Why Does this Cost $300?: Buying Textbooks

I can’t sugar coat this: Textbooks are a pain. They are expensive, heavy, and sometimes not even used by the professor who requested you buy them. Luckily for Beyond the Selfie, there are no required textbooks, but I assume that’s not the only class you registered for this semester.

Where and how do you buy textbooks? How much do they cost? Are they really necessary for this class? Am I really dedicated enough to this class to spend $150 on a book for it? How do I minimize the cost without failing my classes?

I’m going into my senior year this semester, so I can tell you I’ve asked these questions a hundred times. Better yet, I’ve found the answers to most of them. Read on to find out how you can best prepare for the semester without putting yourself in debt.

Where to get textbooks

Check out the UMW Bookstore’s website and look at their Price Comparison tool to see which books you will need for each class you’re registered for. The site will also give you the option to buy them from the bookstore right away, if you want. In the three years I’ve been at Mary Washington, though, I can say with full confidence that shopping around online has cut my book costs by a third (at least) per semester.

Next, take the ISBN codes of your books and plug them into a few sites. Amazon is my go-to for books, since rental times are always very reliable and materials are always pretty cheap. Chegg is also very good for textbook rentals, but if you want to maximize your savings, check out Slug Books, a comparison site that pulls from all over the Internet to find your cheapest options.

How much books cost

Book prices vary based on subject; the humanities (History, English, etc.) don’t cost too much, since few books are actual textbooks, whereas STEM, foreign languages, and other sciences tend to cost more, since they are more textbook-reliant.

I highly recommend buying your humanities books. If you don’t want them afterward, selling them to other students is a great way to reduce costs all around, especially when there are a lot of books to buy. Also, especially for English classes, check out Project Gutenberg and Librivox to see if you can access books for free. Older literature becomes public domain after a while and gets published by these programs for anyone to use. Always check here first if you think a book is old or popular enough to be public domain.

Renting textbooks is the best way to save money (except when you need the book for multiple semesters). Be careful, though; if a class requires an online access code, an online rental or used purchase might not come with the code you need. Because of such specificity, these will inevitably be the most expensive books you have to deal with. Almost all language courses require you to buy these kinds of books, which can run from $150-$200 a book-access-code package. If you need to fill your language Gen Ed, prepare accordingly for each cost. Usually 101 and 102 use the same books and access codes, as well as 201 and 202.

Figuring out how badly you need this book

The most frustrating thing about buying books is when you get all of them for a class and realize your professor doesn’t really have you use them that much. To avoid the hassle of buying unnecessary books, or using all of your semester budget in one go to buy them all before class, consider waiting until you get your syllabus to start making purchases.

You do run the risk of getting behind the first week or so of readings, but you can ask your professor if there is any way you could borrow the book if that’s the case. Most professors are accommodating and more focused on you doing the readings than falling behind because of your financial situation. If you feel comfortable waiting, then you can budget out your book-buying over the course of the semester. This method is especially helpful for those who plan on working or rely on financial aid to help pay for college.

If you’re worried about missing readings or don’t want to approach your professor about it, then shoot them an email before the semester starts. Just ask them what books you will need for the first couple of weeks. This way, you can still plan ahead without worrying about the anxiety that comes with asking to borrow something.

Minimizing the cost

As stated before, finding books on Project Gutenberg and Librivox help immensely with reducing certain classes’ book costs to zero. Also consider looking for books at UMW’s Simpson Library. Usually, books that are class materials are not allowed to be checked out for more than a few days at a time, but there’s no harm in just going in and doing your readings there. If Simpson doesn’t have it, consider getting a library card at the Fredericksburg Public Library. All of these free (and legal) ways of obtaining books are the easiest way to cut out some of the staggering prices you’ll encounter.

Again, rent textbooks. Even if they’re in your field of study, there’s very little in them worth saving that won’t also end up in your notes. Renting instead of buying helps with both the cost and the clutter that comes with big, heavy books.

Finally, check multiple sites when buying. The UMW Bookstore is the most convenient way of getting books, but it is definitely not the cheapest. You can find cheaper books by using Slug Books and simple Google searches and cut your expenses by a third or more.



Good luck buying and budgeting! Money can be stressful, especially when you’re on your own financially. Just keep an eye out for good deals and buy smart. As always, you can shoot me a message or leave a comment if you have any questions! I’m here for you first and foremost.