11 Ways to Pay Less for College Textbooks

Fortunately, it's not hard to find ways to reduce what you spend on required reading.


For college students, the back-to-school shopping season takes place several times a year. Each semester arrives with a new list of books that can cost hundreds of dollars. (See also: The Ultimate Guide to Saving for College.)

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Fortunately, there several easy ways to cut your textbook costs:

1. Rent your books. You can save over 50 percent by renting textbooks through online services such as Rent-a-Text.com, Chegg.com, and Skoobit.com. At the end of the quarter, just send back the books in prepaid packaging (like a Netflix service for books).

2. School library: Most textbooks are on reserve at the school library. Usually classified as reference material, students generally are not allowed to take the books home. While this might be a drawback for some, I consider it a bonus. School libraries are the best places to study. The quiet atmosphere will keep you focused and studious throughout your study sessions.

3. Buy used books online: At websites like Amazon.com, Ebay.com, and Half.com you can find steep discounts for all your textbook needs. But be sure to read the descriptions carefully: you don’t want to end up with the wrong edition.

4. Digital text books: Several big publishers such as Pearson, McGraw-Hill, and John Wiley & Sons offer discounted, electronic version of their textbooks through a website called CourseSmart.com. According to the website, their catalog covers over 90 percent of the textbooks in use today. With a free trial available and the added environmental benefit of electronic text, it makes sense to give this a try before investing a small fortune in traditional textbooks.

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5. Preview the syllabus and professor reviews: If the class you want to take is taught by several different professors, examine the syllabus and student reviews for each professor. You may learn that some professors rely exclusively on lectures or handouts instead of the assigned textbooks. In such cases, you may get away with never buying the book.

6. Talk to your professor: Many professors get complimentary copies, especially if they wrote the book. If you have a legitimate financial hardship, approach your professor for a book loan. (See also: 6 Ways to Pay Less for a College Degree.)

7. Approach students who drop the class: Some students may drop the class within the first few lectures. Their loss is your gain. Grab these students before they walk out the lecture hall and offer to buy their books at a discount.

8. Share a textbook: Some classes don’t require you to have constant access to the textbook. If you only need the textbook once or twice a week, consider sharing the cost with a friend. You may even take this opportunity to start a study group and meet more students.

9. Decode the editions: Very often the changes from one edition to another are very small. A new edition may have only added a few paragraphs or changed a few pictures. Take some time to compare the old and new editions to make sure that you really need the newest version.

10. Keep your receipt and don’t open the wrapping: You might be excited about a new class, but don’t open the wrapping until you’ve attended the first lecture. Certain textbooks cannot be returned if they’re taken out of their special shrink wrap. Make sure you completely understand the return policy of your campus bookstore. Remember to make friends with the salesclerks—they are also students and know all the best sales and discounts available for your purchases.

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11. Consider a study aid: Some textbooks are so confusing that study guides are published to help students understand them. Very often the study guide provides a succinct outline of the book that is easier to digest than the original textbook. If the class isn’t too important, you may survive by only reading the study guides instead of the textbooks they are based on.

Sharon Harvey-Rosenberg is a special financial news contributor for Wise Bread. She is the author of Frugal Duchess: How to Live Well and Save Money and a contributing author to 10,001 Ways to Live Large on a Small Budget.