College

By Eric Christensen

June 2, 2014 5 min read

Every semester college students buy a forest's worth of textbooks. Not only are they heavy and bulky, but they're are also expensive. And after only a few months, used textbooks will either gather dust on a bookshelf or be sold back to the campus bookstore for pennies. But with a little bit of research and effort, students can save hundreds of dollars per semester.

Robert Berger, founder and managing editor of the personal finance blog "Dough Roller," says the first thing to figure out "is whether they will want to keep the textbooks after the class is over. ... That will determine a lot of your options, like whether to buy new or used."

Next, students should decide where to purchase their books. Berger says, "Buying books from the campus bookstore is about the worst thing you can do. The only good thing about a campus bookstore is that it's convenient, but you pay an arm and leg for that." Dr. Allen Grove, a professor of English at Alfred University and About.com's college admissions expert, agrees. "College bookstores (many of which are run by Barnes & Noble) rarely offer any kind of discounts on new books, and the markdown on used books tends to be less than you'll find elsewhere."

The best place to look is online. Berger notes, "With the ISBN ... you can be confident you're getting the right book." Search widely and compare prices across multiple sites. "That being said, buying online can have added shipping costs that need to be factored into the cost equation," Grove cautions.

When it comes to buying used textbooks, be aware of condition descriptions. Grove says, "Online sellers often are not specific about the condition of books, and it can be quite annoying to end up with a book that is filled with neon green highlighting and inane comments." Mike Lewinsky, a college savings expert at the personal finance website Money Crashers, adds, "If additional materials that come along with a particular book, such as a companion CD, are essential for the class, make sure it is included."

Although it may not be the cheapest option, Grove notes, "with used books, the college bookstore has the advantage that you can flip through the various used copies to find one that isn't overly marked up or damaged."

Buying older editions of a textbook is another way to save money, but this strategy is also risky. Older editions can have different page numbers or problem sets. Both Berger and Grove suggest talking with the professor or teaching assistant before making a purchase. Even if a professor approves the use of an older edition, students should consider whether they want to deal with the headache.

When the semester is over, students can recoup some of their expenses by reselling the textbooks they do not wish to keep. Students should once again go online. Grove says: "Amazon.com has a book trade-in service, as do many other places, including ecampus.com, collegebooksdirect.com and textbookrecycling.com. In a few tests that I ran, Amazon offered the most money for books." Berger notes that a better option might be for students to sell the books themselves online. Lewinsky agrees but notes, "That will involve more of a time commitment, however."

A final option is to use e-textbooks. Grove says, "E-textbooks do have some advantages. When studying for exams or writing a paper, it's easy to search an e-textbook to find the passages you are looking for. And of course, it's nice to have all of your books in a single lightweight device." But Berger cautions, "It can be difficult to mark an e-book or to quickly move back and forth through the e-textbook. And there is also the issue of eyestrain that comes with looking at an e-reader for hours every day." And when it comes to pricing, Berger says, "They can be less expensive than a textbook, but they are not cheap." In fact, buying and reselling used books might be cheaper overall.

Although the campus bookstore might be your most convenient option, it isn't necessarily the best option. The best tip is to do some research and shop around. Taking classes can be a great way to become not only a smarter student but also a smarter consumer.

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