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Is Renting Textbooks Really Cheaper Than Buying?


photo: djfoobarmatt

For college kids, this week is all about finals and holiday planning. But before you know it, winter break will be over and you’ll face the good old college ritual of textbook shopping for the new semester.

Textbooks are expensive and can set you back hundreds of dollars: on a tight student budget, that’s no chump change.

One money-saving tips we hear often these days is to consider renting textbooks instead of buying. But depending on resale value of used textbooks and whether you’ll use them for multiple semesters, renting might not necessarily be the most wise decision financially.

Textbook rental prices vary, generally ranging from one third to half the price of a new book, according to Charles Schmidt, a spokesman for the National Association of College Stores (NACS). Used textbooks are generally 75% of the new textbook cost.

So let’s do some math. Let’s say you buy a $100 textbook used for $75. At the end of the semester, you sell it back to the bookstore for $50. (According to Schmidt, students can sell their books back to college stores for up to half the new book price.)

Your net cost was $25. The rental cost of the book would have been $33. You made $8 by buying and reselling the textbook.

However, in this case you still could have been better off renting. You had to pay more money initially. And reselling the book might not be an option if it was an older edition that isn’t going to be used by professors for much longer. This would have made the rental $42 cheaper than buying a used textbook.

But let’s say you are taking Chemistry I and Chemistry II and you’ll use the same textbook for both semesters. You’d pay $50 per semester to rent your textbook, totaling the full price of a new book. If you bought the book used for $75, you’d have saved $25.

That said, should you ever consider renting? Absolutely. Here’s what you should know:

The market for textbook rentals has grown rapidly in recent years. Schmidt says he has seen a 500% increase in the number of college stores in NACS that offer this option, compared to last fall. And there are certainly opportunities to rent text books online (usually from the same vendors that sell them).

When you rent a textbook, expect a similar experience to buying used: textbooks likely get rented several times in their lifetime. You could see highlights and CDs and supplements may or not be included based on the store’s discretion and whether you are the first to rent the textbook.

Additional Costs

Consider the shipping cost as part of your price when renting online. Depending on how long you are willing to wait for your textbook and which online store you choose, it may actually be free. But if you waited until the last minute to order, for example on Friday and need your book by Monday, you will generally pay $15 to $20 for expedited services. Free return shipping is also important.

It’s best to order early, in case your book arrives late or gets lost in the mail.

Return Policies

A 30-day return policy is vital in case you drop a course or you find your teacher tests by lecture notes instead of the information in your textbook.

And if you do use the textbook, mark your calendar with the date by which you need to return it. If you rent from an online store, you will have to pack and ship it back, so factor in several additional days for it to be delivered back.

Other Ways to Save

For my last four semesters of college, I spent a total of $200 on textbooks after subtracting the amount I received when selling them from what I spent to buy them. I compared used book prices online and in bookstores on and around campus. Sometimes I was able to resell my textbooks online for more than I paid for them. But doing this involved a larger investment of money and time — and sometimes I went without a textbook for the first week of class.

No matter which way you choose to get your textbooks, always verify with your professor a week or two prior to classes which books you actually need. Will you use your textbook? Will you need the supplements? Is this the last semester this textbook will get used? You may find based on your textbook needs that you’ll rent some books, buy a few used books, and occasionally buy new textbooks.

Reyna Gobel is a freelance journalist who specializes in financial fitness. She is also the author of Graduation Debt: How To Manage Student Loans and Live Your Life.

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