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College student sitting in a library with a stack of books

College Textbooks: Saving Money and Your Sanity

By Mir Kamin

Parents my age, let me take you back for a minute. Nope, further. Back to when you first went to college, and it was the day before classes began—because that’s when everyone bought their books—and you were thrust into that particular melee for the first time. You went to the bookstore on campus along with hundreds or thousands of other students, and probably you either checked in your backpack at the entrance through a formal system or you simply left your bag in a cubby out front, praying no one would grab it on their way out, and you ventured into the belly of the beast. Perhaps there was a list of classes up front; perhaps you had to go through a line to speak with a human who had said list. You discovered which books were on tap for your particular classes, and then you went looking for them. If you could find used copies in pretty good shape, that was a good day. If the shelf was empty, well, you were out of luck until the store reordered. At the end of the semester, you could sell the books back for a fraction of what you’d paid, sometimes. And you repeated this process every semester.

Now, if your kid is just starting college, chances are you marveled in the changes time and technology have wrought. Every college I know of now has some sort of online portal where you can review your schedule and see which books you need. Most even have a one-button connection to the campus bookstore, where your student can opt to order online and pick up the packaged bundle once they get to campus (no muss, no fuss). It’s all a lot easier, but there are more options now, too. If your kid already bought their books this semester, that’s fine—this is just a quick-n-dirty guide to  keep in mind, moving forward.

Money-saving Options for College Textbooks

1) Ye Olde Campus Bookstore

Please understand that this is not about me dissing the campus bookstore. I love the changes in campus bookstores—at both of my kids’ schools, for example, the “official” bookstore is a Barnes & Noble, offering them all sorts of sundries in addition to textbooks and branded gear—and I’m not suggesting your kid ditch the obvious option. Sometimes the campus bookstore is the best option, and it’s often the easiest one. The big thing to know now that’s different from when we were in school (aside from the convenience of preordering and such) is that most (all?) now offer price-matching. So just have a quick chat with your student about what that means, and review the parameters together. For example, it usually only applies to brand new versions of books. In addition, some of them offer textbook rentals now, too. Depending on what’s needed/wanted, the campus bookstore may still be the best bet.

2) Amazon

Oh, Amazon. How we love you. Amazon not only has everything under the sun, they’ve entered the textbook realm with gusto, meaning you can find bargains on used textbooks and/or opt to rent from them. Amazon textbook rentals are surprisingly (to me, anyway; my kid didn’t seem that surprised) convenient, provided that your student can keep track of the shipping box for a semester so they can slap that return label on and send stuff back, later. And depending on what classes and types of books your student needs, sometimes their selection of used options is more plentiful than the campus bookstore. Two caveats, here: First, tell your student to pay close attention to the ISBN numbers, as textbooks are notorious for coming out in new editions on a regular basis. What appears at first blush to be a tremendous deal on a required book may end up being a costly mistake if the version your kid picked up is the wrong one. Second, also tell them to pay attention to the seller. While we’ve found items which ship directly from Amazon to be reliable, third party sellers sometimes aren’t, and that’s a risk you might want to skip if time is short.

3) Other Reseller Outlets

Have more time than money? We also like and use eBay and BetterWorldBooks, so it’s worth price-comparing there if you’re okay with buying used. Bear in mind that this tends to be a viable option for things like, say, novels for a lit class vs. your Organic Chemistry textbook, but sometimes you luck out. Again, these are options for when you have lots of time—order in November for your spring classes, or over the summer for the fall, etc.

4) Student Exchanges

Back in our day, if you didn’t know someone, say, right down the hall, who happened to be taking the class this semester that you would be taking next semester, grabbing a used book off of somebody was pretty rare. Now every college has a listserv and a Facebook group and eleventy other options for posting your needs or perusing what others have available. In most cases, a one-to-one like this will save you some bucks. Just remind your kid to check the current prices before assuming they’re getting a deal.

