The 3 Cs of renting vs buying textbooks: Cost, convenience, and cybersecurity

Ben Osborne 7 Aug 2023

Renting textbooks is usually the cheaper option, but you might end up paying in other ways. 

Well, it’s that time of the year again: Students are scrambling to find the cheapest version of their textbooks they can. And with textbook prices being as high as they are, most of us usually decide to just take the cheaper route and rent all the books we can without a second thought. 

However, there’s a lot more you should take into consideration than just the sticker price before deciding whether to rent or buy. If you play your cards right, you might be able not only save a couple bucks, but also make things a whole lot more convenient for yourself along the way. Not to mention that with the rising popularity of ebooks, your choice to rent or buy could also significantly impact your cybersafety. 

To keep things simple, we’ll be going over our three Cs of shopping for textbooks: cost, convenience, and cybersecurity. 


Definitely the first thing on a lot of people’s minds, cost goes a little bit deeper than just finding the lowest price you can and adding it to your cart. 

When it comes to renting, no two rentals are the same. While one rental might send you an ebook code that takes two minutes to set up and expires automatically at the end of the semester, another might ship you a five-pound textbook from across the country and charge you twenty bucks to ship it back at the end of the year. Not to mention that most physical rentals will charge you extra if the book comes back in worse shape than it went out, so definitely take supplemental costs into account when looking at rental prices. 

On the other hand, buying your textbooks opens a lot more doors in terms of places you can shop. Skimming through eBay, Facebook Marketplace, local used bookstores, or any other place that sells secondhand books can score you some serious deals, not to mention that you can always buy old books off friends. Even if you end up paying more than you would’ve paid renting, you can still turn around and sell the books to break even or sometimes come out on top if you’re smart about it.

Back in my sophomore year, one of my roommates went on eBay right after classes got out in December and found cheap listings for all the expensive books he knew he'd be needing for the next semester. Since the semester had just ended, there were a lot of people trying to get rid of their old books and not too many people buying them yet, so prices were pretty low. So he bought the books, used them through the spring, and sold them all for a nice profit when demand went up again that fall. 

Probably the best middle ground is renting from places that give you the option to buy at the end of the period. For example, I had a paperback textbook for a coding class that only cost 20 bucks to rent and had a 20-dollar penalty if I decided to keep it. Since it was a pretty useful directory of all the concepts we’d learned in that class, I decided to just pay the extra cash and keep it on my shelf for future reference. If I ever decide I don’t want it anymore, I can probably sell it for at least 20 dollars, and then it’ll be the same as if I’d only ever rented it. 


Beyond just the shopping experience, it's also important to consider how each option aligns with your study habits and lifestyle. 

For example, a lot of rental platforms give you instant digital access to whatever books you buy, meaning you can start using them right away without waiting for shipping. For online courses or last-minute schedule changes, this could be the determining factor in itself just because of how much hassle it saves. On the other hand, if you're someone who likes to jot down notes directly in the margins of your textbooks, buying physical copies of your books might be worth the extra cash just for that convenience. 

Depending on who you rent from, sometimes the books expire or are due back after only a few months. One time, I made the mistake of activating one of my French textbooks a week before classes started, and the rental ended up expiring two days before my final. Luckily for me, French conjugations aren’t the hardest thing to find on the internet, but buying could be your only option if your school’s semesters are even a few days longer than usual. 

The elephant in the room in terms of renting vs buying is the hassle of returning rented books. People will always complain about how annoying it is to have to ship back all your books at the end of the semester but, in my experience, that’s never been too big of a deal. The process has never taken longer than a few minutes of packing and a brief walk to the post office, so don’t let that alone dissuade you from renting.

On the other hand, one advantage of renting textbooks that often gets overlooked is that you don’t have to worry about physical storage space. Textbooks are big, and if you’re living in a dorm, you’ll run out of space quick. 


Here in the digital age, even choosing how you access your textbooks can impact your online safety and privacy. Generally, a good rule for shopping online is that the further you stray away from big suppliers, the more vulnerable you make yourself to cyberthreats. If you’re sticking to sites like Amazon or the textbook manufacturers, you’re going to be fine. However, if you ever find yourself taking a chance on a sketchy website, here are a few rules you can follow: 

Fear the unsecured 

The first thing you should look for on every website you visit is if it’s secured. You can spot an unsecured website by checking whether there’s an “https://” in the URL (and most browsers will also alert you if you’ve entered an unsecured website, too). If a website isn’t secured, that means it’s not encrypted, and any information (particularly your payment information) is at risk. 

Put a few layers between you and the seller 

If you’re not 100% sure of the validity of a website, using a payment platform like PayPal is a great way to keep yourself safe. That way, if anything goes wrong, the seller won’t have your actual credit card info and you can cancel your payment at any time. 

Be cautious with downloads 

If you’re shopping for ebooks, know that just about every reputable ebook seller has an online viewer. If you’re prompted to download a program locally to your device for any reason, maybe think about finding another supplier.

Ultimately there's no one-size-fits-all answer to the buying versus renting textbooks debate. Each decision is individual, encompassing not just financial considerations, but personal study habits, lifestyle, and cyber safety concerns. It's a matter of balancing our three Cs: cost, convenience, and cybersecurity. 

In the end, it's about being informed and strategic with your choices to maximize value, productivity, and safety. Remember, whether you rent or buy, your aim should be to navigate this annual scramble in a way that best aligns with your specific needs and circumstances.

Author: Ben Obsborne

Ben Osborne is a cyber security expert and junior editor at Gen focusing on data privacy and web safety. With a keen eye for spotting scams and bad actors, he’s on a mission to help keep everyone on the internet safe, secured, and informed. When he’s not busy stopping cybercriminals, Ben enjoys watching movies, playing games, and collecting retro tech


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