Thursday, August 6, 2015

How to Save Money on Textbooks

As school is starting back, for the first time in 20 years* I am not going to be sitting in a classroom on a daily basis. This is such a bitter-sweet feeling, it is so nice knowing that I will not have homework every night, but work is obviously a much bigger responsibility than just going to class everyday. Not to say that class isn't important! One thing I know I will not miss is having to buy hundreds of dollars of books every semester. Luckily in all my years of school, I essentially became a professional student, and with that came a lot of experience in buying textbooks and trying to get the best deal. Here are some of the ways that I managed to save money every semester when the time came to buy books -

Personal Preferences to Consider:

1. When do you need these books? 

The amount of time you need for shipping can limit your choices on where you purchase your books. Don't forget that some classes will have assigned reading before the first day of school, so you might need to build in a few days before the actual first day of class. On the other hand, if you have a friend in the class who would let you borrow her book for one assignment, you might have a few extra days.

2. Are you willing to purchase a used book? 

If so, consider just how used you can live with. There are great variances in highlighting and notes from book to book.
If not, consider that some used books look new because the previous owner didn't make any markings, but they are still technically used.
I tend to prefer new to slightly-used just because I like to organize my thoughts (and my books) in my own way. However, with careful selection I've purchased many used books without any real issues.

3. Would you rather rent or purchase? 

This is something that can be decided on a book-to-book, class-to-class basis, but is something to consider, especially if the resale value is likely to be very low.

Comparing Prices

The (obvious?) first step is to realize that you should be comparing prices across multiple sources. What looks like a good deal, might pale in comparison you can find somewhere else. But - keep in mind that a lot of third party sellers (i.e. not Amazon or Barnes & Noble) will have shipping costs as well, so make sure you calculate that into the total price/book.
As far as where to look - here are my personal preferences, and what I've found to be the most cost-effective over the years.

Amazon is always the first place I look. I mean, lets be honest, there are very few things that you can't find on Amazon. Plus, it is so easy to throw things in your cart for later so that you can keep track of everything in one place. Another major factor in my obsession with Amazon is my Prime membership. If you are a student, you can get Prime for half the regular price - and it is well worth it in my opinion. Especially when it comes to ordering textbooks because shipping can be so expensive, AND with Prime you can usually get your books with FREE 2-day shipping, which is great for the peace of mind. Amazon also gives you the ability to buy used books from other sells - again convenient because you can mix and match new and used depending on your preference, just be sure you are paying attention to the "Condition" of the used books.
There are of course some downsides to Amazon - 2-day shipping is obviously fast, but if you need your books within the next day, it might not be soon enough and it is a steep increase from free 2-day, to "Next-Day." Not to mention that if you go the used route, you aren't actually going to have a chance to inspect the books before you buy - this will depend on your personal preference and how comfortable you are with that. is eBay's book website. It's fairly easy to use, and like Amazon's used section, divides the books up based on the "Condition" indicated by the seller. I have found some great deals on, but then for whatever reason, some books will be priced at the same or more than a brand new one. The biggest catch here is the shipping - there's just no way around it. And unless you get lucky, all of your books are likely to come from different sellers, which means you could end up paying a lot in shipping.

Buy from Other Students at Your School
This option will greatly depend on your school and what kind of classes you'll be taking. When I was in undergrad at Furman there was a website just for us where we could buy and sell books among other Furman students. (Not sure if that's still a thing anymore.) In law school we have a Facebook group for each class, generally used for class specific or school-wide announcements. At the beginning and end of each year, it is flooded with offers to buy or sell certain books for the upcoming year/semester. The convenience factor here is hard to beat, usually students would just plan on a time to meet-up and make the exchange. I did this on a few occasions and, like I said, very convenient. Plus, at least at our school, that generally meant you would have the same professor as the student selling the book and it gives you a chance to find out a little more about the class. The obvious negative here is that the books are used, but that doesn't necessarily mean they've been written all over or highlighted on every page. I've also found this to be a very cost efficient purchase because the selling student usually just wants to get it off his hands and out of the way, hoping to make some money in the process, but without the hassle of shipping.

