It’s Textbook Buying Time!

It has come to my attention that it is that time of year again…textbook buying time.

Now for those of you who are out of school- you are lucky. You never have to go through the trauma and massive money-suck that is buying textbooks.

Buying textbooks is stressful and risky. This is because:

  • You probably aren’t certain of which classes you are taking. If you buy your books too early, you might drop the class and be stuck with the book. Too late, and you are behind in your readings!
  •  Some professors (if you are a professor and you do this, STOP IT) don’t really assign reading for their classes. They make you buy a book and then they don’t ever once reference the reading in class and you suspect they never actually read it themselves. Some professors make you buy whole books and then only assign a chapter or two. Alternatively, some professors assign “optional” reading books that aren’t actually useful at all (I’m looking at you, Greek Mythology Book Assigned to my Contemporary Art History Class). This is a massively frustrating waste of time and money.
  • You will always lose money on your textbooks. There is no textbook website in the world that is not making a huge profit off of reselling your textbooks. I’m sorry.
  • The university bookstore is the most expensive place to buy your textbooks. It is also temptingly convenient.
  • Each textbook can cost the same amount as your grocery budget for a month. Your student years are the time in your life that you are the poorest (hopefully things will only get better from here). This is a stinky fact of studenthood.
  • Buy or rent? Download the e-book? There are a lot of decisions to make in a short amount of time.

Lucky for you, I have compiled a list of tricks to help you avoid spending all your beer money on books.

  1.  Try to buy your books off of a friend (or stranger, whatever) who took the class before you.
  2. If your roommate is in the same class as you, see if you can share a textbook, too. This may or may not work, depending on your study schedule, how useful the book is, how early you both like to get your work done and how much you like your roommate. If you both have the same exam on the same day and you need the book to make sure you are doing the examples right- don’t share a book (this applies to lots of economics, business, math and science courses). If the book is more of a reference and/or providing background information- think about it (might work for an English, history, art history, music or poly sci).
  3. Obviously, try to buy used books over new. This is an easy one.
  4. Buy your books online. This can be a double edged sword because you might end up waiting a long time for your books to come in (check where they are shipping from!) which can be stressful. However, you will probably save a lot of money buying online instead of at a bookstore. Search by ISBN to make sure you have the right edition (although this often doesn’t really matter), and buy early (especially if you know you have to take the class and there is no chance of dropping it). Some websites I have found useful for used textbooks include: textbookfinder.com, which compiles all of the deals from all of the websites. Also good are: half.combetterworldbooks.comabebooks.com.
  5. If you have a question about the book- like if it comes with a CD and the used version is half the cost but doesn’t have the CD- email your professor to see how necessary the supplemental materials are before spending the money. You will be mad if you pay for the CD and it sits in the sleeve all semester.
  6. Sell your old textbooks back. You can either do this at the bookstore (usually during finals week) or online. I haven’t really noticed much of a price difference between selling online and selling at school, but sometimes the university bookstore won’t buy back a certain book because the class isn’t being offered again, and then you can sell the books online. You have to pay a small fee for shipping (and also you have to buy mailing envelopes). I have used half.com and amazon.com to resell textbooks.
  7. If you are trying to decide whether to rent or buy, use this rule of thumb: if the rental price is 30% of the used price of the book, rent! You probably wouldn’t make more than that reselling your book anyway, and this way you won’t get stuck with the book if there are no buyers when you try to resell.
  8. If you are in a small program where everyone more or less takes the same classes, see if you can set up your own online marketplace. My small grad program (150 students) set up a googledoc where 2nd years posted the books they had available, their contact emails and the prices they wanted for the books, and then new 1st years could email with offers. The spreadsheet was updated when the books were sold.
  9.  ebooks- as a happy new kindle owner, I am beginning to love ebooks. However, I am not sold on e-textbooks (especially math and science books) because you often need to flip around in the book. Also, active reading (highlighting, taking notes in the margins) has been shown to increase comprehension. Use your best judgment on this one.
  10. Don’t forget your library! Your school library will probably have a copy of the book on reserve, and you can check it out for a few hours at a time (meaning, you can’t go too far with it. Shucks). This is great if you only need the book occasionally (check the syllabus) or if you suspect your professor is one of those inconsiderates mentioned above. Also, (I would not be posting this to a public blog if I was still in school because this is my sneaky trick) if you are in a small class, there is often one copy of the textbook in the stacks at the library. Snag it FIRST THING in the semester and you can usually check it out for the whole semester. Hopefully no one else will request it- but if they do, you usually have two weeks to return it which means you can order it online if you really need it. This is great if you aren’t sure about staying in the class.
  11. This may just be a my-college-specific thing, but my senior year of college I won a bookstore-sponsored scholarship. I got $500 worth of free books from the university bookstore for the year, which more than covered everything I needed (including notebooks!) Keep your eyes peeled for little pockets of scholarship money. $500 may not seem like a lot when applied to tuition, but not having to worry about paying for textbooks felt great!
  12. Remember that one day you will never have to buy textbooks EVER again!

Good luck this semester!

Quick update for 1/10/14: Amazon is having an 80% off sale on educational Kindle books.

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