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College Textbooks: Rent or Buy?

Updated on May 26, 2013

Do you rent or buy your textbooks?

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Don't Waste Your Money!

Textbook buying can be tricky and expensive. Rentals are now frequently offered as a money-saving measure at college bookstores as well as Amazon. Is it too good to be true? It depends. Sometimes, it is in fact a very good deal for the student. Other times, you will end up having lost money compared to buying or buying and selling. Answer these questions for yourself before you take the plunge and start renting.

Have I read the rental terms?

Most rental programs are rather forgiving, but you need to make sure you can still do what you need to with the book. You should first check when you need to return the book. It is not unheard of for the due date to be right in the middle of finals week. Also, there are almost never multiple semester rentals, so that Biology textbook that you need for the entire year will require you to make two rental payments as well as switching the book out in the middle. Likewise, make sure you can use the book to its fullest; you want to make sure you can make notes, highlight, or fill out answers if applicable.

Have I shopped around?

Sometimes the rental prices at the bookstore are at or above the purchase prices at Amazon and other online retailers. It takes very little time and effort to check prices elsewhere, just be careful to get the right edition of the book you're looking for. This is also your chance to see what the book is worth if you were to sell it back. Amazon and others will openly advertise buyback prices on their textbooks. This will be important in being able to tell whether you end up paying less by selling back a book you own.

Do I need to keep this textbook?

There are a couple of reasons to think about this this way. I mentioned one: sometimes you work out of a textbook for more than one class in more than one semester. The reasons for not renting are obvious in this case. Likewise, you may need or want to keep the book for other reasons. If you are planning to pursue the subject further, you may need a book that contains foundational concepts or facts. In some disciplines, you may also anticipate simply loving a textbook. If you study philosophy, for instance, Plato's Republic is a book to buy, not rent.

Things to think about when deciding to keep or sell/rent

Important work in my discipline
For a required course that you wouldn't have taken anyway
Introductory text that you know will have important things to reference in future semesters
Introductory text you know you won't need to reference later
You are not sure: you can always make a book go from "keep" to "sell"
Books that are just plain expensive
Books you would have gotten regardless of being in this class (like great works of fiction)
Books that have little resale value (works of fiction)

Remember what time of the year you have to deal with selling and returning your books: during finals. You will probably be at the end of your rope at this point and will be hustling to finish up your other classes and/or trying to get home.

Can I and will I sell this textbook?

As alluded to earlier, you can sometimes make up for higher upfront costs on textbooks if you are able to sell them back later. You cannot just assume the book can be sold back. Many business textbooks, for instance, print new editions every year and the old ones are practically worthless. Many works of fiction also have little value on buybacks, so those books for literature class are likely to be better off rented. Likewise, ask yourself if you want to go through the process of taking your books to the bookstore to have them offer you buyback prices and compare those prices to one listed online. If you go with an online option, you will have to ship those books to the buyer. Some people will plan to sell their books back, but back out when it comes time to sell them back because of the time commitment.

Which one?

It is likely that the best financial decision when it comes to buying books will be a combination of buying and renting. Do not stress too much, though. Sometimes the potential savings are not so large that a mistake will really hurt you in the long run. On the other hand, a little diligence can go a long way over the long haul.


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    • jlongrc profile image

      Jacob Long 4 years ago from Memphis, TN

      Thanks a ton for your comment! I'm working on Ph.D apps as we speak, by the way :D

    • phdast7 profile image

      Theresa Ast 4 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      I'm a university professor (previous long-time student) and you ahve covered all the angles quite well. :) Good Hub.