5) Online Access Codes

More and more often, instructors are embracing technology, which means textbooks today are not always just textbooks. For some classes the entire “book” will be online. For others, you need both a textbook and an online access code for related activities. In some cases, when you need both a physical book and a code, they’re sold only as a bundle. In others, you have the option to buy them separately. Pay attention, because sometimes you can save money with a used book and a code-only purchase, and sometimes the book may be inexpensive but the code without the book costs twice as much as the bundle. Here, too, encourage your student to ask around—sometimes the actual “required” text is never used at all (instead, everything involves the online materials), and in rare cases, a professor will require an access code that is never used. In general, access codes 1) are expensive and 2) cannot be transferred or sold, so proceed with as much caution as possible when deciding which path to take, here.

6) Class Changes and Customer Service

Personally, I find the whole “I have my schedule and the required books months in advance” thing to be a double-edged sword. The truth is that sometimes, plans change. Maybe your kid finds ridiculous bargains and you high-five and one week into the semester, she drops the class. If an access code is involved, or a book bought from a third-party reseller, you may be out that money. But if the campus bookstore or Amazon is the way you went, you may be able to do returns (even, in some cases, on rentals). Just keep this stuff in mind.

Deciding which option is best. New? Used?

Here’s some general advice on sussing out which way to go when there are options.

New: Personally, I never advocate buying a brand-new textbook if used is an option. Some people really want a pristine text, though, and in some cases (hello, latest edition) it’s the only option. In the case of the latter, grit your teeth and deal, and for the former, maybe encourage your kid to be choosy about which texts “must” be new.

Used: I’m always happy to buy used, but there is a point where a used textbook can be so worn or marked-up that it’s distracting. Although the campus bookstore and Amazon do a pretty good job of rating the level of use, it’s still a gamble if you’re buying a book sight unseen. We tend to lean towards “Used — Very Good” and above and shy away from “Used — Acceptable.”

Online: If you need an access code for a class, you need an access code for class. There’s not much you can do about that. (Although, again, encourage your student to do their research to be certain it’s needed.) But more and more you can opt for an e-book over a physical one, too, and that’s up to your student to determine if that’s something that will work for them. Neither of my kids like e-texts, even though neither of them write in their books. I cannot explain this to you. I only know this is how they are. If your kid is good with an e-book and it’s cheaper, why not? Just bear in mind that an e-book cannot be resold, so whether you save in the end should include that consideration as well.

Rentals: I’m a convert to the current framework of textbook rental. It sits squarely at the intersection of convenience and savings, and removes any onus on my kid to figure out reselling to recoup cash. The only time I do not recommend renting is if it’s a major-related class where the student is likely to want to own the textbook as a reference. (Although, pro tip: When you rent from Amazon, you can opt to keep/buy later, if you like, at what is usually a reasonable price.)

Reselling: Remind your student that they will always make a little more money utilizing student channels to resell directly to another student rather than reselling to the bookstore. Also—if you can afford it—encourage them not to immediately resell anything they might want to continue to own. The lure of pocket cash should be tempered by the notion that they are currently investing in their educational process.

So there you go; while not as simple as the single bookstore option of yore, today’s textbook-acquisition process probably won’t require you (or your kid) to sell a kidney.

Photo source: Depositphotos/realinemedia

More College Advice from Alpha Mom:

  1. College Prep Shouldn’t be College Madness 
  2. Gearing Up for College: Dining While Dormed?
  3. What to do When College Decisions Arrive


About the Author

Mir Kamin

Mir Kamin began writing about her life online over a decade ago, back when she was a divorced mom trying to raise two regular little kids and figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. Now ...

Mir Kamin began writing about her life online over a decade ago, back when she was a divorced mom trying to raise two regular little kids and figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. Now her life looks very different than it did back then: Those little kids turned into anything-but-regular teenagers, she is remarried, and somehow she’s become one of those people who talks to her dogs in a high-pitched baby voice. Along the way she’s continued chronicling the everyday at Woulda Coulda Shoulda, plus she’s bringing you daily bargain therapy at Want Not. The good news is that Mir grew up and became a writer and she still really likes hanging out with her kids; the bad news is that her hair is a lot grayer than it used to be.

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