Back to School
What do college textbooks, printer ink and movie theatre snacks have in common? If you guessed “egregiously overpriced,” you’re right! In fact, an NBC review in 2015 found that textbook prices have risen over three times the rate of inflation since 1977 -- an increase of over 1,000%!
Many students fall into the trap of paying full-price for new textbooks every semester and while it's sometimes unavoidable, there are options out there if you’re looking to save money on textbooks, giving you some financial freedom to purchase more useful things like asparagus water or those little plastic trinkets for decorating Crocs.
To help students on their journey to infinite wisdom, here are eight ways to save money when buying your textbooks.
1. Buy used
Buying used is the most common way to save on textbooks. Some common avenues to buy used textbooks include Amazon, eBay and classifieds like our textbook BST forum. You can even find students who previously took your course trying to sell their textbooks to current students before class. Most campus bookstores sell used textbooks along with new ones, but these tend to sell quickly. Some schools also have an unaffiliated used textbook store near their main campus, which is a great place to look for used textbooks.
Depending on the previous owner, the condition of used textbooks can vary on a scale of 'lightly-loved' to 'survived a hurricane,' but you can score a good deal on a textbook if you’re willing to live with scuffs or marked pages. If you’re buying online, be sure to account for shipping time if you need a textbook soon, as many sellers ship from the US or overseas, meaning your textbook can take a while to arrive.
2. Buy an older version
Textbook publishers are known to frequently update their texts with incremental changes to keep them up-to-date. As a result, schools will often only stock the latest version and buying a previous version is a savvy way to save money. You don’t want to buy a version that’s too old, but a textbook that’s up to two versions older should be fine. Keep in mind that page numbers may differ and there is a chance that you'll be taught material that’s only available in the current textbook, but that’s what taking notes is for, right?
3. Buy digital
It’s widely known that video killed the radio star, but the same can be said about digital media and print, as digital books are widely available, including textbooks. The main benefit of digital textbooks is that they’re cheaper than their print counterpart and available for download immediately, meaning you won’t have to wait for a book to be shipped. Plus, you only need to carry one device as opposed to multiple textbooks. Despite the convenience, 92% of students still prefer print books, according to a study conducted in 2015 by American University linguistics professor Naomi Baron.
Some drawbacks of digital textbooks include the inability to easily make notes, screen glare on some devices and the fact that digital books have almost zero resale value since ownership can't be transferred. Plus, digital books just aren’t the same as physical books for some people. There are a variety of online stores that sell digital textbooks, including the Amazon Kindle Store, Google Play Textbooks and iBooks. Most books purchased from these stores can be read on multiple devices, allowing you to study anywhere, including in your mind, in your car and you can rewind if you’ve gone too far (oh-a-a-a-oh).
4. Comparison shop
If you're set on buying a new textbook for that crisp new book smell, you should always take time to compare pricing at competitors like Amazon, Indigo and even your local bookstore. You’ll sometimes find textbooks listed at a lower price than your campus bookstore and can even take advantage of sales to bring the price down even more. This is especially true for students who have novels on their course reading list, as other stores will almost always sell them at a lower price than your campus bookstore.
5. Visit the library
Having fun isn’t hard when you’ve got a library card and you can even save money if you visit a library to check if they have your textbook. School libraries will always have at least one copy of every active textbook that can be borrowed for a limited time, usually by the hour. You can legally photocopy small sections of most textbooks under the fair dealing exemption of the Copyright Act -- different schools will have different copying guidelines, so check with your school before copying anything.
Generally, you are allowed to copy a short excerpt from a book as long as it’s used for research, private study, review, criticism or news reporting. The length of a 'short excerpt' will also vary, but it is usually up to 10% of a copyright-protected work or one chapter from a book, whichever is longer. Most Canadian schools share similar policies on copyright, but you can click here to view a PDF of York University’s student copyright policy as an example.
One of the best strategies for saving money on textbooks is to wait until you know which textbooks you'll actually need. Many courses include reading lists with required and suggested readings and it’s common for students to buy all the books before the course begins. By waiting to see if or when you’ll actually need a book, you can budget accordingly and leave out any books you won’t need, as there’s nothing more frustrating than buying an expensive textbook, only to realize you haven’t used it at all.
The main downside is that you may find yourself needing to catch up, especially if your teacher changes the syllabus or if you need a book on short notice. Waiting will likely eliminate the possibility of buying a used textbook, since those often sell out quickly, and you’ll need to take shipping time into account if you need a book soon.
7. Find a friend
If you have a friend taking a course with you, splitting textbook costs with them is another way to save money. This method is far from ideal, as there are ways this arrangement could sever your friendship to create a rivalry fiercer than Taylor Swift vs. Kanye West. What if one of you drops the course? What if you need the book and the other isn’t home? What if they feed the book too much ice cream to show that they love it more? Like a messy custody battle, there will be times when both of you want the textbook at the same time, especially before tests or exams. While you do ultimately save money, a chaotic arrangement like this will likely give you headaches and isn't recommended unless you’re desperate to save money.
8. Sell your books when the course is over
Unless you fall in love with Fundamentals of Saline, 19th Edition and want to display it on your bookshelf, selling your textbooks immediately after you’ve finished your course is an easy way to get a return on your investment, especially from the next crop of students taking the course. Most campus bookstores have buy-back programs, but anyone who’s used them will know that they offer pennies to the dollar and their offers are laughably poor. Amazon, eBay and classifieds are common ways to sell textbooks online, but Amazon is probably the easiest and most effective method.
You can list and manage items for sale via the Amazon Seller Central page. Selling on Amazon is fairly simple and your listings never expire, so you don’t need to re-activate or bump listings. Students are also more likely to search on Amazon before other stores when shopping for textbooks. When listing a textbook, a good tip is to include your city and course in the description, such as “Ships from Salt Lake City. Used in Professor Windsor’s course, Identifying Salt 101, at Sodium Chloride University.”
You will need ship the book yourself and Amazon takes a 15% cut of the sale, but ultimately it’s better than keeping your textbook to collect dust if you don't have any plans to read it again.
Textbooks are only as useful as their owner, so the best tip we can give is to actually read and use your textbooks. If you have any tips for saving on textbooks, share them in the comments and be sure to visit our Back to School page for more back to school deals and tips!