September 27th, 2021

Consumer Intelligence

How to Cut Your Textbook Costs in Half --- or More

Kathryn Moody

By Kathryn Moody

Published August 25, 2014

How to Cut Your Textbook Costs in Half --- or More
With a little luck and a lot of digital savvy, today's college students may not have to lug a single hard-copy textbook around campus. But their course materials can still carry a heavy price tag.

Let us show you how to beat rising textbook prices (last year the average textbook cost $72 new, up from $68 the year before) by licensing e-books, tapping open-source course materials, and buying or renting used textbooks. These trends and tactics are paying off, with the average student actually spending less in total for their books each year, down to $638 in 2013 from $662 the year before and $702 six years ago, according to the National Association of College Stores.


Federal laws that went into effect in 2010 ensure that colleges provide a list of required materials before registration so students have time to search for the best prices. Armed with course book titles and ISBN numbers long before they hit campus, students can save hundreds. But in some cases, you might not need to spend at all. Before you buy anything, scour your syllabus. Some professors' class profiles may list "required" textbooks simply to fulfill a university mandate -- even if they have no intention of ever using the books in class. Other course materials, such as novels, while available at the campus bookstore and other retailers, can be borrowed free from libraries, either on campus or in your college town.


Students can now buy or license many textbooks electronically -- from online retailers such as CourseSmart, Inkling, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble -- downloading them to an e-reader app to read the books online or offline on a tablet or laptop computer or even a mobile phone. These apps allow students to search within their books, make notes, bookmark pages, highlight and copy text, and watch related videos. Some sites sell or license textbooks by chapter.

If you license your e-textbooks, your access to them will expire at the end of your rental term. Some e-book licenses are more expensive than renting a physical copy of the book, but you get additional note-taking functionality and related videos and tools.


Some professors may save you money by relying on free sites that publish peer-reviewed, open-source e-books. Professors can edit and customize the online material as needed for their classes. The open-source e-books are especially popular for basic subjects that don't require frequent new editions, such as math, which "hasn't changed in hundreds of years," says David Ernst, executive director of the open textbook initiative at the University of Minnesota, which serves four other colleges and a total of about 143,000 users.

OpenStax College, another popular provider of open-source textbooks, has more than 475 U.S. colleges participating in its program, including Ohio State University, Rice University, Georgia Tech and the University of Missouri.


For everything else you need, snoop online for the best deal on hard-copy books, then compare those prices against campus bookstores. Save on the cost of new books by buying used or renting. For example, Campbell Biology (10th Edition), a popular intro-level textbook, costs as much as $230 new. You can rent it instead for about $50, or buy it used for about $160. You can sell back the used textbook at the end of the semester for nearly the same price, so it ultimately costs you little more than the cost of shipping.

Indeed, used books often have the "lowest cost of ownership," says Ed Schlichenmayer, deputy CEO of the National Association of College Stores. Students seeking to spend the least up front will prefer renting textbooks, he says.

Turn to sites such as, and to compare prices of new, used, rental, international and e-book versions of books at a variety of online retailers. We've found the best rental prices on, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble. and also show you a list of retailers who will buy the book back from you.

The best time to sell back your books is at the end of the term, when college stores are restocking and will give the best prices, says Schlichenmayer.

While international editions are often cheaper (Campbell Biology's international edition costs only about $60), you may not be able to sell them back, and they may have different pagination than the U.S. editions. For some classes, that won't be an issue, but talk to your professors or others who have taken the class to see if you can take the risk.


For a quick read on how much you can save with different approaches and sites, take a look at our price comparison, as of August 19, for Accounting: What the Numbers Mean, 10th Edition, the newest version of a book used in a mid-level accounting class at the University of Texas at Austin, home of the best accounting program in the nation, according to U.S. News & World Report.


New: $189.73 (redirected from to Amazon Marketplace)

Used: $156.55 (redirected from to

Rental: $38.40 (redirected from to


E-book: $101.34 (


Good condition: $128.20 (redirected from to

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Kathryn Moody is a Contributing Writer at Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazine.