Get more bang for your textbook buck

By Ashleigh Viveiros

Remember in high school when at the beginning of the year the teachers would hand out those ratty old textbooks? Sure, they might have been 50 years old, full of scribbles from dozens of past students, and smelling faintly of old cafeteria food, but they were free.

Well, shake off the nostalgia and break out the cheque book. In university and college, nothing's free. Least of all textbooks.

Potentially costing hundreds of dollars per book, these necessary evils of education can make a major dent in your wallet. But there are ways to soften the blow.

The number one way to save money? Get on board the textbook recycling bandwagon.

"Textbooks are very expensive and I think the only way a student is going to get through university and have any control of the costs is to get involved with the used book process," says Jim Forbes, manager of the University of Victoria Bookstore.

The UVIc Bookstore, like many school bookstores across the country, sells used textbooks along with its new stock. The store also regularly buys faculty-requested books back from its students, creating a continual cycle.

At most stores, used books sell for about 75% of the new cover price and are bought back at about 50%.

This means if a student buys a used book and then turns around and sells it back at the end of the semester, they're essentially renting the book from the store for 25% of the retail cost, says Forbes.

"This is cash back into the student's pocket," he says.

But if you miss out on the buyback days for your school's bookstore, there's always the national used book wholesale companies that lurk around the campus at various times throughout the year.

Unlike the bookstore, these companies generally purchase books for 10-25% of the current retail price, depending on supply and demand. Despite the low payout, this is a good way to get rid of books no longer being used at your own school, but which may be in demand elsewhere.

If you want to try to get more for your textbooks than what the bookstore or wholesalers are offering, most schools also have a used bookstore, often run by the student association, somewhere in the building. For a commission fee (usually around 20%) these used stores allow students to set their own prices, basically renting you the shelf space your book is on.

And while SA bookstores are great places to get rid of your textbooks with less hassle than trying to sell them yourself, they're also home to some pretty good deals.

"We're set up to help students buy books for a fair price and sell books for a fair price," says Rob Tremblay, co-ordinator of the Petrified Sole at the University of Winnipeg. "I think we're a very good example of a way to save money."

With the Internet more popular than ever, online purchases are also becoming a favourite way to textbook shop among students who hate the long September line-ups.

One of Canada's most popular sites for textbooks is Books4Exchange.com, which acts as a free classifieds system for students looking to buy and sell used books.

Students can search the site's database for books in their area or nationwide, and then deal directly with the student seller. Or you can post your books for sale and hope someone bites.

Other online sites, like EBay or Amazon, offer similar services to students. But while you may stand to save a few bucks, online shopping comes with its own pitfalls, says Forbes.

Accidentally purchasing the wrong edition, shipping and handling fees, the difficulty in returning books (if it's possible at all), and not being able to see the condition of a used book can all pose major problems for students shopping online, and may cost you more than you'll save, he says.

"There's benefits of buying through the store," says Forbes, pointing to the flexible return policies many school bookstores offer students.

Wherever you decide to buy your books, there is one tip that all but guarantees you better prices, says Forbes.

"Buy early," he says. "The best time to buy a used book is prior to the first class."

That said, don't buy every book on your list unless it's mandatory. Optional books are exactly that, and you may find your professor isn't planning on using it enough to justify the purchase.

When searching for used textbooks, keep an eye open for older editions. New editions come out every three years or so, but sometimes the material's not all that different. Check with your professor and you might find an older edition will do just fine--for a fraction of the cost.

Also keep in mind that some books, mainly non-specialized material, can be bought at various public bookstores. You might be able to pick up a deal from your local new bookstore or find an old copy for a ridiculously low price at a used store.

You can also save money by borrowing books from your local library or sharing the cost of a textbook with a friend who's taking the same class later in the year. Just make sure you'll have the book when you need it in both cases.

With all the choices out there, today's university and college students have more opportunities than ever to get the most bang for their buck, says Forbes, as long as they know where to look.

"I think that there's a lot of choice for students at this point as consumers," he says. "You have a real ability to manage your books on hand if you're buying from the right source."

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