Monday, January 3, 2011

Stretching Your Dollar on Textbooks

For most college students, our number one out of pocket expense - after tuition, of course - is textbooks. Every semester we all have the shell out upwards of $300 for a bunch of books that we may or may not use or even open for 6 months, and probably won't need for the rest of our lives. The solution to this problem, of course, is to spend as little money as possible buying textbooks, and earn back as much money as possible selling them. The technique to stretching your dollar when it comes to textbooks is all about timing.

As all of us who have sat through a micro-economics course know, markets are ruled by supply and demand: the more demand there is, the higher prices rise, and the less demand there is, the lower they fall. As a seller, you want to earn the highest price: therefore, it is in your best interest to sell whenever demand is highest. The opposite is true as a buyer of textbooks. So, when do the stars align for textbook buying and selling?

1. If you are BUYING textbooks, the best time to do it is whenever other people AREN'T typically buying textbooks. Put it this way: the WORST time to buy textbooks is at the beginning of the semester, when everyone is looking for the same book and frantically fighting over beaten up used copies in the college bookstore. Practically any time except the beginning of the semester is the best time to buy your textbooks. As for where to buy your books, the best thing to do is price comparison shopping online using a site like TextYard (started and run by an Indiana University student!) or a free-market site like Amazon.

Of course, there's always that one giant obstacle: maybe you CAN'T purchase your textbooks before classes begin. What if you don't know what textbooks you need before you start classes? What if you want to wait to see if the professor is one of those "you don't really need the book, just take good notes" types? What if there's a test on chapter 1 on the second day of class and you're bookless?? That's where selling timing comes in, to help you earn back some of that $600 you shelled out the first week of classes after all the used textbooks were already gone (ugh!).

2. When SELLING textbooks, the very best time is when demand is highest: aka, the beginning of the semester. That first week of classes when everyone - including you - is scrambling to acquire everything they need is prime time to get the best price possible on last semester's textbooks. I know it's tempting to sell them before you leave for the semester, because who wants to cart around a bunch of insanely heavy books? But it's so worth it. No one is buying books at the end of the semester (that is, no one who didn't read this blog! you know better now!) so the prices will be driven down by lack of demand. So keep your textbooks with you over Christmas break or the summer holidays, so you can sell them at the beginning of the next semester.

3. Now that you know WHEN to sell, the next question is WHERE. We all stopped at the college bookstore as freshman, overpaid to get new books (or maybe we went early and were one of the lucky 3 people to get an over-highlighted, chewed up, but discounted copy) and then returned to the same bookstore at the end of the semester to get back a whopping $00.03 for our zillion dollar textbooks (hyperbole, maybe, but let's face it - not by much). At my school, there are competing bookstores that set up stands across campus to buy your books back for marginally more money than the college bookstore - but still, you'll never make back more then 30% or so of what you paid. Where can you sell your books back for almost the full price of what you paid for them? The answer is The Internet. (Cue harp music and angels singing) The internet is a magical place where people like you are willing to pay close to the same price that you were willing to pay last semester. As long as you list at the right time, you can get back practically the full price for your book (provided a new edition hasn't come out in the past year, in which case, ouch.) My favorite site has always been Amazon because you can set your own price based on the market price (what other people are selling for), the site is easy to use, has a huge market of potential buyers, and Amazon covers your shipping costs. Many other sites give you a price once you ship your book to them, which I don't like because it's really no different than selling it to your local bookstore. I'm sure there are other sites like Amazon where you can set your own price, but I don't know about them (if you do, please comment and let me know)! I think Amazon is really the most popular one, which means more people use it, which means a better chance to sell your book.

4. Now, say you do sign up for a seller account on Amazon, list your book, and it sells. What now? There are a couple of steps before the money lands in your pocket. At some point, either before or after a book sells, you'll need to link up Amazon with your bank account. There are instructions for that on the site. Once you do that you are eligible to receive payment from Amazon. Now, once a book sells, you'll need to confirm the sale - Amazon will send you an email with further instructions once your book sells. Next, print out a shipping label or packing slip, stick the book and packing slip in a bubble mailer or box, and take it to the post office. At the post office, ask to send it by Media Mail. Media Mail is a special shipping rate for books and other media items that makes it much cheaper to ship heavy books. Most packages are judged by weight, which would drive up the price to ship significantly. Within a few hours of confirming shipment, Amazon will put money in your Amazon account, and that money will be deposited in your bank account after a certain period of days.

Now that you know when and how to sell your textbooks online to earn back as much of your money as possible, go forth and sell! Happy saving!!

(Note: one glaring absence from this post is any mention of renting your textbooks. I've never tried this, but I know it's possible. One site to do that is Textbooks R Us, where you can also buy and sell. If you do rent, let me know how it goes!)

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