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Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Creative textbook shopping saves money

©iStockPhoto/lu linsheng

The desk in Katherine Michalak's college apartment had a slight wobble. One of its legs was not as long as the other three. Michalak searched for a solution and found it in her Chemistry textbook. The weighty tome would have cost her $170 new, but Michalak bought it from a fellow student for just $30.

In the end, she didn't use the book at all. Instead, she jammed it under her desk leg to make her work space level. It was the most productive use the book got all semester, Michalak said.

This semester, Michalak could spend as much as $400 on her textbooks, if she bought them new online or from the campus bookstore. Instead she plans to wait until a few weeks into the semester to make her purchases. She hopes to spend about $100.

As many students, and parents, dig deeper to pay for college, textbook costs may be the straw that breaks the bank account. The average price for many students nears $600. But several online bookstores are offering alternatives that could help make buying textbooks much less painful.

Earlier this month, retail giant Amazon announced a new textbook rental service. The company claims borrowing books can save students as much as 70 percent on textbook costs. Students get to keep the books for 130 days, the average length of a semester, and can return them with free shipping in December. But students aren't allowed to take notes or highlight "excessively" in the rentals, and if something happens to the book during the semester, renters must pay to replace it.

Michalak, a senior biology major at Geneva College, in Beaver Falls, Pa., works hard each semester to find the cheapest deal on textbooks. But she's not interested in renting: "I don't like the idea of paying for something that I will never own."

Other companies, including Apple and Barnes & Noble, also offer cost-saving textbook options. Like Amazon, Barnes & Noble sells used books and has a rental program. They also offer electronic textbooks, both for sale and for rent. Apple offers textbooks through its iBooks app.

Some college bookstores also rent books to their students. Biola University, in Southern California started offering rentals two years ago. Students at the liberal arts Christian college pay an average of $930 for books each year. Fewer than half of the school's 5,000 students use the rental service now, but the number who do grows every year. The college rents more than 1,700 textbooks per semester.

For students like Michalak, renting comes with too many limitations. Books that can be resold, even if purchased used, become a commodity at the end of the semester. Michalak also shudders at the thought of scratching or ruining someone else's book. As a college student, Michalak is always scratching or denting something.

The freedom to underline, take notes or share her book with a friend is much more rewarding than walking on eggshells the entire semester trying to keep the book in good condition, Michalak said. In addition she can resell many of her books for up to half the price she purchased them for on Amazon.

Despite the options offered by booksellers, both virtual and on campus, students often turn to their friends and classmates to help save money on books. Some students buy from other students or share books with classmates to cut down on the cost. Others students buy older, less expensive editions, or get by without using a book at all.

Geneva College senior Joe Grondziowski spent $350 on books for this semester, but he refuses to buy from the campus bookstore. Grondziowski finds the cheapest deal he can from online stores and then uses coupons and discounts to save even more.

"I am not prepared to throw my money away," he said. "I work pretty hard for it and the accessibility at the bookstore does not outweigh the cost-effectiveness of online shopping."

While anticipating the upcoming school year, Michalak at first worried about the price of her books. One biology textbook cost more than $100 at the campus bookstore. But Michalak quickly found a used copy on Amazon for just $28.

Even though she found a cheap biology book, Michalak will not begin buying her textbooks until she scouts out her classes. She will ask professors and fellow students if the books are necessary for the class and then she will chose the best option for making her purchases. Using her delayed shopping plan, Michalak expects to save about $100, enough to buy gas for three trips home or groceries for three or four weeks.

"It means I can eat more than just oatmeal for at least a few weeks," she said.

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