If you're a college student (or the parent of one), you know the price tag of a college education has been soaring lately. And it's not just the tuition that's going up - textbooks can now cost a small fortune. It's become such a problem that some lawmakers are trying to crack down on the issue: a few weeks ago, Inside Higher Ed reported on legislation passed by the Pennsylvania Senate that would require administrators and faculty at state universities and community colleges to pick the most affordable textbooks available for their courses.
Here are some ways to keep from going broke if you need to buy books.
IN PICTURES: 6 Ways To Fund A College Education
A new law makes it easier to know in advance what your textbook costs will be. The federal law, which went into effect July 1, requires colleges that receive federal funds to provide textbook prices immediately when students register for a class. Keep in mind, this is retail cost, so it's likely you can get a better deal by shopping around. (If you're scrambling for tuition, check out these last-ditch options to come up with the cash in 7 Last-Minute Ways To Pay For College.)
Take it One Book at a Time
Depending on how far in advance you register for classes, you may have a while to buy your books. Rather than tackling the total bill all at once - which can be a daunting task - focus on coming up with the cash for one book at a time, which will seem a little more doable. You can either start with the most expensive one (so the others seem easy to pay for in comparison) or get a cheaper one first, for a quick sense of accomplishment.
Save Your Pennies (and Dimes and Quarters)
Lisa Reynolds, the "Mom-Saver-in-Chief" at RedPlum.com, offers this advice if you have a few weeks (or months) before you need to buy your books: "Save up loose change that accumulates in your wallet, car and at the bottom of your purse. At the end of the day, place all of this change in an old coffee can or large bowl. You'll be surprised how quickly this adds up!"
Even better: some coin-counting machines occasionally run promotions waiving their standard service fee if you convert your change into gift cards at certain retailers. See if any of the choices are stores that sell textbooks. (Sometimes, just a new way of organizing your funds can make all the difference in your finances. Don't miss Gift Card Budgeting: Pushing (Out) The Envelope.)
Consult with Your Financial Aid Office
If you are expecting enough financial aid to cover your tuition with a little extra left over, some schools will set you up with a certain amount of credit at the bookstore, while others offer students a short-term advance on their anticipated financial aid refund.
If You Need Cash Quick
If the semester is quickly approaching and you need to pay for textbooks fast, focus on strategies to help you raise cash in a hurry. Start with the old stand-bys: garage sales, temp work and consignment stores. You could consider pawning some items (pawn shops buy things outright too, if you don't want to get your stuff back), although you may only get a small fraction of what the items are worth. You can also sell your unwanted stuff on eBay and craigslist, although it can sometimes take a while to get payment when you sell online.
Don't Buy if You Can Rent
These days, book rentals are a no-brainer. You can find large inventories of textbooks (both traditional and digital versions) at sites like CengageBrain, Chegg and BookRenter. (You may not have heard of these easy, money-saving tips. Check out 5 Not-So-Traditional Budgeting Tips.)
Scott Gamm, a college student and founder of HelpSaveMyDollars.com, suggests using sites like BigWords.com, which searches more than 20 different retailers for the cheapest price on the textbook you need.
Look For Promo Codes
Andrea Woroch, consumer savings expert at PromotionalCodes.com, says you should never hit the "buy" button when ordering books (or anything else) online until you've checked for any available promo or discount codes. PromotionalCodes has a category specifically for textbooks - current codes include one for 5% off textbook rentals at eCampus and another for free shipping on orders over $25 at Textbooks.com.
College Forums or Message Boards
Many schools now have message boards or websites where students can post messages, including notices of textbooks for sale. You can often get a good deal by buying the book from a student who had the same class last semester.
Make sure to also check the Craigslist ads for your city (look in the Books category). And of course don't forget eBay - just be sure to read the fine print in the listing, or you may inadvertently buy an outdated edition of the book. (Harness the power of social buying websites to get out and try something new in Social Buying: A New Way To Save.)
Let One Semester's Books Pay For the Next
Once the semester is over, be sure to sell the textbooks you no longer need. You can sell them at your school's bookstore or to one of the online book rental sites. Be sure to use this money for your new books right away (or stash it in a safe place), so you aren't tempted to spend it on something else.
The Bottom Line
College textbooks can definitely be pricey, but by using a combination of strategies and researching your options, you can help make this expense a bit less painful. (While college freshman may be academically prepared for school they often have a lot to learn when it comes to managing money. Don't miss 7 Expensive Mistakes College Students Make.)
Catch up on the latest financial news; read Water Cooler Finance: I-Spy, IPOs And iPhones.