A Quick and Easy Guide to Buying Textbooks as an Undergrad

"Glasses Read Learn Book Text Highlighter Pen" by Hans is dedicated to the public domain under CC0.

“Glasses Read Learn Book Text Highlighter Pen” by Hans is dedicated to the public domain under CC0.

With my last semester at USC Upstate beginning next week, now seemed like a good time to publish this bit of advice for undergrads. In the almost eight years I’ve spent working on my BA, I’ve learned a thing or two about how to avoid buyer’s remorse. With the economy still in recovery, and textbook inflation since 1978 nearing 900%,* it is now more important than ever that students save money when and where they can. The following post contains my three-step book-buying process, plus a handy collection of related tips.

Step #1: Wait.

That’s it, all you have to do: just wait. Don’t have your books on the first day of class. Instead, go in, read the syllabus, and listen to the professor as she discusses it. If there are books you will be required to read and write about, put a pin in those: you’ll need them. Ask how the professor’s exam questions are split: what percentage are from class lectures vs. outside readings? If you will only be tested on your lecture notes, don’t bother getting the book unless you feel that you aren’t grasping the material. Also, make sure to ask if older editions are acceptable.

Step #2: Free is always better.

Just because you know which books you’ll need doesn’t mean you need to go running off to the campus bookstore posthaste. In fact, that’s a terrible idea. Instead, check to see if any libraries in your area have the books you need. Because university libraries seldom have multiple copies in their collections—meaning someone else will have likely snatched up the course text before you get there—public libraries will probably be your best bet here. Be sure you know exactly when and for how long you will need your books, and compare that time frame to the library’s checkout period. You want to get the most out of the books, but you also need to return them on time.

Step #3: Never buy new.

There are very few occasions when this step cannot be followed. That brand-new, $300 textbook can be rented for $150, or purchased as an E-book for $180. In most cases, however, an older—and much cheaper—edition can be found used for a fraction of the price. I don’t mean a paltry 10% discount, either. It’s incredibly easy to find a $70 literature anthology priced at $7 or less, shipping included; you just have to know where to look.

Tips

  • Saving money on books is most important during your first two years of university.
  • If the book in question is required for one of your major courses: buy, don’t rent, and don’t resell.
  • Anthologies and other collections are absolutely necessary to obtain.
  • Should a textbook come bundled with a computer access code, ask the professor if that program or site will be used for testing or graded assignments. If it isn’t, then save yourself the money and buy the book by itself.
  • Spend some of the money you save on a copy of The Elements of Style. Everyone has to write something—be it a text, email, article, or essay—every day. Set yourself apart from the pack by making yours grammatically sound.
  • Don’t worry about the condition of a used book. Anything listed as Acceptable or Fair is just as good as that Like New copy, which is selling for three times as much. Trust me: if it were saturated with deadly mold, the vendor wouldn’t hold on to it long enough to sell it.

*By contrast, the cost of buying a new home has only risen by 375%.


Did I miss anything in this guide? What has been your textbook-buying experience? Let me know in the comments!

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