How To Cut the Cost of Textbooks

8 Practical Tips To Save Money on College Textbooks

A student on campus carries textbooks.
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Many college students feel panic set in after seeing their textbook bill for the upcoming semester. In 2020-2021, full-time, undergraduate students at four-year universities spent approximately $1,240 per year on books and supplies.

Although college textbooks are starting to decrease in price due to the growing number of alternatives, they do still give many students sticker shock. A 2020 report by U.S. Pirg found that 65% of students had not bought their assigned textbooks because they were too expensive.

But why are college textbooks so expensive in the first place, and how can you find cheaper ones? Here’s a bit of background on the textbook industry and eight practical ways you can cut textbook costs—and lessen the price tag panic.

Key Takeaways

  • While college textbook sellers once enjoyed a captive market with sky-high prices, student spending on course materials is now dropping as textbooks become available in more formats and on more channels.
  • You can save on textbooks by shopping around to find the best price.
  • Instead of buying new hard-copy textbooks, cut costs by renting, buying used or digital e-textbooks, and finding textbooks at the library.

Why Are Textbooks So Expensive?

The cost of college textbooks increased by 88% from 2006 to 2016, growing at a faster rate than college tuition and fees. Reports show that soaring prices were due to the frequent printing of new editions and the bundling of books with pricey software. In addition, the college textbook industry had been largely dominated by five companies that controlled 80% of the $3 billion market, which became the subject of an antitrust lawsuit filed in January 2020.

As the demand for more options in textbook formats and vendors has increased, however, the pricey trend is reversing. Textbook prices decreased by 26% between January 2017 and January 2019, according to a survey from the textbook price-comparison website CampusBooks.com. At the same time, the textbook rental market almost doubled, and e-book sales increased 95%.

How To Cut the Cost of Textbooks

While it has been a turbulent ride for college students struggling to fit the course materials they need into their college budget, the good news is that there are more digital solutions, online sellers, and rental opportunities for textbooks these days. Here are a few ways to cash in on the changes and lower your textbook costs.

Buy Used Textbooks

While used textbooks may have some highlighting or notes scribbled throughout, they often come at a discounted price. Be sure to verify the title you are considering is a compatible version of what’s required for your class. You can find used textbooks at on- and off-campus bookstores, Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and other online textbook retailers.

Consider Renting Textbooks

Instead of buying textbooks, you can often opt to rent them at a lower price. During the 2020-2021 academic year, the National Association of College Stores (NACS) reported that 35% of students rented textbooks.

Shop around to compare textbook rental offerings by searching for the book’s ISBN, then reading the fine print to learn about terms and cost. For example, look at shipping costs, late fees, and use rules (e.g., can you highlight within the book?).

Some textbook rental companies to check out are:

  • Amazon
  • CampusBooks
  • eCampus
  • Knetbooks
  • Valore Books
  • Chegg

Some electronic course materials require an access code. In that case, a rented textbook’s code will likely be used already and you will likely need to purchase the code separately.

Get the Digital Copy

Digital books (e-textbooks) don’t require printing or shipping so they often come at a lower price. If you don’t mind accessing your textbook through a screen, you may save by purchasing the digital version. You can buy e-textbooks from retailers such as Amazon, VitalSource, eCampus, Textbooks.com, and Barnes & Noble.

Use the Library

Don’t forget about your school’s library as well as the public library. You may be able to find copies of books or supplemental materials there, which can help you cut down on costs. 

Get the Books Early

Get a head start on shopping to beat the pack. If there are any used copies available, for example, the early bird has a better chance of getting one. Early shopping can also give you time to comparison-shop online and off, and snag a good deal before someone beats you to it.

Look at Open-Source Options

In recent years, there has been a move toward colleges providing courses with free and online Open Educational Resources. Also known as OERs, these educational materials consist of  textbooks, software, and other tools that are not restricted under copyright laws. That means they are free for student access.

Achieving the Dream Open Educational Resources (OER) Degree Initiative consists of 38 community colleges across 13 states that are committed to redesigning courses and degree programs so they replace proprietary textbooks with open educational resources. Inquire about your college’s OER initiatives.

Consider Inclusive Access Courses

Some college institutions are adopting an Inclusive Access model, in which online materials are included in the cost of tuition. The school makes bulk purchases of e-textbooks, which earns it a steep discount from the publisher. As long as the costs are “below competitive market rates,” they can legally be added to tuition costs and fees.

Claim the Costs on Taxes

Beyond saving when you initially buy your textbooks, you can also save at the end of the year. The IRS has two education tax credits for money spent on qualified education expenses, which include textbooks. You can also claim the credit if your expenses were paid by a third party such as a friend or relative.

The two credits available include the American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC) and the Lifetime Learning Credit (LLC). The AOTC offers up to a $2,500 credit per student, of which 40% is refundable. The LLC offers up to $2,000 per return and is not refundable. You’ll need to review the qualifications and terms to see which fits your situation.

When claiming the American Opportunity Tax Credit, you don’t have to buy the books from the school bookstore in order for your purchases to qualify.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Is it worth it to keep college textbooks?

In most cases, selling your college textbooks is the best route to help you recover some of your costs. Many students want to buy used books, so there is a market for them. However, if you think you will use the book again or it will provide value to you in the future, you may opt to keep it.

What is the average price of a textbook?

According to 2020 statistics, the average price of a hard-copy textbook was $84, while the average cost of an e-book was $38.

What is the average cost of textbooks per semester?

In 2020-2021, the average amount students spent on course materials per semester was $228.