Here’s reassuring proof that today’s college students are picking up some valuable money-smarts before they graduate and head out to the real world: While the average price of a new textbook continues to climb (to $65 in 2010-11 at campus bookstores, up from $56 in 2006-07) , students are actually spending less on required course materials ($655, on average, in 2010-11, down from $702 in 2006-07).
Federal action has helped. Thanks to rules that went into effect in July 2010, colleges must provide a list of required books prior to course registration, giving students more time to find the best deals out there.
Armed with shopping lists of titles and ISBN numbers, students are skipping their college bookstores and shopping online ahead of time to save hundreds. Let us show you how.
Your first stop should be a price-comparison Web site that looks at a wide variety of online retailers. Sites such as AllBookstores.com, CampusBooks.com and DealOz.com compare prices on new and used books, rentals and e-books. We prefer CampusBooks.com for its straightforward presentation and simple navigation. All the sites ultimately redirect you to individual sellers’ Web sites, where you can purchase your books directly.
In general, used textbooks provide the best value, according to Jeff Nobbs, CEO of Extrabux.com. His site’s analysis found that renting textbooks can save about 37% upfront compared with buying used textbooks, but the option to sell your used texts after you’re done with them makes buying used books more cost-effective in the end.
For example, a used copy of Biology (eighth edition), required for many intermediate-level biology courses, costs $23.00 plus $3.99 for shipping at Half.com, for a total of $26.99. Sell it back at the end of the semester for $16.25 (with free shipping) to Textbooks.com, and your bottom line for the used book is $10.74. Or you can rent the same book for $21.92 with free shipping from and to CampusBookRentals.com. (The cost of textbook rentals can go up if you return books late. Policies vary by retailer.)
Extrabux.com found that Amazon.com has the best buyback prices -- about 20% more than the runner-up, Abebooks.com. However, Amazon doesn’t pay cash for textbooks. Instead, the site issues an Amazon gift card in the amount owed.
Schedule your textbook purchases and returns to save the most money. The best week to buy or rent textbooks is August 20-26 because supply is at its peak, according to Nobbs. Likewise, January 7-13 is the best week to sell your books because that’s the beginning of the spring semester, when retailers restock their inventories.
E-Books: An emerging option
The idea of not having to lug around a pile of books is becoming more appealing to students. In a Student Monitor survey this spring, only 39% of students said they “prefer traditional print textbooks,” down from 59% three years ago . However, many students remain deterred by the costly prerequisite for buying or renting e-books: an e-reader or tablet computer to enable classroom access to your texts. For instance, the Kindle DX, Amazon’s tablet geared toward e-textbook buyers, retails for $379; the newest version of Apple’s iPad starts at $499.
Electronic texts themselves aren’t necessarily cheaper, and they often cost more than their used print counterparts. And many texts simply aren’t yet available in electronic format.
You can rent or buy e-textbooks from retailers such as CourseSmart.com, Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble. Each site has its own app for viewing your books, and most apps are available for all platforms. These apps allow you to search within your books, make notes, bookmark pages, highlight and copy text, and even watch related videos.
On the iPad, Apple’s iBooks app allows students to read and interact with digital textbooks purchased from its iBookstore. The per-textbook cost is capped at $14.99, but so far only K-12 e-books are available. For college texts, the free app Inkling offers more than 100 popular e-textbooks for undergraduate, business and medical students. You can purchase e-books in full or for as little as $1.99 per chapter.
One advantage of rented e-textbooks: no returns. Instead of rushing back to the campus bookstore at the end of the semester to return your rented books, your license will simply expire and you’ll lose access to the e-textbook.
To help you better understand your options, we searched for the best prices for Financial Accounting (seventh edition), a popular undergraduate business textbook at Cornell University. The book runs a whopping $255.50 new, $139.00 used and $76.00 as a rental at the campus bookstore. Here’s how our recommended sites stacked up:
New: $170.00 plus $3.99 shipping (redirected to Amazon.com from CampusBooks.com)
Used: $98.50 plus $3.95 shipping (redirected to AbeBooks.com from CampusBooks.com)
Rental: $60.31 for 125 days (free shipping, redirected to BookRenter.com from CampusBooks.com)
PC or Mac digital: $127.48 for 180 days (no shipping, Barnes & Noble NOOK Study)
Tablet digital: $159.99 (no shipping, Inkling.com. Also available for $17.99 per chapter)
New condition: $97.81 (free shipping, redirected to Amazon.com from CampusBooks.com)
Good condition: $97.81 (free shipping, redirected to Amazon.com from CampusBooks.com)