8 Ways to Save Money on College Textbooks

Checking the library and renting books can save students money, so they can spend more on pizza.

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Robert Berger
College students spend an average of $655 per year on textbooks, according to the National Association of College Stores. Even though this figure is down from two and four years ago – from $667 and $702, respectively – it's still a lot of money, especially for broke college students.

Depending on your major, your average book expense may be much more or much less than $655. Hefty textbooks used in math and science classes, for instance, tend to be more expensive than novels needed for literature classes. Still, no matter your course of study, you can apply some of these basic tips to save on college textbooks.

1. Steer clear of the bookstore. This is the No. 1 one way to spend less money on textbooks. Shopping at the college bookstore for textbooks is akin to picking up all your groceries at the corner gas station. Convenience, in both cases, means higher prices. You may need to pick up some specialized materials in your bookstore, like packets printed out by a professor for a specific class, but most of the time you can – and should – shop elsewhere for your books.

2. Buy used. College students have been buying used textbooks for years, and they shouldn't stop now. Buying used books can save you a fortune, and often, the books are in good condition. You may be tempted to just pick up used books from your bookstore, but you can often find better prices online.

The easiest way to shop for used books online is to use ISBN numbers. These numbers are specific, so you'll get the exact book and edition your class is using. Websites such as Amazon, eBay and book.ly are great places to shop around. MyNextCollege.com also offers a free search tool that compares prices from dozens of online stores.

3. Share. One option that works for some courses is simply to share. Split the cost with a roommate or close friend taking the same class, and share the book. As long as you can arrange study schedules so that you both get the book as often as you need it, this can work out well. Some professors are adamant that students have their books available during class, while others use the texts as supplemental reading and focus class time on lectures. Figuring out a professor's style before you decide to share textbooks may be a good idea. 

4. Check the library. While your school library may not have a copy of every single textbook, it's likely to have copies of some of them – especially fiction and non-fiction books for liberal arts classes. The key to using the library is to ensure you can get the books when you need them. Ordering books ahead of time or using the interlibrary loan system can help. But you might want to keep some backup cash in case you can't get the book at the library and need to buy a copy.

5. Rent books. Renting books is becoming a more popular option and can be a good way to save. Rentals are especially popular for the most expensive books, like math and science texts. If you want to rent books, you will likely have to deal with your campus bookstore, but this is one case that makes sense to do so.

First, you need to make sure you understand the terms of the rental. You may need to take extra care of rental books so you don't lose money when you return them. And take time to see how much a used version of the book would sell for, as it might make more sense financially to buy the book and then resell it later. Finally, be aware that renting is not always the cheapest option, particularly when you factor in the resale value of a textbook you buy.

6. Opt for ebooks. Many textbooks are now available in ebook format, and you can buy or rent them in this cheaper format as long as you have an e-reader. If you're taking classes that require historical texts, fiction, biographies, poetry and essays, you'll likely find those texts in ebook format. One key to success with ebooks is to make sure you can easily navigate the book. Sometimes it's more difficult to find a particular page using an ebook, which can be frustrating when participating in a seminar that involves jumping around by page number.

7. Consider buying the older edition. The California Student Public Interest Research Group published a study in 2004 that found new editions cost 58 percent more than older editions. Newer editions are often not that different from previous editions – they just sometimes look nicer and have different page numbers. You will want to compare old and new editions to ensure there aren't any major differences between them, and you'll be prepared to hunt down information during lectures, since your page numbers will probably be different.

8. Decide which you'll use long-term. Once in a blue moon, it's a good idea to buy a brand new textbook, even if you have to pay full price. This isn't normally the case for introductory classes, as you'll likely never use those books again. But once you get into the upper-level courses for your major, those textbooks could come in handy during your future career. Think carefully about which books you might use over the long term, and consider purchasing just those books new. That way, you'll get a book without several students' worth of wear and tear.

Rob Berger is the founder of the popular personal finance blog the Dough Roller.