Smarten up: You can save money on books

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If you’re headed to college, the cost of textbooks will probably be among your biggest expenditures aside from tuition. The average college student, in fact, will spend more than $800 per year for books, according to the
College Board.

And prices keep rising: The Government Accountability Office reports, “Increasing at an average of 6 percent per year, textbook prices nearly tripled from December 1986 to December 2004, while tuition and fees increased by 240 percent and overall inflation was 72 percent.” During that period, the
GAO report says, the price of textbooks increased 186 percent.

But with a little planning, foresight and creativity, you can keep some of that money in your pocket.

“Textbooks are often the budget buster,” says Gen Tenabe, co-author of “1001 Ways to Pay for College.” “When you look at your college budget, you have required tuition and fees, which you have to pay, and living expenses and everything else (are) considered optional. In reality, textbooks are not optional. Very few students would actually pass a class if they didn’t read some of the textbooks their professors are assigning.”

But that doesn’t mean you have to buy all of them.

Beg, borrow and … share
One way you can save money is by borrowing books. The school library is a good place to start. Many libraries keep books for certain classes available for what is known as “reserve reading.” You can’t take such books out of the library; they’re for library reading purposes only. The downside is that there are generally only a couple of copies of a particular book reserved, so if someone beats you to the library on a given day, you’re out of luck. But if you’re only going to be reading a chapter or a short portion of a book, this option may be worth exploring.

You also may be able to borrow books from your professors. Textbook publishers often send them free copies as marketing tools. A professor with extra copies of a certain book might be willing to lend you the book if you simply ask.

Angela Polk, a recent law-school graduate in Washington, frequently borrowed books from professors in both her undergraduate and law-school years.

“When you develop a rapport with your professor, you can go to his or her office and scan the shelves and say, ‘I’m taking that class next semester. I need a book. Can I borrow yours?’ Nine times out of 10, as long as they weren’t using it to teach the class, they were more than willing to either give it out or loan it out,” she says.

It pays to check in with your professor even if you don’t plan to ask to borrow books. Sometimes professors plan to have students read only a couple of chapters in a particular book.
If you know this to be the case, you can save your money on that book and read the required material in the library instead.

Another way you can save money on textbooks is by sharing with other classmates. Say you and your roommate are taking the same class, and he’s a night owl while you’re a morning person. He can read the book and study late at night, while you can do so in the morning. Likewise, if you have the same major as someone else, but you’re taking the same classes in different semesters, make plans to swap books.

Buying on the cheap
Sometimes borrowing won’t be a good option, but that doesn’t mean you can’t save money on the purchase.

“If you’re willing to buy used textbooks, the savings are amazing,” says Steve Loyola, president of
Best Book Buys, an online textbook price comparison site for college students. “I’ve seen up to and sometimes over 75 percent savings.”

The college bookstore may have used copies, but you can also find used copies on Web sites such as,
Barnes & Noble and Also, check bulletin boards on campus for postings by other students who may be selling a book you need.

You don’t have to wait for someone to think about selling a book. If you know upperclassmen who have taken a course you’re getting ready to take, approach them and ask if they’re willing to sell their books. They might be grateful for the extra money and have just never thought about trying to make a sale.

“The key to getting used books is you have to buy them early,” says Tenabe. “There’s usually a fairly limited supply of used books, and there’s going to be a huge rush on them.”

One way to beat the rush is to plan your courses as soon as possible. “The earlier in the year you can plan your schedule, the sooner you can start looking for those used textbooks,” Tenabe says.

One of the main causes for rising textbook costs is the frequency in which publishers put out new editions. But every edition doesn’t have new information that is critical to the class. Check with your professor to make sure the newest edition is necessary. Some textbook editions also come bundled with extra items such as software. Again, check with your professor to see if the bundled items are necessary. If not, you can often buy the book without the bundled items, a less expensive option.

Worth the walk
You don’t necessarily have to go online to find cheaper books. You can often just go to stores off campus that sell textbooks for less money.

“My second semester of school, I discovered a bookstore in downtown Washington, D.C., that had used books that were less expensive than my campus store,” says Polk. The money she saved was worth the hassle of going off campus, she says.

If you plan to work while you’re in school, you also can look for a job in the library or a campus bookstore. Such a job might afford you the opportunity to take books out before other students or to buy books at a discount. In a sense, you can make money while saving money on textbooks.

Another way to save money is to make money on your own books. If you can sell your books before the next edition comes out, you can get more money for them. Also, the better condition you keep your books in, the more they will be worth when you’re ready to sell.

Finally, when looking at your syllabus, see if there’s a book that you’re not going to get to until the last couple weeks of class. “You don’t always get through all of the course material, and if there is a book that you’re probably not going to read, it’s going to be the book at the end of the course,” says Tenabe. “So if you’re stretched for cash and you can only afford four out of the five, leave off the last book you’re going to read in class, because you might not even get to it.”

Tamara E. Holmes is a freelance writer based in Maryland