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Image: Brittany Wolfe examining textbooks at a library
Damian Dovarganes  /  AP file
Brittany Wolfe, a University of California Los Angeles graduate, checked out textbooks on reserve in order to avoid having to buy them herself. This July 2010 file photo shows her examining textbooks at a library.
By Laura T. Coffey
TODAY contributor
updated 8/25/2011 10:25:17 AM ET 2011-08-25T14:25:17

If you’re a college student starting a new academic year, you’re likely reeling in shock from the amount of money you’re being asked to spend on textbooks.

The price tags on those books can be astonishing — and they’re always climbing. The U.S. Government Accountability Office reports that college textbook prices have increased at twice the rate of inflation.

Is there any way to avoid this crippling expense? Actually, there are several. The following tips can give you some ideas for beating the system this semester.

1. Beat the crowds. Your on-campus bookstore is your simplest and fastest route for finding the books you need, but it also can be the most expensive. That said, you may be able to save a little bit of money by arriving at the store as early as possible — the minute you get your list of required books — so you can snatch up used copies.

2. Use ISBN numbers to comparison shop. While at the on-campus bookstore, write down ISBN numbers and prices for both new and used books, and then use that information to shop around online. Check prices on the Web sites of Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, eBay, efollet.com and CengageBrain.com. To save time, comparison shopping sites such as book.ly or SwoopThat can be incredibly helpful. Book.ly is great because it focuses so specifically on textbooks in all formats, and SwoopThat is convenient because it quickly allows you to compare prices for the books you’ll need based on the courses you’re taking. Another good comparison shopping site is BestBookBuys.com.

3. Kiss print books goodbye. A recent study by NACS OnCampus Research revealed that 75 percent of students still prefer print textbooks, even though e-books on Kindle, iPad and other platforms are constantly growing in popularity. Yes, print is nice — but e-books are just so much cheaper. At several of the sites mentioned in tip number 2, you’ll be given the option of choosing from print, digital or audio forms of the textbooks you need. In many cases you can highlight areas of e-books and make notes in the margins as you read your books online. Another option: CengageBrain.com allows you to buy single book chapters for as little as $1.99.

4. Rent your textbooks via Kindle. Amazon.com announced the launch of Kindle Textbook Rental with much fanfare last month. You don’t have to own a Kindle to read the rented books; once you rent them, they can be accessed using free Kindle Reading Apps for PC, Mac, iPad, iPod touch, iPhone, BlackBerry, Windows Phone and Android-based devices. Here’s an excerpt about rental rates from an article by msnbc.com writer Anika Anand : “For example, the full price listing of Psychology in Action published by John Wiley & Sons is about $154. A used hardcover copy on Amazon starts at $62, or the Kindle edition can be rented for about $29 for 30 days. If you want to rent the book for 60 days, it would be about $36; for 90 days, about $43; and for 120 days, the length of a typical semester, about $46. Assuming a student does purchase the course materials for the duration of the class, he or she would save about $16 plus potential shipping costs over the price of the cheapest available used version.”

5. Rent your textbooks in other ways. Much like online movie-rental services, sites like BookRenter.com and Chegg.com allows you to rent textbooks rather than buy them. The savings can be substantial, so long as you’re careful to return your books on time so your rentals don’t get converted to purchases. Another option: Check to see whether your college or university offers a textbook rental service to help students save money. To learn about additional ways to rent textbooks rather than buy them, check out this helpful column on the subject from ConsumerMan Herb Weisbaum.

6. Check out CourseSmart. Five textbook publishers — Pearson, John Wiley & Sons, Cengage Learning, McGraw-Hill Education and Bedford, Freeman & Worth Publishing Group — have teamed up to make thousands of textbooks available in the less expensive e-book format via CourseSmart.com. CourseSmart is continuing to add book titles all the time, so much so that the site boasts that its catalog includes more than “90 percent of the core textbooks in use today in North American Higher Education.”

7. Free downloads are your friends. Many classics of literature and a wide array of other books can be downloaded for free at Web sites such as Project Gutenberg.

