Can't Afford College Textbooks – What Do I Do?

Renee Layberry
May 4, 2021

You’ve paid your tuition and your school fees. You have a financial plan and a strict budget for covering your semester living expenses. You probably have just enough left over for the occasional pizza and movie. But you need your money to last you all semester long.   Then you find out that your required textbooks are going to cost $500. What do you do if you haven’t budgeted enough for books?   You may be tempted to skip the textbooks altogether. Somebody always claims that they or someone they know aced the class without ever cracking a single book. Such claims are usually urban legends.   The truth is that if you want to learn and succeed in college, you usually need the books. But you don’t always need to use your credit card or your grocery money to buy them.  

5 Affordable Options for College Textbooks

Campus bookstores will encourage you to buy your books from them. There’s nothing wrong with that, except the price. Still, if you’re using financial aid to buy textbooks, you may be required to buy them at the campus bookstore.   If that’s not a requirement and you’re short on cash or want to stretch your student loan further, consider five alternatives.  

1. Buy used books online in advance

Fortunately for students, colleges are required by the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 to publish lists of the required textbooks for classes at the time students register for the upcoming semester.    In other words, if you’re enrolling for the fall semester in March, your professors should have already submitted their course booklists. That means that you can contact your school’s bookstore (or just look on their website) to find what you need well before the semester begins. You then have plenty of time to search for the best deals before classes start.    Once you have that list of required textbooks for your upcoming classes, start by searching Amazon for used copies.   Other reputable used textbook sellers include:   Don’t wait until the week before classes begin, when everyone else will be searching. Start looking as soon as you’re registered to get the best deals on used copies.   Photo by Eliott Reyna

2. Rent your textbooks instead

Renting can be cheaper than buying. If a textbook is available for rent, you’ll find that option on Amazon or at your campus bookstore.   Other places to look include:   Price comparison sites like Book Scouter will even help you find the lowest prices available.   Most rental places will allow you to highlight and write notes in your books. That means you’ll get the same benefit of ownership when renting a book except for keeping it.   Another benefit of renting is that you don’t have to try to sell it at the end of the semester. You just send your textbooks back to the provider you used.   Pro tip: Look for a book rental service that offers free shipping both ways.  

3. Talk to a financial aid advisor

If you don’t have any money at all for used books or even rentals, your best bet is to go to your college’s financial aid office and ask to speak to a financial aid advisor.   While financial aid counselors can't simply give you money (as nice as that would be), they can help you find textbook scholarship opportunities. An example of one is the program administered by the Helping Hands Foundation, a national non-profit, student-aid organization. You can receive as much as $1,000 each semester.   Your financial aid advisor can help you with your student loan refund too. If you're expecting one and haven’t received it yet, they can see if you do indeed qualify and how much you can expect. They might also be able to make inquiries about the delay.   Photo by Tamarcus Brown

4. Talk to your professors

Students sometimes think that professors have a vested interest in elevated textbook prices. For the most part, that’s untrue. Most professors are sympathetic to students’ financial situations and will try to find affordable options when they can. The reality, however, is that textbooks are just plain expensive!   If you find that you legitimately cannot afford to buy or rent required textbooks, try talking to your professors and explain the situation. Professors sometimes have extra copies that they are willing to loan to students.    You can also ask them to put copies of the books on hold at the library. If your library does not have a copy of the book, ask your instructor to request a copy. Most college libraries will purchase items recommended by faculty.   You might also ask if you could use an earlier edition of the textbook. Your professor may lend you an older copy or you may find an old edition online for just pennies. Just make sure your professor has approved using an older edition.   Some professors are moving toward using openly-licensed products. Those textbooks are free for you to use. Unfortunately, the selection is still pretty narrow. You aren’t going to change your professor’s mind about what books are required for the class, but you can ask if there’s an open-license book that might give you similar information.   Photo by Sharon McCutcheon

5. Share textbooks with fellow students

Finding money for textbooks can be a challenge for a lot of students, so you certainly aren’t alone. Ask around in class (or use the messaging feature in your class learning management system) to see if anyone wants to go in together to purchase the required texts.    It's harder to share books than to have your own, but if you find a reliable partner, you can trade off the book for doing assigned readings. Sit next to each other in class so you can both refer to the text during a lecture. At the very least, sharing might buy you time to pursue other avenues for getting books.   The fact remains that textbooks are an investment in your education. You may be tempted to dismiss them as unnecessary expenses, but they are often critically important to your success in college.