10 Ways to score textbooks for less

Paying $300 for a 100 page textbook isn’t cool. I don’t care if every page is bound by golden threads weaving wads of knowledge from cover to cover. I’d rather take a pass on pricey tomes and save that moolah for something more pressing — like preventing massive student debt from spiraling outta control. You with me?

If you (or a savvy student in your life) is bound by a student budget and needs to hit the books for less, then send them to the head of the class ’cause I have ten ways to keep textbook costs under control. I’ll leave cramming for that final exam up to you though.

Used Textbooks

1. Search Online Marketplaces and Booksellers.

Skip the college and university bookstores, kiddies. Seriously. To save real money — up to 90% — on required reading materials always grab an advance copy of your course booklist (email your profs repeatedly until they cry) and search online book retailers and marketplaces for used copies. Sites like Amazon.com Textbooks, Half.com, Alibris.com, AbeBooks.com, BetterWorldBooks.com, and ThriftBooks.com all have virtual bookshelves loaded with used textbooks ready for your cost-conscious studies.

The trick is to have your required textbook’s ISBN number handy so you get the right book for your class. Just because a particular book has the same title or author doesn’t mean it’s the right edition for your course.

2. Use a Textbook Comparison Engine.

When bagging a bargain book price is more important than the name of the retailer, use a textbook comparison engine to search for the lowest priced texts from around the world. Sites like BigWords.com, Bookfinder.com, and
LocAZu.com (Canadian Only) let you search hundreds of stores, retailers, and private sellers to score that new or used textbook for a super low price. Just be sure to calculate shipping costs before checking out — some sellers may offer a book for a few bucks but charge students excessive shipping rates that quickly kill the savings.

3. Find an Online Student Exchange Network.

School is a social place, so why not tap into a social network where students swap, sell, and exchange used books at budget prices? Finding a student exchange can be as simple as logging on to Facebook, locating an online school forum, or seeking a class chat room where students are eager to swap texts for far less than bookstore prices.

For example, by searching Facebook for a few minutes, I quickly found the University of British Columbia Textbook Trade Center with over 700 members looking to buy and sell used books. Need Chemistry, English, Economics, Anatomy, or Computer Science books this fall? It’s all there!

4. Borrow from the library.

Does a free textbook help balance your strained student budget? If you answered Yes then you get an ‘A’ in frugality and an ‘F’ in consumerism. Kudos. Now go check out your school or local library to see if they shelve anything on your reading list. Many school libraries carry a few copies of each course textbook, so be sure to check the shelves for the expensive texts each semester before buying. Just watch out for the late fees — those can cost you dearly!

5. Share textbooks with friends.

Don’t be afraid to make a few bookworm friends the first day of class. You may just find a fellow cash-strapped classmate looking to share a textbook to help lower costs. Better yet, form a study group where multiple copies are available for sharing.

6. Rent a textbook?

OK, textbook rentals didn’t exist back when I was dining on Kraft Dinner, but today students can pass on owning textbooks outright by renting them for a semester. The biggest players in the rental field are BookRenter.com and Chegg.com. Chegg claims that renting books can save you anywhere from 30% to 80%, with the most common texts saving you a whopping 50%. Sure, both BookRenter and Chegg offer a sweet compromise between buying an expensive new textbook and shopping for a used tome of dubious quality, but the biggest advantage may be not having to find a buyer when you’re done with the book. Don’t rent these books for too long though — rental fees add up fast and can quickly make a rental more costly than purchasing a book outright.

6. Rent (or buy) a digital textbook.

Want to save a few trees? Buying or renting a digital textbook can not only save you around 30% to 55% off the cover price, but this reading method could save you bookshelf space too. Amazon Digital Textbook Rentals and Chegg.com are popular digital rental options, while eCampus.com and Zino are happy to sell you a digital copy.

Be sure to read the fine print before buying and downloading digital textbooks though — not all mobile devices are supported, and not all sellers allow you to access your copy from more than one device.

For digital renters: I’d be wary of renting over longer periods of time (let’s say 120 days) since the price goes up prohibitively as time moves on. For example, the rental price of Amazon Digital Textbooks in the $100 to $120 price range starts at around $40 for 30 days — that cost can easily double for a semester-long rental to $80. Used books can often be found for cheaper, and unlike rented digital editions, you get to keep the book after the rental period.

7. Shop after classes start.

College and university professors often pad their class reading lists with optional (and expensive) textbooks. Buying every book on your list before class starts might help you make the grade (nerd!), but it could also be an expensive mistake if only a few titles are required reading. To save big bucks, talk to students who have taken the class, or wait until classes start and buy only the essential textbooks for each subject.

8. Get real with your student budget.

It makes little sense to shop for any back-to-school supplies without knowing how much money you have to spend. Maybe you can afford that new textbook? Or maybe you’d rather spend that textbook cash on a nicer apartment! The thing is, you won’t know until you add up the numbers and do the math.

Download my free Student Budget Planner to tally your tuition costs and calculate your campus expenses. You may just find some additional moolah in your budget for that $300 Computer Science book after all.

9. Keep your receipts for tax season.

Depending on your citizenship or country of study, your textbook and student expenses may qualify you for a juicy tax break. Be sure to keep those receipts and read up on the tax rules in your area — both the IRA (United States) and the CRA (Canada) can call you up for proof before handing you a tax refund.

For example: Canadian students can claim the Textbook Amount, a federal non-refundable tax credit which allows full-time students to claim $65 for each eligible month of study, or $20 per month for part-time students.

