College Books: To Buy New, Used, or To Rent? E-books? (A Minimalist Approach)

As I start my last semester of University, I would like to think that I have gained a bit of knowledge on student textbooks.

From my standpoint as a semi-minimalist, I only want to keep things that I am using or will likely be using in the very near future. This absolutely applies to textbooks. Generally speaking, the options you have are to buy new, buy used, rent new, or rent used. E-books also fall into this mixture too.

Personally, I would NOT recommend buying a brand new textbook. The prices are often ridiculously high. The exceptions to this would be 1). The book is literally not available any other way or 2). The price difference is extremely small between new and used. I’ve had both exceptions happen to me during my school years. One book I had to purchase was either $188 new with 2 day shipping, or $185 used with 2 week shipping. At that point, the cost hurt either way and I could have my book almost immediately so I chose the new copy. Generally speaking though, used books tend to be a LOT cheaper.

A very common minimalist approach I hear is to always rent books. I personally disagree with this, and hear me out. As I took co-ops and internships, I noticed that many full time workers (engineers also) still had a few college textbooks on their desks, including middle-aged employees. I asked several if they thought this would be a good idea, and they all said absolutely yes they were very happy they’d kept a few textbooks. This is a time that thought needs to go into your process when considering renting textbooks OR e-books.

  • Will this textbook potentially be used multiple semesters? My Chemistry book was used for two semesters (Chemistry 1 and Chemistry 2) and my Calculus book was used for three! (Calc 1, 2, & 3). If the book is going to be used multiple semesters, buy the book used. Otherwise you have to pay to rent the book twice, which often can cost more than just buying the book used.
  • Is this a book I might need to take a lot of notes in? Sticky notes are great, but I like really highlighting and writing notes into the text. Renting policies differ at bookstores, but if you know you are going to write moderately to heavily, buying may be the better option for you. As far as e-books go, taking notes is not easy. There can be tools for it within each book but the notes never seemed to stick out to me like they do handwritten against a hard copy.
  • Am I accident prone? While I don’t wish spilling coffee or water on a textbook to anyone…it happens. If you are worried about this it may be better to play it safe and purchase a book. Renting contracts usually have a max amount of wear and tear allowed before you have to purchase the book, at their cost, which is usually really expensive. This is also what I’m referring to with the note taking. This is a time when using an e-book can be great!
  • Is this book relevant to my future? As I mentioned before when talking to engineers, they were all very happy that they had kept some textbooks. This doesn’t mean they kept the Intro to Psychology textbook. It means they kept a select major-specific few that each anticipated to be relevant to his/her future. E-books can expire depending on the package, so check on that if you are considering this.
  • Is a new edition of this book coming out soon? This is often a really hard one to answer as publishers don’t necessarily let us know in advance. Personally I try to buy books and re-sell them at the end of the semester. I’ve actually made money by doing this. The problem with new editions is, once a new edition of a textbook comes out, the old one is basically worthless. A book that may have cost you $150 is now probably only worth $20-$30, even if you bought yours brand new.

Ways to SAVE on Textbooks:

  • Rent where you can: follow the steps above and if it makes sense to rent, do it! I’m renting a book for Intro to Sociology because even on Amazon the book was going to cost me $130 to buy, but only $30 to rent! I definitely will not be using this book in my future, so renting was the only thing that made sense.
  • Buy Used online:  I 100% recommend buying books on Amazon.com, that is how I purchased 98% of my books in college. This includes all of the books I have opted to re-sell, and the ones I’m keeping. One suggestion I have is to look at the quality of the books offered. If a book is $30 cheaper than the next used one, make sure the seller lists the condition. You don’t want to pay for a book that is falling apart. I also use Amazon Student to get free 2-day shipping. If you have a college email account, this is MUCH cheaper per year than Amazon Prime. You can learn about it here: Amazon.com …I waited a year and wish I wouldn’t have! One other tip is to do this early so that if the seller takes awhile to ship the book, you still have plenty of time before classes start.
  • Buy Older Editions: This can be a great option at times, and a pain other times. As I mentioned above, older editions of books become “worthless.” That means as a buyer, you are getting a very low cost book. This can be a negative though if your homework is assigned from the book. Often the homework problems are different in each edition. This means you would have to find someone with the current book for every single homework assignment. Sometimes, however, professors use online homework, or their own homework. At this point the edition often does not matter. Check with the professor before doing this though. I know students who have been burned both ways.
  • Buy off of other students: Many schools have their own Craigslist-like website that is just for students at your college/university. Often students are trying to get rid of textbooks this way. Usually, these students are trying to just make some cash fast and sell them for WAY cheaper than you could find anywhere else! I was able to purchase the newest edition of a book for $25. This book was listed for $140 on Amazon used. When I got the book, it looked like the student had opened it only a handful of times. I used it ALL THE TIME and have kept it for later on. Total win!
  • Use E-Books: I say this with a warning…I do not like e-books. With my major I spend a lot of time in front of a screen already, and it is nice to give my eyes a rest and look at an “actual” book. However, they are extremely portable and can work in a pinch. They are also much cheaper. For one elective class I did use the e-book entirely, but that was because I barely referenced it because I found the class extremely easy.

This was a bit longer than expected but I hope this helped!

-Rachel

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