College Textbooks: How Much Are Students Spending & How You Can Save Money

By Carol Katarsky Updated on March 24, 2022

When you’re figuring out what you'll have to pay out of pocket to attend college, a textbook budget might not be the first thing you consider—especially given the cost of big-ticket items like tuition and room and board. But the costs of textbooks can be surprisingly high. 

Budgeting for the cost of college textbooks can be difficult — you never know exactly how much you need for the academic year. Throughout this article, we’ll go over the average cost of college textbooks as well as 10 ways you can try to save money.

How much are college students spending on textbooks and course materials?

Many college students forget to factor in the cost of textbooks and other course materials when budgeting for a four-year university or community college. Some students use financial aid to cover the cost of textbooks, while other students pay out of pocket — and college textbooks are not known for their affordability.

The College Board found the average cost of books and supplies at a private college was $1,240 during the 2019-2020 school year. That number could be even higher for certain majors and college courses. Ouch.

You might be tempted to go without certain textbooks. If so, think again. It's actually not a great alternative. A study by the nonprofit group U.S. PIRG found that while 65% of students opted not to buy at least one textbook because it cost too much, 94% of those students felt that it negatively affected their academic progress. No surprise there.

10 best ways to save money on college textbooks

With the high cost of higher education and textbook prices, many students are looking for every way possible to save money. Course materials may raise the cost of your student loans or force you to pay out of pocket for expensive books.

With the average student paying over $1,200 for their textbooks during the academic year, you will definitely benefit from learning how to save some money on your college textbooks. Some of our top tips include:

  1. Buying used books whenever possible

  2. Buying older editions

  3. Renting textbooks

  4. Buying your textbooks as soon as possible

  5. Sharing your book

  6. Exploring free options

  7. Exploring digital options

  8. Using inclusive access textbooks

  9. Researching open education resources

  10. Looking out for textbook scholarships

Let’s take a deeper look at some of the top ways you can save money on textbooks every year.

1. Buy used books whenever possible

Buying used can save you big on textbooks. Plus, the more you’re willing to tolerate heavy use, such as a previous owner’s overzealous use of highlighter, the more you can save.

Be on the lookout for book exchange groups on your campus. It’s also a good idea to get to know students who are a year ahead in their studies who might be willing to sell you their old books.

Additionally, you can often find used textbooks on marketplaces like Chegg or Amazon. Many students sell their used textbooks to other students through these platforms to make money for their newer books. However, if your class requires the use of any one-time access codes that come with a new edition, you may need to purchase a new textbook.

2. Buy older editions 

For subjects like history where the learning material remains the same from year to year, textbook publishers have been known to make small changes to a textbook to make a “new” edition. You can circumvent that by reaching out to your professor or other faculty members ahead of the semester and asking if an older edition will suffice. However, some classes will require you to get a new textbook if the publisher made any important changes to the information. They also may update exercises within the text.

If you must buy the newest edition, make sure to comparison shop for the best price. Check prices with off-campus bookstores or online sellers, instead of just heading to the campus bookstore. This is a great low-cost option to help you save some money on your textbooks.

3. Rent textbooks

Some stores offer the option to rent a textbook for a low fee and return it at the end of the semester. That means you can get a copy of the textbook for the semester without spending the full price.

If you won’t need to keep your textbook for your career long-term (and honestly, the vast majority of them you won't need beyond college), renting your books can slash your book costs dramatically. Textbook rentals are available at both brick-and-mortar stores as well as through online retailers like Amazon or Chegg.

4. Buy your textbooks as soon as possible

As the market for textbooks moves to the Internet, textbook customers are competing with other customers from across the country to find the best deals on books. The sooner you start looking, the more likely you are to snag a good deal. This advice doesn’t go for new books, as they'll likely remain the same price throughout the semester. However, used physical textbooks may see an increase in price the later you wait to purchase them.

Don’t know what books you need? Be proactive. Reach out to your professors or advisor to find out.

5. Share your book

If a close friend or roommate is taking the same class, book sharing can be a great way to split the cost.

A word of caution: This method works best for disciplined students. If you wait until the last minute to catch up on reading or to study for an exam and your bookshare partner needs the book, you may be out of luck. 

6. Explore your free options  

Do a quick Google search to look for PDFs of your textbooks. A surprising number of textbooks are offered online, and that’s especially true for older literature where the works are no longer under copyright protection.

Project Gutenberg and other nonprofit sites offer classic novels and other works in PDF form for free.

Also, don’t forget to check out what’s available in your college or university’s library.

7. Explore options for digitial textbooks

With the growing popularity of e-readers and tablets, many textbook publishers are offering digital textbooks. You may be able to purchase a digital textbook. The publishing industry can offer e-books and digital copies at a fraction of the price because they are not paying for as many physical copies being made.

8. Use inclusive access textbooks

Inclusive access programs are a great cost-saving method for students. In these programs, a college or university purchases course materials in bulk from a publisher. That allows the school to include the cost in any course fees and college tuition cost. That decreases out-of-pocket student spending  and allows every student to have the same materials on the first day of class.

9. Research open educational resources

Open Educational Resources (also called OER) are a great way to supplement any required reading at no cost to the student. These are basically free copies of textbooks and other teaching materials that have entered the public domain.

Many colleges and universities are encouraging professors to use OER instead of traditional educational texts to help decrease the overhead cost of course materials.

10. Be on the lookout for textbook scholarships

Retailers like Barnes & Noble, which operates many on-campus bookstores across the country, and other bookstores offer scholarships specifically for textbooks. 

Throughout your college career, don’t be shy about bringing up the cost of textbooks up to your professors. They may not make a change this semester, but they might just explore other options for future semesters and classes.

While you’re in budget mode, don’t forget to check out the 7 Things Most College Students Forget to Budget For.

Explore other college planning tips and tricks with Nitro

Whether you’re a current college student or a high school student preparing for college, the process can be really overwhelming. You need to know what your overhead costs are as well as what you’re going to have to spend once you get to school.

If you're looking for a way to make college planning a little less stressful look no further. Nitro offers tons of resources for college planning — like The Ultimate College Packing List or Discounts You Can Get With A College ID. Additionally, Nitro College is awarding a $2,000 scholarship for any current or future college students — no essay required!

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About the Author
Carol Katarsky

Carol Katarsky is a contributing writer for Nitro. She is an award-winning journalist with extensive experience writing about both finance and education. Her corporate and non-profit clients include AIG, Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, and the Project Management Institute. She lives in Philadelphia with her husband, son, and one cat more than she should. Read more by Carol Katarsky