10 Best Alternatives to Buying College Textbooks

buying and renting college textbooks

I’m a college professor and I hear it all the time: “Your textbooks are too expensive!”

Expect to fork out $100 – $250 for a textbook at college.

You might use the textbook to write a few 2000-word papers for your college class and then at the end of the semester, they’re done! You’ll put it on your shelf where it will collect dust for 20 years.

There are better alternatives to buying textbooks: buying, renting, loaning, borrowing, using the library … and more!

Here are the 10 best alternatives to buying college textbooks.

Alternatives to Buying College Textbooks

1. Rent a Textbook!

Textbook rentals work like any other rental. You rent the textbook from a reputable textbook rentals company and they’ll post it to your house. You can set the length of the rental (30 to 150 days) and at the end of the rental period, you send it back!

You’ll save tons of money. You won’t be forking out ridiculous amounts of cash for textbooks each semester and can instead use that money on … well, beer?

The downside of textbook rental is that you won’t be able to mark the book. If you’re crazy about highlighting and underlining to take notes, this isn’t for you. Instead, consider using post-it notes that you can rip out when it’s time to send the book back.

2. Get them Second-Hand

Second-hand textbooks can be bought for quite cheaply on the internet. They’re books other students are trying to offload at the end of the semester. They’ve reached a point where the book is almost entirely worthless to them anymore, so the books go for a great rate.

The biggest advantage of second-hand books is that you can do what you want with them. You can scrawl on them all you like. You can highlight key passages and write notes in the margins. Then, at the end of the semester, you can either sell it off or keep it for yourself.

Hot Tip: The best way to get a cheap book is to search on CampusBooks.com. Use their “buy or rent” search bar to find out whether it’ll be cheaper for you to buy a second-hand textbook or to rent it. They’ll send you straight to the most affordable source for your book.

3. Buy then Sell at the end of the Semester

Selling at the end of the semester is a great way of recovering your money. For compulsory textbooks for a course, this might work well. There are always students coming into the class next semester who will need the textbook, meaning there’s a tailor-made marketplace just for you.

If your professor is smart, she’ll set up an exchange such as a Facebook group to connect you up with the new students in the class.

You could also email your professor and ask them to post an advert or announcement for you on the course’s online web page.

If you’re thinking of selling at the end of the semester, keep in mind that you’ll want to keep the book in good condition. Don’t scrawl on it too much and if you do so, do it in pencil so you can erase those marks before selling.

4. Try Using Google Books ‘Preview’ Options

Google Scholar and Google Books are the world’s best online sources for accessing scholarly texts.

I’ve used the Google Books preview option if I’ve only wanted to read a chapter (or even a half chapter) of a book, but not the whole thing.

Simply search the name of the book in the Google Books, then click on the book you’re after.

Google books can take you to a preview of the book if you click on the image of the book itself. Note that not all books have a preview provided, so this method won’t work 100% of the time.

Once you’ve got into the book preview, search through to the pages you’re after. Again, they don’t show you everything, so you’ll need to be in luck to actually get a preview of the chapter you’re after.

Nonetheless, it worked for me dozens of times when was writing my PhD and needed sources late at night!

5. Use Google Scholar

Google Scholar is another great, and often free, online source for finding things to read for university.

No, you won’t get textbooks here. But if your goal is to find a source that you can cite in your paper, you’re in the right place!

Many of the things you’ll find on google scholar are hidden behind paywalls, but not everything!

Once you’ve done your search, a mountain of results for scholarly texts will pop up. Keep an eye on the little piece of text that appears next to many search results that says: [pdf] or [html]. That link will take you directly to the article so you can start reading it!

6. Use the University’s Physical Library

The university library is the most under-used resource on your campus. Worst of all, you’ve already paid your tuition fees to access it!! So, use it … use it a lot!

The library should have your assigned textbooks in there, somewhere. At the start of every new semester, I used to get an email something to this effect:

“Hi Chris, we wanted to check what textbooks you are assigning to your class? If we don’t have them in the library, we will buy a set so students have access.”

In other words, the library makes a big effort to make sure you have access to textbooks.

The biggest challenge you’ll have is getting to the textbooks before every other student in your course has gone in and loaned it already. So, get in early, loan it, and then renew your loan before it’s overdue!

Hot Tip: If your library has the textbook but it’s out on loan, put a hold on it. This will prevent the person who currently has a book from renewing their loan. Your friendly librarian should be able to help you figure out how to put a loan on a textbook.

7. Use your University’s Online Library

Every university has a library web page where there’s a search bar. That search bar will give you access to many thousands of valuable texts.

Increasingly, libraries are offering eBook versions of textbooks. These eBook versions are accessible on your laptop and you don’t even have to go into university to get them!

This is a convenient option for a student writing a paper or studying for an exam late at night. Instead of having to prepare ahead, go to the library, collect your textbook, and beat everyone else in your class to the library to get it in the first place … you can just access the textbook where and when you need it.

8. Just use your Assigned Readings

Your professor will likely assign weekly readings. These will be a collection of newspaper articles, book chapters, and journal articles that your teacher thinks are relevant to your course.

If you can’t afford the textbook, have a talk to your professor. Ask them if it’s possible to use non-textbook resources such as the assigned weekly readings and still do well in the subject.

Sometimes, your professor will say something like: “No, you’ll need to read the assigned textbook in order to do well in the exam.”

Fair enough – you’ll need to get the textbook. If they insist that you read the textbook, chances are they’ve based the exam on the textbook.

But sometimes the professor will say: “Oh, no, go ahead and use other sources!” This answer is much more likely if the course assessments are written essays that you do at home then submit at a certain date, e.g. in the social sciences and humanities.

9. Email your Professor

Email your professor and let them know your circumstances. Let’s face it, some snarky professor might get back to you with a mean or dismissive response. But a good professor will try to have a brainstorm of some alternatives for you.

You could:

  • Ask what a good alternative to the textbook might be (they may say there’s a good alternative in the library for you).
  • Ask if they have a stack of old copies of the textbook, and if you could borrow one for a week.
  • Ask if they could get you in touch with a student from a previous semester who may be able to lend you a copy.

This one’s a bit hit-or-miss depending on how empathetic and helpful the professor is, but it’s worth a shot.

10. Share a Purchase with a Friend

Lastly, if you’ve got a friend in your class, cut the cost of textbooks in half by sharing the purchase 50/50.

The struggle here would be knowing how to split your time with the textbook. Both you and your friend will likely want it at the same time: the week before the exam!

But there’s a creative (and beneficial!) way around that, too.

Study together! Studying together has awesome benefits, such as:

  • You’ll have someone to bounce ideas off.
  • Your friend can test your knowledge, and you can test your friend’s knowledge.
  • You’ll have an accountability partner to force you to stay on task.
  • Studying may actually become much more fun!
  • You’ll get a first-hand account of someone else’s perspective on a topic.
  • You can also share and discuss your class notes.

Final Thoughts

Textbooks are stupidly expensive. In fact, I’ve stopped assigning them to my students because I think the costs are so outrageous.

But a creative and intelligent college student should be able to come up with a good alternative to buying full-priced textbooks (and let’s face it, you’re in college … so you better be at least a little intelligent).

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Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]

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