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Textbook LifeHack That Saved me $461.96 in One Semester

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How in the world can my textbooks cost so much!?!

I was surprised by textbook prices every semester. Considering most college students have a negative net worth, you would think the school would cut them some slack at least on educational materials.

I was always looking for ideas to cut down my textbook costs, but most of them didn’t move the needle at all. I really had to think outside the box before I could make any progress.

3 years ago I learned this LifeHack to chop my textbook costs down. I wrote this trick down on my personal blog, but now I’m repurposing it to EarnTrackInvest and revamping it with what I’ve learned since then.

These days, 2017, I’m graduated and progressing along in my career, but I still am acquainted with a lot of current or future college students and try to pass along the tip outlined here whenever possible.

My hope is that each college student who implements this “LifeHack” can walk away with a few extra hundred dollars a semester like I did.

Background: Why Are Textbook Prices So High?

It seems a bit outrageous to pay $200+ for a single book with printing costs of less than 1/10 of that price. You would think as time goes on, competition would drive the prices down to reasonable levels. However, as with any market where the buyer of the product is NOT the decision maker, prices are way too high.

Universities or professors assign a book for their class, and the students have no choice on what book they buy. The students are the buyers, but they aren’t the decision makers.

This same issue is seen in healthcare, utilities, and any monopolistic system as well. When the decision making power is not in the hands of the purchaser, conditions are nearly always unfavorable for them.

We don’t need to go into economics to see why this is an issue. But essentially what happens is that universities get deals, kickbacks or really heavy marketing from very few textbook companies, and they recommend that company’s books and the students have no choice but to buy those books.

How Textbook Companies Avoid Used Product Competition

One powerful force of free markets is the “used product substitute”. Essentially I can buy a used copy of most products for much cheaper, with the trade-off being the product is worn down and aged. For instance, I will always recommend EarnTrackInvest readers to purchase a used car because the discount is so magnificent.

But you’ll notice that you can rarely find a reasonable price on a used textbook either. That’s because textbook companies have a super secret, multi-billion dollar method of avoiding this competition. There is nothing I’d enjoy more than to disrupt that method.

The longer a book is in print, the more copies are in circulation as long as it is printing. That’s why you can pick up a used copy of most novels for $1 at a garage sale. There are so many copies available, there is no scarcity to drive the price up.

The same is true of the textbook market. The more copies are printed, the lower the used-book competition price. If a textbook company crafted a near-perfect textbook and printed the same one year after year, the used-book competition would drive down their prices within a few years.

Old textbook editions, though they may be perfectly educational and useful, become far less profitable to the textbook companies over time.

Instead of printing the same awesome book, the textbook company prints a new edition every couple of years. It is far more profitable for the textbook companies to charge ten times more for the newest edition than continue printing a perfectly good older edition.

Since you are forced to buy whatever textbook your school tells you to, and your school is only going to request the most up to date version, textbook companies do not have to worry about you switching to a competing textbook. So they print new editions every few years to keep prices up.

These editions are usually identical to the previous editions apart from tidbits of formatting, chapter order, homework questions, and images. They contain the same educational value, but have useless differences intended to convince students and professors that there is new value added. There isn’t.

My Textbook Price.

The University of Missouri Bookstore told me to buy the 12th edition of my Statistics textbook… for the low price of $224.50. Sure I could go to other online textbook dealers, but the price was still in the upper hundreds or over $200.  Even the used version of the book on Amazon was almost $200. Again, remember that the book had only been printed for a year or two, which means the scarcity factor is there.

Below is a screenshot of the Bookstore website.

My Crazy Textbook Price

You can’t see it in the screenshot, but my school presented me this edition of the schoolbook as a requirement for the course. Most college students listen to this requirement and cough up $200 or just add it to their mounting student loan bill. They can’t afford it, but they have no other choice.

2-Step Guide to Save Money

  1. Email your professor or wait until the first week of class, and find out if you will have homework problems assigned from the book. This is the only barrier to you using this method. If your professor assigns you textbook problems, note that the manufacturers often switch around the numbers and order of homework problems in each edition so you are better off buying the recommended edition. If your professor says homework is not assigned from the book, you’re good to continue.
  2. Search for an older edition of your book. I use Amazon because they have the biggest selection.

Older Editions are Way Cheaper

With shipping and handling, the 9th edition of the book cost me $18.77. Even though it says only 1 in stock, there were other editions for similar prices.

I saved $205.17 on one book.

Rule of Thumb: if you are just using a textbook to study or learn from, always buy an older edition.

This wasn’t just a one-time fluke.

I used this trick on my Economy 3229 textbook. Instead of buying the $155 2nd edition, I bought the 1st edition for $18.12 and saved $136.87.

I used this trick for my Accounting textbook. Instead of buying the $126 4th edition, I bought the 2nd edition for $5.73 and saved $119.92.

Those were my only three courses in the semester in question with expensive books, but many students are forced to pay for 5+ expensive books and are forced to put all of that on a student loan. Even though I saved $461 that semester, I could see another student save $700-$1000 easily.

What can Professors/Schools do About It

Professors who assign homework from a newest edition, or really do something to enforce the purchase of the newest edition are flat out hurting their students. Most are not doing it maliciously, they don’t realize there is alternative. But the alternative is so simple and easy. Just allow their students to study from any edition of the book.

I wouldn’t necessarily confront your current professors about this, but if you are someone who knows a professor, I would tell them. Send them a link to this post or just let them know about the alternative. They might not realize how much their students dislike paying $200 for some paper, and how it demotivates them in that class.

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