Tough choices

Laid Bear

In middle school, I used to accompany my mother to the annual book fair to buy books for my next school year. We couldn’t buy all the textbooks in the local bookstore, so this annual fair became an important commencement to a new academic year. At that age, I had a childish anticipation to explore the fair and find new books. I’d skim through the contents page, excited to see what I’d be able to read and learn. This gave me a sense of accomplishment, a sense of growing up.

When I changed schools in high school, getting textbooks became even easier. I simply went to the library, and the librarian would hand me a bag full of textbooks I’d need based on the subjects I had chosen. The price for the books was included in my school fees, so I could enjoy all of the books I wanted. I rarely had to order a certain book online or search for a new edition my teacher had prescribed in the local bookstore.

Coming to UC Berkeley, I was even more excited to get my hands on the textbooks for the semester. I could imagine feeling the printed papers on my fingers, smelling a new book and reading the table of contents. These would reveal to me the amazing things I was going to learn. But for the first few weeks, I had no idea how to find my textbooks.

I was surprised to find so many different ways to get the books you need at UC Berkeley, and I initially felt overwhelmed. Slowly, what had once been a mindless process of going to the book vendor and getting the books I needed became an interesting process of hunting for and finding the best possible way to get textbooks.

My first dilemma was choosing between buying and renting my textbooks. I have always bought the books I needed. Changing from a yearlong class to the semester system made me wonder about the plausibility of renting my books. I learned that I could simply rent books at a lower price if I needed these books for only six months. This wasn’t true for all cases, however. I realized there are certain books that I might need in the future for my career. Math textbooks, economics books and data science material were some of the books I realized I would rather buy and keep permanently than rent for some time.

The second problem that surfaced was where I should get the books from. I thought to myself: Should I get them from the Cal Student Store? Or do I get better prices on Amazon? Oh, my Golden Bear Orientation leader told me about the “Free and For Sale” Facebook page. Maybe I should try getting my books from there? I realized I wanted the best value for my money. Most of these textbooks were very cumbersome and twice as expensive as any book I used in high school.

The third option was the best alternative — downloading PDFs of the books I needed online. The only thing I needed to carry with me to classes was my laptop. Moreover, most PDFs of textbooks could be found online for free! I jumped at the prospect of potentially saving hundreds of dollars and carrying a light bag around campus, but something didn’t feel right. Being an author, I knew the value of paying for a writer’s work. Leaving aside the ethical issues, using pirated PDF copies online would be very hypocritical of me. So I ended up spending a lot on renting and buying books online and from the Cal Student Store.

Another way some of my friends opted for was exchanging books. Some seniors from my high school also attended UC Berkeley. Many of them were planning on majoring in the same subjects we were thinking of. Getting textbooks from them was easy and cheap, since we’d have to pay much less for a used textbook. The problem with these was that, sometimes, these textbooks would turn out to be older editions, which is a problem because the homework sets won’t match.

With all this in mind, I understood the complexity and size of the textbook economy in Berkeley, which reflects that of colleges across the nation. But I feel like this is not the only field where I encountered complexity. Many things I had previously done easily without much thinking became a process of weighing options, performing crude cost-benefit analyses and taking an informed decision — or sometimes a calculated risk. From choosing restaurants and picking the best barber in town to choosing the cheapest, most efficient mode of transport, I suddenly found myself in complicated situations, inundated with a lot of choices and opportunities to make decisions.

I feel that this feeling is the byproduct of being suddenly on my own. Although not completely financially independent, I am still learning how to manage all this newfound freedom. Now that I think about it, this is the essence of economics. I can’t learn to be an economist only in the classroom. Away from the comfort of home, making my own decisions, learning how to economize and understanding how to maximize is perhaps the best way to truly learn about economics — but more importantly, about adulthood.

Abhishek Roy writes the Friday blog on the financial and economic aspects of being an international student. Contact him at [email protected] .