“And then there’s the textbooks,” says my mother, walking my cousin through the upcoming adventure of putting her daughter through college.
“You don’t really think about them, but they’re crazy expensive!”
Frankie, the daughter in question, is turning 17 soon — which seems insane, since I can remember the hospital room on the day she was born. But as she begins to think seriously about her next academic steps, my cousin is probing my mother, who’s been through it already, for financial advice.
Even for a family lucky — and generous — enough to help out its millennial members, affording college is a struggle.
And textbooks can wreak havoc on your college budget, no matter how scrupulously you prepare. I mean, seriously, who expects a foot-tall pile of books to cost over $500?
Fortunately, there are ways around the exorbitant (and ever-increasing) price of books.
You might have to get a little crafty and creative, but trust me: Your bank account will thank you.
How to Save Money on College Textbooks, No Matter What You Study
A few words of caution and general tips before we get started.
First of all, don’t buy all your books before classes start. You may end up changing classes during the trial period. Some bookstores may allow you to return the texts full-price, but it’s not a guarantee — and it’s an additional step regardless.
If you must buy a book, it’s always better to buy it used, of course.
But if you find yourself in possession of a new book, don’t highlight and dog-ear it to death (like I did). You want to be able to sell it back for the highest price possible.
And finally, know that some of this advice might be frowned upon by your professor.
If you don’t have the exact text they order, you may be missing marginal information or study questions your professor wants you to have, or your version’s wonky page numbers might slow down a class discussion.
But when it comes down to it, having access to the text — and actually reading it — is always better than not. If you can’t afford to buy brand-new textbooks, let your professor know. They might be a lot more understanding than you think, no matter how strict they are in front of a giant group of students.
1. Check Your Syllabus
Even if you know you’re sticking with a class for the duration, you may still be able to get away without buying the book.
It depends on your major. You probably can’t find the information in your organic chemistry textbook online — at least not in the same structure as you’re going through it in class.
But if your studies center on the humanities like mine did, chances are a lot of the material you’re reading is public access.
Look over your syllabus to see what texts you’re actually reading. Can you get it for free online or at the library? If they’re classic novels, philosophical texts or poetry, the answer is most likely “yes.”
Browse the virtual shelves at Project Gutenberg, one of the largest free ebook libraries of its kind. You might also be able to download the books to your Kindle through Amazon’s free and low-priced classics library.
You can also always Google the text to see if there are any PDFs around, but you may or may not have any luck.
And obviously, illegally downloading texts… is illegal. So don’t.
The best price on a textbook? No price at all.
If your school, like most, requires students to take a variety of core-curriculum classes that are the same for almost all students, someone on your dorm floor probably has a copy of the books you need.
Even if they’re taking the class at the same time, you can coordinate to share custody of the study materials — not everyone’s schedule is the same in college, after all.
The same holds true within your major. Before you fork over $175 on that hardcover biology textbook, chat with your fellow pre-med students. Heck, even if you offer to cover half the cost of the book, you’ll be saving a ton.
Better yet? Form a study group so even more of your classmates can save on the materials. As long as you can stay on-task and productive, 10 or even more students could work with just one or two sets of materials.
3. Visit the Library
If your friends fail you, follow Hermione Granger’s famous advice: “When in doubt, go to the library.”
University libraries often keep a copy or five of frequently-assigned textbooks in stock. You may be competing against other frugal students, though, so get there early if you can.
You’ll also have to take exceptionally good notes, since you may have to return the book before the test. (Psst — if you’re a great note-taker, you might want to consider making it into a paid gig. Here’s how!)
4. Use the Older Edition
Textbook publishers don’t usually change books that much between editions, especially if you’re just one or two off.
Mostly, publishers push new editions to keep themselves rolling in the dough, creating forced obsolescence that keeps students forking it over and driving up textbook costs overall. Not. Cool.
If you can get your hands on an earlier version of the same book, you could save more than half the sticker price. I once got through an American poetry class with a 15-year-old, yellow-paged Norton anthology I picked up at a garage sale… for free.
The most difficult problem you’re likely to run into is the discrepancy in page numbers — and thankfully, that’s what an index is for.
And if there is material that’s not anywhere in your edition of the book, refer back to list item two: Coordinate with a friend.
5. Rent Rather Than Buy
Most students probably already know this is an option, but it’s worth repeating: Renting textbooks is a way cheaper option.
And it’s not just Chegg’s game anymore.
And what a cut! Check out the difference between buying and renting this chemistry textbook! Even if you go with a used copy, you’ll save more than 80% if you rent instead.
