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4 tricks for saving money on college textbooks

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Students know that college is expensive. After all — they're the ones who'll be making student loan payments after graduation. But one major cost that can often be overlooked when estimating the cost of a degree is textbooks.

The College Board estimates that the average student spends more than $1,200 on textbooks every semester. To put that in context, the average net tuition and fees collected from full-time undergraduate students at public universities last school year was $4,140.

"Students think about tuition when they enroll in a course," Michael Hansen, CEO of education company Cengage, tells CNBC Make It. "But textbook costs are often unexpected, and that makes it even more stressful." According to a survey of 1,651 current and former college students by Cengage, 85 percent say that textbook and course material expenses are financially stressful, and 43 percent say they have skipped meals in order to afford these costs.

For decades, textbook companies were able to charge exorbitant prices because students were required to buy the books that professors assigned.

"Historically what happened is the industry, including us many years ago, made a mistake in thinking, 'Oh, we have a lot of pricing power because faculty decide what to teach with and the student has to pay for it,'" says Hansen. "Over time, the industry just ratcheted up the prices — sometimes 10 percent, twice a year — and that led to an unsustainable model."

Technology, the availability of digital textbooks and counterfeit PDFs and the squeezing of students' pockets has caused prices to modestly drop for the first time in years. According to textbook price comparison website Campusbooks.com, the average cost of college textbooks has risen four times faster than the rate of inflation over the past 10 years, but from January 2017 to January 2018, the average price of textbooks decreased by roughly $10.

These changes make the 2018-2019 school year the perfect time to save on college textbooks. Here are four ways to cut costs on expensive course materials:

Run (don't walk) to the library

The first thing that students should do when they receive their syllabuses for the semester is run to the library. Most school libraries will keep a few copies of common textbooks on their shelves and if you make it there first, you can borrow (and later renew) whatever books you need.

If the college library doesn't have the book you need, talk with a librarian. Often, libraries have partnerships with other local branches, and they may be able to arrange for you to borrow the books you need from another location.

Comparison shop

If the library can't help, be sure to do a thorough internet search. Textbook comparison sites such as BookFinder.com, SlugBooks and Campusbooks.com help students search their required reading by title or ISBN and allow them to see which outlet offers the cheapest price for a given text.

Sites like TextSurf even let you set price alerts for the books you need. If you pay attention to your notifications, you can be sure to buy your books when the time is right.

Comparison sites also allow students to decide if renting, buying digital, buying used or buying new is the right decision for them. Sometimes it is smartest to go with the cheapest option, but in some cases buying a new book and later selling it back can pay off. By putting in the research, students can make sure they are getting the best deal.

Subscribe

A new option available to students is to sign up for a subscription service.

Cengage offers an annual unlimited subscription service for $179.99. This model gives students access to tens of thousands of online textbooks and course materials. If students are willing to pay for shipping, they can also rent any book for a class they are registered in for free.

Pearson, another major textbook producer, offers a subscription service to students for $90 a semester that focuses on interactive course materials.

Students should check to see if their textbooks are included in subscription services like these — it could potentially save them hundreds of dollars a semester.

Share

Once they have purchased or rented a textbook, students can further lower their costs by sharing with a classmate. While it is illegal to make photocopies of a textbook, there's nothing wrong with splitting textbook custody. By taking turns with the textbook, students can reduce their costs significantly.

They say sharing is caring, but when it comes to expensive textbooks, sharing can also be saving.

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