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College Textbook Shopping

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Textbook Overview

College textbooks are ridiculously expensive and an overlooked financial burden for students and parents. According to a 2016 study by the National Association of College Stores, the average cost of a new textbook was $80, while used textbooks were $51. For many students these numbers are far higher, as math, science, and engineering textbooks can cost upwards of $200 each. If you take a standard 15 hour course load you’ll most likely end up spending anywhere between $350 to $600 per semester. Keep in mind, campus bookstores are absurdly expensive and should only be used when you can’t find the book anywhere else. You can save hundreds of dollars by buying online, renting, buying used, or using Ebooks.

Campus Bookstore

Online shopping has become more popular, with 33% of parents and 41% of students purchasing their college textbooks at off-campus book stores in 2017. Students and parents are turning away from campus bookstores due to high prices, long lines, frequent supply shortages, and strict no-return policies. Amazon and Chegg have become the most frequently used alternatives by offering free/fast shipping, lower prices, and better availability.

  • You should always check to see if a textbook is available online before making the decision to shop at an on-campus bookstore.
  • If you decide to shop online you should always compare prices between different online retailers in order to get the best deal.

  • You need to purchase your textbooks as soon as you find out what's required regardless of where you decide to shop. We’ve noticed a lot of students put off purchasing textbooks and in many cases, weeks go by before they finally get around to buying them.

Textbook Retailers

Most textbook websites offer the same books but their prices vary drastically.  You should compare prices between several websites to find the best available offer before making a purchase. We’ve covered the most popular, reliable, and fairly priced websites available to students. Our soon to be released textbook price comparison tool will allow you to easily compare prices between Amazon and Chegg so you can find the best deal available.

1. Amazon Textbooks

Amazon is the largest online textbook rental company, accounting for 36% of total rentals in the 2016-2017 school year. Their fast shipping, massive library, and great prices have made them a top choice among students. The 30 day return policy is also a huge lifesaver, as students who switch classes or find out a textbook isn’t required aren’t stuck footing the bill. All you have to do is print the free shipping label and drop it off at your nearest UPS store to get a full refund. If you plan on buying or renting through Amazon you should take advantage of their 6 month free trial of Prime Student to get free 2-day shipping. You can also sell your textbooks to Amazon through their competitive buyback program, regardless of where you originally purchased them! Payment is given to you in the form of Amazon gift cards which can be used towards anything on their site or next semesters textbooks.

2. Chegg Textbooks

Chegg is another great place to rent and buy textbooks. A major perk of ordering from Chegg is that access to the Ebook for 7 days while your book rental or purchase is in the mail.  The Ebook trial can be a lifesaver if your professor assigns homework or readings before your textbook arrives. If you opt to save money by buying eBooks, Chegg also has a unique eBook reader that can be combined with Chegg Study to access their textbook solutions service.  Chegg also has a 21-day return policy with free shipping and a buyback program that pays you cold hard cash for most textbooks.

3. Vital Source Textbooks

Vitalsource is an online digital textbook retailer that offers competitive prices and a 14 day return policy. You can either purchase eBooks or use their flexible rental system that offers 60, 90, 120, or 180 day options. Make sure your rental period covers the entire semester but keep in mind the shorter rental periods are great for saving money if you ever have to take a summer class or decide later on that you need a textbook.  Their eBook app, Bookshelf, also allows you to highlight text, take notes, and search for specific content.

Renting vs. Buying

Renting is the preferred choice of students, with 66% reporting they will rent more textbooks in order to save money. In most cases renting is definitely cheaper but there will times when rental options are unavailable or an online code is required for a program/online learning tool. Publishers usually offer discounts on new textbook and online code packages, so you may end up spending more money if you purchase them separately.

  • Always compare prices between buying and renting options in order to find the best deal. If online codes are required check to see if combo packages are available.
  • If you decide to rent your textbooks make sure to take good care of them. Returning a damaged rental will result in a replacement fee up to the original cost of the book.
  • If you decide to buy your textbooks you need to account for depreciation and how you’ll sell them back at the end of the semester. Chegg and Amazon list their buyback price and usually offer you more money than selling to your campus bookstore. You can also use college facebook groups to sell your textbooks to other students.

New vs. Used Books

Buying used is an easy way to save money, with 76% of students reporting they are more likely to buy used textbooks to help stretch their budget. Aside from the occasional markings or highlighted text from previous owners, used textbooks are generally in good condition. Unless this bothers you, an online code is required, or used options are unavailable, we recommend staying away from overpriced new textbooks.

  • Once again you should always compare prices. In some cases, buying a used book and the online access code separately will still be less expensive than new combo packages.
  • Most online retailers have quality assurances when it comes to used textbooks. It’s very unlikely you’ll receive a used book in poor condition or with annotations all over the place.
  • Used textbooks are generally about 50% cheaper which can result in hundreds of dollars in savings over the course of your college career. You can also purchase textbooks from students by making a post on your college’s facebook group.

Hardcopy vs. E-book

Digital textbooks have increased in popularity, with 23% of students having purchased eTextbooks in the 2016-2017 school year. Since eBooks are often significantly cheaper than physical textbooks and don’t take up any space, students with tight budgets are jumping ship. Despite the growth in eBook sales, the majority of students still prefer traditional textbooks for assigned readings and studying. Your decision on what type to purchase basically comes down to your prefered learning style and how cash strapped you are. If you end up deciding to get an eBook, you might also want to consider picking up an e-reader like the Amazon Fire Tablet. While you can read most eBooks on your laptop, a handheld device is going to make reading a whole lot easier.

  • You should check to see how significant the price gap is between the digital and physical versions. If you are only saving a few dollars it’s probably more beneficial to just get the traditional textbook.
  • You should keep in mind most professors who give open book in class quizzes and tests don’t allow laptop use, so if you have an eBook you’ll be out of luck.
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