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Should You Buy or Rent Textbooks? Here’s How to Choose

buy or rent textbooks

If the cost of tuition wasn’t enough, you also need a long list of expensive textbooks to make it through your classes.

College Board says that the average student spends $1,200 on textbooks each year. That’s $5,000 over your four-year career.

It’s no surprise, then, that students are always on the hunt for the answer to the eternal question: should you buy or rent textbooks?

Buying new is expensive but purchasing used books may mean you have to buy an older edition, which may be out of date. Sharing books with friends means you rely on them to be responsible — and you have to negotiate the time spent with the book. And is renting worth the cost?

Here’s how to figure out what books to buy and what to rent.

3 Times When You Should Buy Textbooks

The debate between whether to buy or rent textbooks is solved when you recognize these three scenarios.

Here’s when you should buy the book.

1. When You Need the Textbook Throughout Your Degree

Are you looking at a book that you’re going to need again and again?

If your book is fundamental in the first year of your degree and serves as a handy reference through to the end, then it may be better to buy the book.

The cost of buying may be as much as renting for four straight years. Plus, you can write in the book, highlight what you need, and make it your trusty companion throughout your time in school.

2. When You Tend to Lose Books and Other Items

Are you guilty of losing calculators, phones, and other essential but expensive items?

As strange as it is to say, you may be better off buying your textbooks.

If you buy your textbook and lose it, then you don’t need to worry about paying all the fees — or even replacing the lost book. If you misplace it, then you’ll need to pay up at the end of the semester, which is when students’ cash flow tends to be at its lowest.

Plus, knowing how much it costs may encourage you to keep an extra eye on your belongings.

3. When You Need Product Access Codes

Some professors want you to buy the book, not for the book itself but for the access codes for software or online databases.

The practice is particularly common in math, economics, and engineering courses. 

Renting the book won’t give you access to those products, so there’s a good chance you need to buy.

If you’re unsure whether you need the code in the book, talk to your professor or administrator before you buy.

3 Times When You Should Rent Textbooks

Buying isn’t for every book all the time.

But some of the books you need for class are great candidates for rental services. Here’s when you should rent your books.

1. When You Need A Lot of Textbooks

Do you have a long list of textbooks to collect for classes this term?

Consider renting the bulk of them instead.

Take a look at your syllabus and see how often you use each book. Rent the textbooks that you will pull out a few times, and only invest in the books that you need over-and-over again. 

Pro tip: if there are books on the list that you only need a chapter from, look for them in your academic library. If they are available in the ‘reference-only’ section, see if you can scan the library’s copy of the book. You may even get lucky and find the e-book version on your library’s database.

Every little chance to save helps!

2. When the Books Are Super Expensive

If the book is outrageously expensive (think $250 plus), and you only need it for one class in one semester, rent it.

Even though renting may still be expensive, you won’t suffer the same financial blow.

Remember, you get back a fraction of the money spent on a new book when you sell it at the end of the semester. Renting the most expensive books can save you thousands over your degree.

3. When the New Book Is Expensive, but the Used Book Isn’t an Option

Is the new book too expensive but also the only edition your professor will allow?

Thwart your most inflexible teachers by renting the book instead.

Renting is your best option if a used textbook is out of the question. Used books are great, but if your teacher intends to teach specifically from the latest edition, it could land you in hot water. So just rent the newest edition and be done with it.

Remember to Write Off Your Book Costs Whether You Buy or Rent

Whether you buy a new book, hunt down a used copy, or rent your textbook, remember to write them off on your taxes.

According to IRS Publication 970 Tax Benefits for Education, you can claim tax credits if you pay for higher education expenses and you meet the qualifications.

You can use the American Opportunity Tax Credit and the Lifetime Learning Credit to offset your expenses.

Your “books, supplies, and other necessary equipment” count as qualified education expenses. If your tax bill is already zero, then your books could even earn you a refund.

Are you an employee engaging in work-related education? You can itemize your deductions and claim your books. However, it only counts when the expenses (in total — not just books) are more than two percent of your adjusted gross income.

You can read the complete guide to education expenses on the IRS website.

Should You Buy or Rent Textbooks?

Textbooks are incredibly expensive, and every student should try to save money where they can.

How do you know when to buy or rent textbooks? It depends on the nature of the book and the cost.

If it’s a book you’ll need from freshman to senior year, then it may be both simpler and cheaper to buy it outright. It’s also better to know your reference book is always available. However, if it’s a book you’ll use once or twice or using a used book isn’t an option, renting is the better choice.

Are you on the hunt for cheap textbooks?

Search our rental and sales catalog here to find what you need, including rental eTextbooks.

About the Author

Christopher Manns

I was born in the UK, grew up in Canada and have lived in the USA since the 90s. I love my family, water sports, ice hockey, skiing and soccer. When I'm not helping people save money on textbooks, I'm travelling with my wonderful family and playing sports.