7 Ways You Can Save on the High Cost of College Textbooks

Carol Katarsky Updated on May 26, 2021

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. 

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. 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.

So how can you set yourself up for success without breaking the bank? Consider the following seven strategies to save some of that hard-earned cash.

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.

2. Buy older editions 

For subjects like history where the learning material remains the same from year to year, 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 ahead of the semester and asking if an older edition will suffice. 

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.

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.

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 book costs dramatically. Textbook rentals are available at both brick-and-mortar stores as well as through online retailers.

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 can start looking, the more likely you are to snag a good deal.

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. 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.

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

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