6. Buy the Electronic Version
If you can forego your fondness for ink and paper, the electronic version of your textbook is likely to be much cheaper than its hefty counterpart.
Bonus: No need to carry around a clunky backpack! Keep everything on your laptop or tablet, and it’s smooth, sleek sailing to class.
You still have to take notes, though. No excuses!
7. Go Beyond the Campus Bookstore
I said it before and I’ll say it again: Always buy used.
But if you have to buy the book, you aren’t limited to your campus bookstore. Check out other used bookstores in your area — it’s a college town, so you stand a fair chance of finding a textbook someone off-loaded after taking the class.
Obviously, you can also turn to online shopping… but your efforts don’t have to stop at Amazon.
You can sometimes find good deals on textbooks at eBay, and it’s worthwhile to check Craigslist or even school-related Facebook groups. You can also use an online comparison tool, like RedShelf, to find the very best prices on textbooks you’ll purchase or rent online.
You might even consider ordering the international version of your textbook — which, according to AbeBooks, are usually more affordable since they’re “often printed on cheaper paper and are usually softcover.”
As long as it’s still in English, you probably won’t run into too many irreconcilable differences.
8. Double-check Your Financial Aid
In some cases, your school might make it easy to funnel some of your financial aid specifically towards books.
“If you have a financial aid return, you can choose to get it in check form or in vouchers for the bookstore,” TPH editorial intern Kelly Smith says of the University of Tampa.
Some clever parents who’re helping to pay tuitions select this option to ensure aid funds are utilized… as efficiently as possible.
And if you’re having trouble affording books even after taking out loans, it’s worthwhile to chat with your financial aid officer. More aid might be available to you.
9. Use Scholarship or Grant Money
Although you’ll have to check the terms individually, most scholarships allow funds to be used for buying textbooks.
Some organizations also provide textbook-specific scholarships.
For instance, Barnes & Noble partners with some schools to award students book scholarships of up to $1,000 annually. Check with your school directly for application information — but hurry up, as many of these scholarships take place early in the fall semester.
10. Make Sure You Actually Need the Access Code
The access code your textbook comes with — often used to get online content or interactive labs — can be a source of serious frustration.
For example, if you so much as accidentally tear or smudge the numbers, you might be forced to buy a whole new textbook. And even if you can get the access code itself, it can run as much as two-thirds the cost of the book, according to College Insider.
Just entry to the ever-popular MyMathLab goes for $65 at cheapest at the time of writing, according to Direct Textbook.
Including digital content behind an access code is a really crappy — but effective — tactic for the publishers; it forces you to buy a brand new book… while simultaneously making that book obsolete for resale.
Unfortunately, there aren’t many ways around the expense.
Talk frankly with your professor about whether or not you actually need those access codes.
After all, the stuff they grant you access to ranges wildly depending on the book. It could just be a digital version of the same information in the book itself… or it could be dynamic, gradable material your teacher will consider as part of your final score.
And even if it’s the most interactive, awesome content in the world, your teacher might not actually decide to use it.
If you do require access to digital tools, you might save money purchasing the used textbook and access code separately, according to the Direct Textbook blog.
If you’ve gotta spend the dough, make sure you get as much out of it as possible.
Check your curriculum requirements and schedule to see if you’ll need other courses that utilize the same material. If you do, take them in the same or adjacent semesters.
Since the subscription time frame usually lasts between six and 12 months, you could save yourself from having to buy in again and again.
Congrats: You Got Your Textbooks on the Cheap! Now What?
Now that you’ve gotten all your books on the cheap, make your tuition dollars count by using them well.
And when you’re done, sell them back, of course. If your bookstore offers a raw deal, try Amazon or eBay. If you’re feeling generous, consider giving them to a friend or a library second-hand.
One caveat: Depending on your profession (and level of nerdiness), you might actually want to buy some of your assigned books to keep on your shelf.
For instance, even though I ended up dropping my biology major, I still have some of the hard-covered glossies I used in college, and I still flip through them from time to time. And many of the books I bought for my creative writing classes still come in handy for reference today.
Besides, you’re looking at earning back only a fraction of what you paid. If pretty pictures of the musculoskeletal system make you as happy as they do me, it might be worthwhile to just consider it an expensive coffee table decoration.
… What? I told you I was nerdy.
Your Turn: How do you save money on textbooks?
This one time, Kyle came into the office with $6 worth of Taco Bell that he planned to eat over the course of three meals. By clicking the affiliate links in this post, you help us help Kyle seriously ease up on the Taco Bell.
Jamie Cattanach is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. Her writing has also been featured at The Write Life, Word Riot, Nashville Review and elsewhere. Find @JamieCattanach on Twitter to wave hello.