pretend to Be Poor

    I used the library SO MUCH for my books. It really depends on your major, though. My husband had a lot of success selling his used engineering books on I like that there are textbook rental is now more popular as well.

    1. Femme Frugality

      I like selling on half. But Amazon’s return policy entices me to buy paper copies they’re unless there’s a huge price discrepancy. Library was where I saved a lot of money, too, though!


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