6 Money-Saving College Textbook Tips for Freshmen

College Textbooks

By Irene Starygina

College textbook prices commonly evoke looks of disbelief from incoming college freshmen. $135 for a pre-calculus textbook and $65 for the supplement? That’s right, the cost of those new, glossy college textbooks has skyrocketed as publishers continue to crank out current editions almost every year. As a freshman, you’ll probably take at least four classes per semester, all in different subject areas. Additionally, textbooks for intro-level core classes often come with a higher price tag. Don’t have $600 to drop on books your first semester? By doing a little research, you can save the equivalent of a year's worth of late-night coffee breaks. 

"Hi, my name is..." You might feel a bit awkward emailing your professor before even stepping foot inside the classroom, but get over that fear and you can save big bucks. As soon as you receive your class schedule and look up the professor’s name in the directory, send her a short, friendly email. Introduce yourself, explain that you'll be taking her class, and ask which textbooks will be assigned. If possible, get the textbooks' ISBN numbers. This will allow you to purchase used editions online or in the college bookstore before your classmates get a hold of them. Used textbooks can sell for half the price of new books, so copies of in-demand texts usually go fast. Your professor might even be impressed that you’re getting a head start on her class.

Shop online. “The biggest mistake students make in the textbook-buying process is they don’t give themselves enough time to buy books online, so they have to go to the campus bookstore to have the book in time for their first assignments,” says Jeff Cohen of CampusBooks.com. Online stores carry 90% of the college textbooks in stock at most bookstores, and delivery of online orders typically takes 3-14 days. “Shop early when the used books are plentiful,” says Carl Rosendorf of Textbooks.com. When buying used textbooks online the discounts can range anywhere from 30% to 90% off the new book price from the publisher. And for those students that want to buy new textbooks, they can find discounts from 15% to 30% off.” Make sure the site offers a guaranteed free return for 30 days after purchase in case you find that your professor barely uses the text.

Rent when you can. Renting college textbooks is a relatively new concept that can be even more cost-effective than buying online. Of course, renting is not for those who take pride in stocking their shelves with proof of their education or who love to mark up the pages as they read, but it can be a great way to save. “If someone will spend $500 a semester on books at a campus bookstore, they will save half by renting online,” says Alan Martin from CampusBookRentals.com. The site stocks over 95% of the titles that most bookstores carry. With each college textbook rental, students are shipped a pre-paid envelope that can be used to return the text at the end of the semester. “It takes about a week for a student to get the book and we offer a 30-day money back guarantee,” says Martin.

Keep your eyes open. On occasion you may come across fliers posted by students in your dorm or around campus advertising select used textbooks. While this isn't a reliable way to ensure you get what you need for the coming semester, you could find random deals on fliers, Facebook Marketplace, or your local Craigslist site. If you suspect that the price listed on the flier is a good deal, get to a computer and look up the going price online. If the price is favorable, act fast to snatch up that copy before one of your classmates gets to it.

Do you need that book after all? While some professors rely on the assigned texts, others focus on PowerPoint slides or advise that tests will be based largely on lecture materials. Again, you can email your professors a few weeks before classes start or talk to people who have taken the course previously. Ask if the professor will place a text on reserve at the school library, and if the class involves a lot of notes and slides. You might not need that Business 101 book if you’re an avid note-taker, but the math text could be an absolute necessity for completing your weekly assignments.

Sharing is caring. If you determine that you need a textbook for a class but can't find a good deal, consider splitting the cost with a classmate or two. This option is ideal at smaller institutions where it's easier to meet up between classes. Because it can be difficult to coordinate study schedules, in most cases sharing should be used as a last resort. However, if you can find an arrangement that works for you, you could save big on the priciest texbooks.

Photo courtesy of LollyKnit