Textbook costs have traditionally represented a major expense for college students. In recent years, savvy consumers have cut these costs by buying used textbooks and older editions of textbooks online. Students have also used the Internet to sell their textbooks at semester's end for more than the college bookstore's buyback price.

Now, a third option, electronic textbook rental, advertises both cost savings and convenience. Let's examine the potential cost savings of choosing e-textbook rental over other common options. (For some ideas on how to save on the cost of textbooks, check out Students, Get More Bang For Your Textbook Dollars.)

TUTORIAL: Student Loans

Price Shopping
Both Amazon and Barnes and Noble enable customers to rent electronic textbooks. How does the price of an electronic textbook rental compare to the price of other options for acquiring the book? Let's take Intermediate Accounting by Donald Kieso, Jerry Weygandt and Terry Warfield as an example. According to publisher Wiley, "No other text is used in more accounting programs, and by more professionals in the field."

Barnes and Noble rents the 14th edition (the most recent) of this book as an e-textbook for $122.50 for 360 days (shorter terms are not offered). The e-textbook costs $146.50 to buy, while the print version purchased directly from Barnes and Noble costs $240.03 with free shipping. It is also possible to rent the print version for $94.78 for 60 days, $113.74 for 90 days, or $126.34 for 130 days. The 13th edition costs $131.80 new from Barnes and Noble with free shipping, or close to $138 plus shipping from a third-party seller. Used copies start at around $52 plus shipping. Given these options, renting the e-textbook version is only a money-saver for students who would otherwise purchase brand-new textbooks directly from Barnes and Noble.

Money-saving prospects look better at Amazon. Amazon offers the 13th edition, not the 14th, for e-textbook rental, but the difference shouldn't pose a problem for most students. Assuming that a semester is roughly 120 days and a student wanted to rent the book for the entire term, a rental would cost $61. The longest possible rental, 360 days, costs $93.84 - 77% of Barnes and Noble's price for the same rental period.

To buy the same book new from Amazon costs about $165 with free shipping. To buy it new from a third party seller costs as little as $99.98 plus $3.99 shipping, and to buy it used from a third party seller costs as little as $70.00 plus shipping. Amazon's e-textbook rental clearly wins this price competition.

Or does it? (For more tips to help you save on textbooks, read A Foolproof Budget Plan For Textbooks.)

Older Editions
For students willing to go back to the 12th edition, a used copy costs as little as $7.49 plus $3.99 shipping. This means that the old method of getting the best price on a textbook remains the least expensive option. Is purchasing an older version of the textbook a viable option? It depends on how much the book's contents have changed from one edition to the next. A student's professor will often have used the same book for many years and be able to offer an informed opinion. In this case, the 14th edition was published in 2011, the 13th in 2009 and the 12th in 2007. Because of changes in accounting standards since then, purchasing the 12th edition may not be the best option. In subject areas where content is unlikely to change significantly over time, such as history or math, buying an older edition is less likely to be problematic.

Availability
Not all textbooks are available electronically, even some very popular titles. Paul Samuelson and William Nordhaus's Economics, which has been in print since 1948, is not available from Amazon. Economics is, however, available as an e-textbook rental from Barnes and Noble. A 180-day rental of the 19th edition (the most recent) costs $101.80. That being said, the 180-day rental likely overshoots or undershoots most students' needs. 180 days is much longer than one semester, but much shorter than two semesters. Also, used copies of the 19th edition are available from Amazon starting at $88.87 plus $3.99 shipping. Used copies of the 18th edition start at just $14.00 plus $3.99 shipping. Buying a used edition of the book would be the best money-saving option in this case.

Returning and Reselling
Another money-saving problem with e-textbook rentals is that they can't be returned or the rental period terminated early if a student drops a class. They also can't be resold at the end of the semester to recoup a portion of the book's cost.

The Bottom Line
Each textbook will have a unique set of prices for its different versions, so it makes sense to consider e-textbook rental on a case-by-case basis. However, for the time being it appears that e-textbook rental will only save students money when having a new edition of a textbook is important, and when students are free to choose the length of the rental period. Cost-conscious students should compare prices across vendors and consider used and older editions of textbooks to save the most money. (For other ideas on how you can pay for college, see 5 Ways To Fund A College Education.)

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