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Simple Way to Save Thousands of Dollars on College Textbooks

I don’t like paying full price for anything, which is actually one of the main reasons I co-founded Extrabux.com in 2006 while in college. During that time I figured out a (genius) system that saved me about $1,200 per year on textbook costs. I have the textbook buying system down to such a science that I’ll show you how to get your textbooks for about $22 each:

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We all know that a college education is expensive. According to The New York Times, 80% of college students graduate with more than $36,000 in loans. While we here at Extrabux can’t do much about lending rates or the job market awaiting grads, I can offer some advice to help students save hundreds of dollars on textbooks every semester.

The average undergrad can spend more than $1,000 each year on textbooks alone. While brick-and-mortar campus bookstores still draw a large amount of business, 30% of college students are now buying their textbooks online, where required reading often comes at a cheaper price.

But not all online textbook brokers are equal. Using online data that I’ve compiled from a number of sources, I crunched the numbers and created the definitive cost-saving guide that can help students cut their annual textbook expenses by 90%. Before I get into how students can save, let’s take a look at how   consumers typically shop for textbooks.

How do online consumers shop for textbooks?

There are three options for online textbook shoppers:

  1. Buy
  2. Rent
  3. Download

As you’ll see in the graph below, which I created using data from Google Trends, while textbook rentals are catching up, the vast majority of online consumers prefer to buy used textbooks, and for good reason (read on).

consumer searches2.jpg

The cheapest textbook sites

Half.com has the best prices on used textbooks. Chegg.com has the best prices for textbook rentals. As for new textbooks, students should simply avoid them at all costs.

In my quest to find the best way to buy textbooks online, I’ve checked in with a host of popular merchants to see how their rates stack up. In the graph below, I took the average price of a random sample of textbooks sold by all of the merchants selected.

cheapest prices to buy.png

My analysis confirms what I already learned from my college days: When it comes to textbooks, newer isn’t better—it’s just more expensive.

  • A new textbook costs about 50% more than a used textbook.
  • Half.com has the best prices on used textbooks.
  • Textbook rental sites like Chegg can provide big up front savings to students who don’t want to provide textbooks with a permanent home on their bookshelves.
  • Renting textbooks can save about 37% up front compared to buying textbooks used.

Given these numbers, I know what you’re thinking: Rent, don’t buy. Not so fast. Let’s take a look at the long-term savings when you buy your textbooks and sell them later.

Where to sell your old textbooks

Abebooks.com gives students the most cash for their textbooks.

So it’s time to get rid of old textbooks—now what? There are several websites that buyback student’s old textbooks. While most universities have textbook buyback programs, selling online pays more. Using the same sample set of textbooks as above, I’ve charted the average buyback price from each merchant below.

average buyback price.png

As you can see, students get about 20% more from Amazon than from the runner-up, Abebooks.com. However, it’s worth noting that Amazon doesn’t pay cash for textbooks. Instead, the site issues an Amazon gift card for the amount, which students can use to buy textbooks on Amazon the next semester (assuming they have old books lying around and they will need to buy textbooks next semester).

To simplify this decision-making process, I’ve created a chart to help students determine where to buy and where to sell, depending on whether they also need to buy textbooks, hock old ones or engage in any combination of the above. Think of it as the choose-your-own-adventure of buying and selling textbooks.

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Rent vs. Buy and Sell

Renting textbooks may save students some cash up front, but they’ll save a whopping 46% per semester by buying and selling textbooks as opposed to renting them.

How do students get the most money back for a textbook they don’t want to keep around?

To answer this question, I used the same textbook sample set as above, subtracted Abebooks.com’s  average buyback price from Half.com’s average used price for those textbooks and then compared that to Chegg’s average rental price for those textbooks. (Please excuse our math lesson).

buy and sell vs rent.png

Enter the mathematic payoff: Renting textbooks may save students some cash up front, but they’ll save a whopping 46% per semester by buying and selling textbooks instead of renting them.

Granted, this analysis does not consider that a semester of use may slightly decrease the buyback value of the textbooks, but a textbook’s buyback value would have to decrease by about 50% for renting to be cheaper. So, as long as students are not conducting chemistry experiments with their actual chemistry textbooks, values shouldn’t decline much over time.

Need convincing? The graph below, which was compiled using data from BookScouter.com, shows that the average buyback price history of all textbooks in our sample set doesn’t change much during the course of a few semesters.

buyback price over time.png

Selling textbooks: Timing is everything!

Students can sell their textbooks for as much as 28% more by selling during the right months. July, August and January are the best times to sell while April and December are the worst times to sell.

For students looking to sell old textbooks, I have one important lesson to impart: Timing is everything. Well, that and this nugget from Economics 101: The best time to sell is when demand is high and supply is low. When it comes to textbooks, this means that students will get the most money for their books if they sell them when there are a lot more people buying rather than selling textbooks.

When exactly is that time? Using data from Google Trends, I’ve created a graph that shows when the textbook market is most lucrative.

searches for used vs sell.png

When I compare the difference between the number of  searches for “used textbooks” versus the number for “sell textbooks,” the peak times to sell become apparent.

demand minus supply2.png

Based on that trusty theory of supply and demand, it’s clear that the best months to sell textbooks are July, August and January. And, as the chart shows, the worst months to sell are April and December (especially before Christmas).

If you need more convincing, take a look at the next chart. To confirm that the theory of supply and demand does in fact influence online textbook buyback prices, I overlaid the demand (minus) supply graph with a zoomed-in version of the average textbook buyback price history graph from earlier.

final graph.png

The supply and demand of used textbooks significantly affect the buyback price. In the course of a couple months, the fluctuating number of sellers and buyers in the market can affect the buyback price by as much as 20%—that translates to about $12 per book! Even non-math majors can rejoice in those numbers. The best time to sell this year will be the week of August 23rd.

Now that we’ve completed today’s lesson on textbook economics, I’d like to hear what you have to say. How do you prefer to buy textbooks? Is buying used and reselling at the right time too much of a hassle, or is it worth the savings?

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