School Bookstore
I remember my first semester as a Freshman going to the school's bookstore because I didn't know what else I was supposed to do. I later (next semester) learned that on-line book purchases were the way to go in order to save some money. However, that was almost ten years ago (y'all, I'm getting old), and a lot has changed since then. Bookstores quickly saw a decline in their sales and the prices have become much more comparable to their on-line counterparts. My first semester in law school I purchased about half of my books from the school bookstore because there were a lot of new editions on our list, which meant there wasn't really a used market yet. In that case, it made sense for me to go to the bookstore because I was going to be paying the same new price and I could have my books instantly. If you're going the used route - or at least willing to - the school bookstore is a great idea because you have the ability to flip through the books on the shelf to see if the markings in the books are something you can live with.

Nine times out of ten, renting is going to cost less upfront. However, if you think you want to rent, keep in mind there are a lot of restrictions that can come with it. There are almost always rules on how much you can write in it, if at all, and a certain date that you will have to return it by. Usually the return date isn't an issue, but when you are in graduate school and the dates are based on undergraduate classes, occasionally the book is supposed to be returned before you even take the exam. Another issue with renting is that at the end of the semester you have to return the book. I know, duh. But, what I mean is, you don't even have the option to sell it back if you wanted to. Last fall I bought one of my books for around $150, and resold it for $145, whereas if I'd rented it would have been $80 upfront, and no resale. I understand its a risk to assume you'd be able to sell it back, and generally the return isn't that good, but it can be just as risky not giving yourself the chance to sell it back.
One very important thing to keep in mind if you are considering renting is whether or not you will need the book for the entire year. In law school especially, there are a lot of classes in the first year that last for the full year over both semesters. When you choose to rent a book it is on a semester by semester basis, which means you'd actually have to rent it twice, which is likely to cost just as much as buying the book in the first place.

Set Up an Excel Sheet (or not)

{Disregard if you're not as organizationally obsessed as I am} After you've looked at some of the options above (and anywhere else you come across), you should make some kind of chart. I liked to have all of the books listed in an Excel spreadsheet, with a column for each store/website. Then all you have to do is fill in the prices for each book at each place and you can quickly compare who as the best deals.
This can also serve as a sort of checklist for you to make sure that you've purchased all of the required books. I've found the hardest part about finding the best deal is making sure that some of the books don't fall through the cracks because I didn't knock out the whole list at one place.
Here is the spreadsheet I made for my 1L semester. As you can see I listed the ISBN numbers, rather than the name of the book since that is more reliable when you are going from website to website, or store to store. I honestly can't remember what the colors/bold represented. I think the red meant that it was required, and that the bold numbers meant that was the one I'd ordered. Either way, some kind of system like that is very helpful. I also printed this when I went to the bookstore just so that I could remember what the prices were elsewhere.

BUY your Books 

Choose One or Two Sources

When you're deciding where to buy your books, I would narrow it down to one or two places, unless there just happens to be a really great deal on a certain book somewhere else. Narrowing it down to one or two might mean you end up paying $5 or $10 more, but when all of your books are delivered in just a couple of shipments, rather than 8 different ones, it is much easier to keep track of the books you've received and the books that are still in transit, or that still need to be ordered. Another benefit to ordering just from one or two places is that you minimize shipping costs - in case you can't tell I really hate shipping and will look for any reason to not pay for it if I don't have to. 

Make Your Decision 

After you've had time to explore your options - and maybe organize them - just go ahead and place the order/contact the seller. I know the prices on Amazon tend to fluctuate on a daily basis, and its always possible a new book will be added to the used marketplaces. But, if you wait more than a day or two - especially if you are buying used - the books might not be available anymore, or only at a higher price. You'll also drive yourself crazy if you are constantly checking to see if the have changed at all.

I know this might seem like a lot of information, but if you are truly trying to save money when buying your textbooks, it can be a bit overwhelming to keep up with everything. If you have any more questions, I'd be happy to answer them!  Do y'all have any tried and true tips for saving money on textbooks?

Have a Great Day, Y'all! 

* I took one year off between my Masters and Law degree to work as an accountant, but otherwise I have been in school every year from the Fall of 1993 through the Spring of 2015. I told you, old. 

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