It's College Textbook Time: Things to Consider before Classes Begin

Aug 18, 2015

MoneyLife100 Buying college textbooks used to be simple: professors told you what books to buy, and you went to the college bookstore and bought them. At the end of the course, you often had the option to sell them back. These days it’s a little different, and a lot more expensive. The estimated cost to students for textbooks for the 2015- 2016 academic year is $1,200.

Textbooks have always been a significant expenditure for college students, say financial planning experts at the Pennsylvania Institute of Certified Public Accountants (PICPA). Book costs line up right behind tuition and room and board. There are, luckily, many different options for students to consider. Renting and digital textbook alternatives, for instance, offer students new ways to meet their class requirements and potentially save money.

Where to Buy Textbooks

  • The campus bookstore. It’s local and likely has what you need, but it may not be at a price you can afford. Cruise through the aisles so you can compare as you continue your search.
  • Off-campus bookstores. These options range from small, local shops that might be able to special order items, to national chains. Some stores may even offer loyalty/reward programs for certain dollar amounts spent.
  • Textbook-specific websites. There are many textbook websites, as a quick online search will confirm. Talk to other students to see where they’re finding the best prices and most reliable service.
  • Name brand retailers. Amazon, eBay, and even Craig’s List can provide many direct-from-the-retailer options, as well as their marketplaces where individuals sell items.
  • Electronic textbooks. Instead of lugging your books around, consider purchasing and downloading what you need to an e-reader or tablet. You can’t resell an e-textbook at the end of the semester, but they can be up to 50 percent cheaper than a new, hardcopy book. If your reading list includes classic literature that is in the public domain, you’ll find websites where you can find free downloads.
  • Renting textbooks. You can now rent hardcopy textbooks instead of purchasing them. Companies that offer this service will take your order and deliver the books to you. At the end of the semester, you return them, and you’re done.
If you decide to purchase online, watch the shipping costs! They add up quickly and can erase your savings. Don’t forget to allow time for shipping so you have the materials when you need them. Finally, make sure the seller has positive feedback if you’re buying from an individual.

More Savings Ideas

  • Used books. Some students want to physically hold a book with pages. But before you buy new, find out if you can acquire a used copy.
  • The library. Most college libraries have a few copies of popular college textbooks. See if you can acquire one for the semester. If it’s held on reserve, drop by the library when you need to read a chapter.
  • Share. If you have a friend taking the same class, work out a study schedule and share the book.
  • Sell your books back. You’re not going to get rich at the end of the semester, but it beats having the books sit on your bookshelf if you don’t think you’ll ever use them again. Try selling them to your campus bookstore, posting notices in buildings, or selling via your own online marketplace on a reputable website.
  • Open source.  Open textbooks, a relatively new concept, allow students to choose the way they read -- whether it’s a free digital copy, a file they print themselves, or a paid print copy.

Your Books Are an Investment

You are spending a significant amount of money on textbooks, so treat the buying process like an investment. Look into all of the options and choose the one that makes the most financial sense.

For more personal financial planning advice for every stage of your life, including planning for college, visit

The Pennsylvania Institute of Certified Public Accountants (PICPA) is a premiere statewide association of more than 22,000 members working in public accounting, industry, government, and education. Founded in 1897, the PICPA is the second-oldest state CPA organization in the United States.

Money & Life Tips are a joint effort of the AICPA and the Pennsylvania Institute of Certified Public Accountants (PICPA), as part of the profession’s nationwide 360 Degrees of Financial Literacy program.