First, the good news: the cost of college textbooks has recently declined for the first time in several years.
That’s according to a report from CampusBooks.com, which found the costs of textbooks had decreased by 26% since January 2017.
Now for the bad news: college textbooks still cost the average student more than $1,200 — a year.
Fortunately, there are ways around the exorbitant price of books.
You might have to get a little crafty and creative, but your bank account will thank you.
How to Save Money on College Textbooks, No Matter What You Study
A few words of caution and general tips before we get started.
First of all, don’t buy all your books before classes start. You may end up changing classes during the trial period. Some bookstores may allow you to return the texts full price, but it’s not a guarantee — and it’s an additional step regardless.
Second, if you must buy a book, it’s always better to buy it used. But if you find yourself in possession of a new book, don’t highlight and dogear it to death (like I did). You want to be able to sell it back later for the highest price possible.
And finally, know that some of this advice might be frowned upon by your professor. If you don’t have the exact text they assign, you may be missing marginal information or study questions your professor wants you to have, or your version’s wonky page numbers might slow down a class discussion.
But when it comes down to it, having access to the text — and actually reading it — is what matters. If you can’t afford to buy brand-new textbooks, let your professor know. They might be a lot more understanding than you think, no matter how stern they are in front of a giant group of students.
Now for some money-saving strategies.
1. Check Your Syllabus for Books in the Public Domain
Even if you know you’re sticking with a class for the duration, you may still be able to get away without buying the book.
It depends on your major. You probably can’t find the information in your organic chemistry textbook online — at least not in the same structure as you’re going through it in class.
But if your studies center on the humanities, chances are a lot of the material you’re reading is public access.
Look over your syllabus to see what texts you’re assigned. Can you get any of them for free online or at the library? If they’re classic novels, philosophical texts or poetry, the answer is most likely yes.
Browse the virtual shelves at Project Gutenberg, one of the largest free ebook libraries. You might also be able to download the books to your Kindle — search Amazon’s site to see if the books are in its library of free and low-priced classics.
You can also always Google the text to see if there are any PDFs around.
And obviously, illegally downloading texts… is illegal. So don’t.
2. Share Textbooks With Classmates
The best price on a textbook? No price at all.
If your school, like most, requires students to take a variety of core-curriculum classes that are the same for almost all students, someone on your dorm floor probably has a copy of the books you need.
Even if they’re taking the class at the same time, you can coordinate to share custody of the study materials — not everyone’s schedule is the same in college, after all.
The same holds true within your major. Before you fork over $213 on that hardcover biology textbook, chat with your fellow pre-med students. Heck, even if you offer to cover half the cost of the book, you’ll be saving a ton.
Better yet? Form a study group so even more of your classmates can save on the materials. As long as you all stay on-task and productive, several students can work with just one or two sets of materials.
3. Visit the Library
If your friends fail you, follow Hermione Granger’s famous advice: “When in doubt, go to the library.”
University libraries often keep copies of frequently-assigned textbooks in stock. You may be competing against other frugal students, so get there early.
You’ll also have to take exceptionally good notes, since you may have to return the book before the test. (Psst — if you’re a great note-taker, you might want to consider making it into a paid gig.)
4. Use the Older Edition
Textbook publishers don’t usually change books that much between editions, especially if you’re just one or two off.
If you can get your hands on an earlier version of the book, you could save more than half the sticker price. I once got through an American poetry class with a 15-year-old, yellow-paged Norton anthology I picked up for free at a garage sale.
The most difficult problem you’re likely to run into is the discrepancy in page numbers. Thankfully, that’s what an index is for.
And if there is material that’s not anywhere in your edition of the book, refer back to item 2: Coordinate with a friend.
5. Rent Your Textbooks
CampusBooks attributes the dip in textbook costs to the increasing availability of ones for rent. The retailer estimates textbook rentals will make up about 35% of all textbook sales for this upcoming fall semester.
You probably already knew this was an option, but it’s worth repeating: Renting textbooks is way cheaper.
And it’s not just Chegg’s game anymore.
And what a cut! Check out the difference between buying and renting this chemistry textbook! You’ll save more than 90% off the list price if you rent.
6. Buy the Electronic Version
If you can forego your fondness for ink and paper, the electronic version of your textbook is likely to be much cheaper than its hefty counterpart.