8. Form a book-sharing confederation. Do you know or can you meet other students who share your major? If so, you could create a band of brothers (and sisters) who share, buy and sell books with each other at fair prices.

9. The library doesn’t charge a dime. Many colleges set aside copies of textbooks at the library, where they can be used for free. Your city or county library may even have copies of certain textbooks. Just be aware that this approach can backfire on you if the books you’re seeking aren’t available when you need them.

10. Older editions are always worth a look. If a new edition has just been released for one of the textbooks on your list, compare it carefully with the last edition. The changes may be so minor that you really won’t need to pay top dollar for the newer version.

11. Sell your books with care. The on-campus bookstore will give you a mere fraction of what you paid for your books once you’re done with them, so sell within the network of students you helped establish, or do so online through sites such as Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, eBay, eCampus.com and Chegg.com.

© 2013 NBCNews.com  Reprints

Video: 4 ways to save on back-to-school shopping

  1. Closed captioning of: 4 ways to save on back-to-school shopping

    >>> this morning on today's money, back to school savings. according to the national federation of retailers, parents of school aged children will spend on average $600 buying the supplies they need. how can you trim those costs? jean chatzky has some tips. good morning.

    >> good morning.

    >> we see the economy has an impact. a lot of the americans are scaling back in how much they're spending when it comes to school supplies, right?

    >> 50% of americans have told us they are scaling back. and about half of the people say they've only done about half of their shopping so far. which i think is a sign that they're waiting to see if they can get better deals later.

    >> you have a good strategy as to help us save our bucks as we get our kids back to school . shop at home .

    >> if you are a parent, you know that just by opening drawers, you're going to find pencils and pens and note cards and crayons from last year. those things are useable. your kids may want to go to school with a few new things, that's understandable.

    >> always fun to crack open the new box of crayons.

    >> going to conferences where they load you up with thing that are really school supplies. use them. the same with clothes. it's still august, right? we don't need fall clothes at this point. you can put those things on hold.

    >> they go on sale.

    >> absolutely. that's the second kid. waiting game .

    >> things will go on sale. and you'll be able to pick up everything you need at a significantly lower price.

    >> coupons and things like that too that you can use when it comes to back to school shopping. you can look through all of the circulars and find the good deals.

    >> get yourself on lists where they're going to tell you about good deals. i'm on twitter and i'm retweeting out coupons from people who are looking at 10% here and 25% off there. there are a lot of different websites to lead you in the right direction to the merchants that you like to patronize. go to the her chanlts' websites. sign up for their e- mail list .

    >> follow jean chatzky.

    >> that as well.

    >> also, think long-term and think classic and quality.

    >> right. because if you go out and buy the justin bieber or whoever happens to be the current --

    >> the current --

    >> the lunchbox that's not useable this year. they might want one or two items that are so hip and so current. you can get yourself to buy the classic backpack, you use it for three years and you don't have to buy that expensive item again next year.

    >> we talked about the untraditional ways to save, which means some credit cards are offering some reward programs for that very purpose.

    >> card hub.com came out yesterday with their list of the best credit cards for back to school . at the top of the list, the target red card . 5% off at target. that's significant. american express 's blue cash card . 6% off in grocery stores , 3% in department stores , we're talking real money here. and a lot of these cards also have bonus points and bonus dollars for getting your friends to sign up. some have annual fees, some don't. be careful.

    >> make sure you know what you're getting into. next, i love this idea. it's a great one, to set up neighborhood swaps and make it a community effort to save.

    >> a lot of people have done this when it comes to sporting goods . you have cleats that don't fit your kids. you can exchange them. you don't have to buy the same thing. the same thing with books, textbooks, we're running out of time , but we have textbooks now that are available on your kindle, on your nook. on your computer. if you're a parent that has to buy textbooks for college or high school .

    >> that's expensive.

    >> you can save 60% to 80% by downloading them for the time you need them rather than buying the whole thing.

    >> check out all of your options. jean chatzky. what's your twitter?


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