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How To: Save Money on Textbooks

The start of each semester brings new classes, a fresh start, and, oh yeah, required textbooks. Bottom line: Textbooks are expensive. However, if you know your options and where to look, you can save a little bit each semester.

If you do a quick Google on “How to buy textbooks,” you’ll be flooded with sites that sell or rent used and new textbooks, opinion pieces on which method is best, and review upon review if you add the textbook name to your search. This can be totally overwhelming and lead you to simply purchase the newest edition of the textbook your professor requires from the first site you see. But before you do, consider these points in an attempt to save a few bucks:

Should you get the textbook at all?
If your professor lists the textbook as ‘required’ and readings and questions come straight from the text, it’s in your best interests to obtain the book. However, sometimes the textbook is listed as ‘optional’ or ‘recommended’ in your class. If the course is important to your career and you would greatly benefit from reading the additional text and referencing it in the future, you should err on the side of caution and get it. If the class is an elective or the text is more for pleasure than learning, you might want to save here and not purchase it. Also, consider who else is in your class – maybe you can go in 50/50 on the text with a friend and trade it off every few days.

Should you buy or rent?
Renting textbooks is now a pretty common option and could save you a decent amount of cash. Prices for renting should be less than buying outright, but you’ll have to give the text back at the end of the semester. You’ll also need to be careful with your rental, as there are often fees for damage, such as hardcover spine damage or coffee stains. And if you’re the type to write in the margins, renting may not be the best option. You’ll also want to consider the likelihood of wanting to keep the textbook, if it’s important for your career as mentioned above. And if you rent, won’t be able to try reselling the textbook, as you can if you purchase it (be careful here, though, as reselling a textbook once a new edition comes out becomes difficult; plus, a lot of textbooks these days have supplemental online material that requires a one-time user access code).

Should you buy new or used?
Most of your professors will require the newest edition of a textbook, but is it always necessary to buy this edition as opposed to an older version? Textbook companies tend to come out with new editions frequently, since they don’t make money on resales of old editions. However, these editions vary in terms of the amount of new material actually included (how much new material could be added to a textbook on Shakespearean plays?). It’s a good idea to speak with your professor before you purchase the required text to see if it would be all right to purchase an older, and less expensive, edition. If your professor doesn’t mind, there are plenty of places to shop around for the best price. If your professor requires the most recent version and you don’t mind some wear and tear, you could save a good percentage off the sticker price if you can find it used online. Just be sure you’re purchasing the correct version by matching the ISBN your professor lists in the syllabus.

Should you buy a physical copy or the electronic version?
A lot of current textbooks are available in an electronic version, resulting in fewer books to lug to class. However, these can actually be more expensive than purchasing the physical version of the text. Plus, a lot of students find it easier to read, take notes, and study from an actual book compared to whatever program they use on a computer or tablet. This may be your only option, however, if your professor makes the electronic version the required one due to online assignments built into the text.

For further reading on this topic, take a look at this New York Times article by Ann Carrns: “A Quandary Over Textbooks: Whether to Buy or Rent”.

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