Bonus: No need to carry around a clunky backpack! Keep everything on your laptop or tablet, and it’s smooth, sleek sailing to class.
You still have to take notes, though. No excuses!
7. Go Beyond the Campus Bookstore
I said it before and I’ll say it again: Always buy used.
And you aren’t limited to your campus bookstore. Check out other used bookstores in your area — if you’re in a true college town, you stand a fair chance of finding a textbook someone off-loaded after taking the class.
You can also turn to online shopping, and your efforts don’t have to stop at Amazon.
You can sometimes find good deals on textbooks at eBay, and it’s worthwhile to check Craigslist or even school-related Facebook groups. You can use an online comparison tool, like RedShelf, to find the very best prices on textbooks you’ll purchase or rent online.
You might even consider ordering the international version of your textbook — which, according to AbeBooks, is usually more affordable since these editions are “often printed on cheaper paper and are usually softcover.”
As long as it’s in English, you probably won’t run into too many irreconcilable differences.
8. Double-Check Your Financial Aid
Your school might make it easy to funnel some of your financial aid specifically toward books.
And if you’re having trouble affording books even after taking out loans, it’s worthwhile to chat with a financial aid officer. More aid might be available to you.
9. Use Scholarship or Grant Money
Although you’ll have to check the terms individually, most scholarships can be used to buy textbooks.
Some organizations also provide textbook-specific scholarships.
10. Make Sure You Actually Need the Access Code
The access code included with your textbook — often used to get online content or interactive labs — can be a source of seriously expensive frustration.
Just entry to the popular MyMathLab goes for $75 at cheapest at the time of writing.
Including digital content behind an access code is a crummy — but effective — tactic for publishers; it forces you to buy a brand new book while simultaneously making that book obsolete for resale.
Unfortunately, there aren’t many ways around the expense.
Talk frankly with your professor about whether or not you actually need those access codes.
After all, the material contained in the code could just be a digital version of the same information in the book itself, or it could be dynamic, gradable material your teacher will consider as part of your final score.
And even if it’s the most interactive, awesome content in the world, your teacher might not actually decide to use it.
If you do require access to digital tools, you might save money purchasing the used textbook and access code separately, according to the Direct Textbook blog.
If you’ve gotta spend the dough, make sure you get as much out of it as possible.
Check your curriculum requirements and schedule to see if you’ll need other courses that utilize the same material. If you do, take them in the same or adjacent semesters.
Since the subscription time frame usually lasts between six and 12 months, you could save yourself from having to buy in again and again.
11. Use the Open Textbook Network
More than 600 colleges are part of the Open Textbook Network, which aims to promote open textbook sharing practices. It maintains the Open Textbook Library, which houses a resource of peer-reviewed academic textbooks online.
The textbooks are “free, openly licensed, and complete,” meaning that students have full access to the entire text — without paying a cent.
University faculty members are invited to choose the entirety of their coursework through the network, which allows their students to avoid the high fees charged by traditional book sellers.
Students of these universities can use their student email address or a URL from a faculty member to access the resources on the organization’s site. These resources include data collection tools, slide decks, instructional support and textbooks.
If you think your university needs to become a member of the Open Textbook Network (so that you can get your hands on some free books), talk to a faculty member about joining. They can go here to begin the application process.
Congrats: You Got Your Textbooks on the Cheap! Now What?
Now that you’ve gotten all your books on the cheap, make your tuition dollars count by using them well.
And when you’re done, sell them back, of course. If your bookstore offers a raw deal, try Amazon, eBay or BookByte. If you’re feeling generous, consider giving them to a friend or a library.
One caveat: Depending on your profession (and level of nerdiness), you might actually want to keep some of your assigned books on your shelf.
For instance, even though I ended up dropping my biology major, I still have some of the hard-covered glossies I used in college, and I still flip through them from time to time. And many of the books I bought for my creative writing classes still come in handy for reference today.
Besides, you’re looking at earning back only a fraction of what you paid. If pretty pictures of the musculoskeletal system make you as happy as they do me, it might be worthwhile to just consider the book an expensive coffee table decoration.
Jamie Cattanach is a freelancer whose writing has also been featured at The Write Life, Word Riot, Nashville Review and elsewhere. Find @JamieCattanach on Twitter to wave hello. Editor Caitlin Constantine contributed to this post.