10. Photocopy, scan, and hide?

Photocopying or scanning a textbook is generally illegal — it’s stealing, really. While paying up to $300 for a single textbook may seem like robbery, making a copy of a textbook could land you in big legal do-do. The Toronto Star recently reported on how textbook piracy is thriving due to the massive price increase on college and university texts over the past few years. There’s no doubt that at $0.10 a copy, a 100 page textbook costs a mere $10 — a $290 savings over buying the real deal for $300. The solution? Well, re-read options 1-9 before even thinking of breaking the law. 😉

Love, Kerry

Your two cents:

  1. Kristi August 23rd, 2011

    Other methods of saving on textbooks:
    -If the newest edition of a textbook is required, see if you can get away with using an older edition. Often the differences in editions isn’t significant enough to warrant spending money on the latest edition.

    -See if the prof/department has any desk copies they can lend out. As a prof, I have multiple copies of each edition and not one student has taken me up on my offer of borrowing the text.

  2. Deb August 23rd, 2011

    I get my texts in alternate format(PDF), due to a disability. Last year I uploaded all my books and readings to Dropbox so that I would have access to them everywhere I went. I believe you can share your Dropbox files with other people as well.

  3. Ross Taylor August 23rd, 2011

    Great timely article Kerry – I plan to post it on my FB page – my university age kids and their friends will appreciate it

  4. Julie August 23rd, 2011

    Good advice, except for the part about libraries having multiple copies of each textbook. Most libraries have certain books on hand that are often used in classes, such as Plato’s Republic. But if you’re looking for the latest edition of some accounting textbook that is released every year, most libraries won’t buy them. I’m a librarian at a university, and our general book-buying policy is “No textbooks”. We can’t justify spending limited resources on a textbook that is only going to be in the hands of one or two students during a semester. That’s not fair to the other students who pay tuition too. We’d have to buy a copy for everyone, which is not at all feasible. (Not unless you want your tuition to skyrocket even further.) Sometimes libraries will purchase a selection of textbook answer keys and keep them on reserve for students to use in the building. Feel free to ask your library about their textbook policy.

    Also, be careful about borrowing a textbook. If it comes due right before finals and someone else requests it, you can be hit with some hefty fines if you don’t return it. If it’s a book you’ll only need for a few weeks, see if you can borrow it. But if it’s a book you’ll need all semester and during finals, it’s better to get your own copy.

  5. Julie @ The Family CEO August 23rd, 2011

    My daughter is a college sophomore and we’ve used several of these techniques to save on textbooks. This year she is renting most of her textbooks through the school’s bookstore.

    #7 is interesting because I had lunch with her today and she told me that next semester she is waiting until classes start to buy/rent books, because some professors have less expensive options to tell them about.

  6. Anath August 23rd, 2011

    I combine 1, 2, and 5 with buying an edition down for massive savings and maximum utility… sometimes even 2 editions down depending on the book. I’ve spent as little as $5 on a textbook with an average of $25ish.

    1 and 2 to find the cheapest edition down, and 5 to make sure all my problem sets and readings are the same as the kid next to me. When I find myself having to check the problem sets and so on more constantly, I go out of my way to help my classmates with their homework, so they’re more than happy to let me thumb through their books to cross check information if they know I’m proofreading their work after.

    Also IMPORTANT, I only do this to the maximum in my non-major courses. In my major courses I’m still frugal, but since I’ll be using the book for years to come I’ll spring $60-80 for a used copy of the current edition, sometimes more depending on the book. I’ve only bought New once.

  7. Kelly August 27th, 2011

    Brilliant post! Shared!

  8. Kelly August 31st, 2011

    …and a great interview on the Paul and Carol Mott Show today!

    http://themotts.ca

    …for anybody who would like to listen!

  9. Len August 31st, 2011

    Deb, the pdf files are supplied to you by the publisher of the book because you have a disability that prevents you from using the printed textbook. They have been made available to you through a disabilities support centre at your school. To obtain these files and supply them to you, the disablilites resource centre has signed an agreement that the files are for ONE student and for a ONE time use. They are not supplied to you to share the files with others. Sharing those files is both a violation of the Canadian Copyright Act and a violation of the agreement signed between your campus disabilty centre and the publisher.

    Kerry: shame on you for not commenting on the illegality of this posters suggestion.

  10. Megan January 3rd, 2012

    I’ve been using these since I started college. I also use old editions if my professor isn’t assigning homework from the book. The slightly different, older edition will often be selling between $0.01 and $10.00 compared to $75-$150 for the newer one. Publishers don’t change much from edition to edition. For this spring semester, I used only Amazon and spent $250-275 total on 7 books. I also made money by selling my textbooks from the fall on the same site. I don’t understand my peers who choose to buy from the bookstore. Bookstores used to be operated by the colleges, so with little profit in mind, but most now have leased out their bookstores to private companies who want nothing but to make an extra buck off already struggling college students.

  11. Tabitha August 18th, 2012

    If you’re buying digital text books, make sure your prof will let you use your laptop. Our first year of college our busness prof told us we were not allowed to use our laptops in class and that e-versions of the books were not allowed. Someone did find a downloadable version for pennies in comparison though. If I’m not mistaken they printed out the chapter we were told we would need for each class. Then again, we used the books we bought for his class twice, making them a complete waist of time and money anyway.

    It’s also a good idea to find out if your school bookstore will buy it back and for how much, before buying a cheaper version, becuase you could end up saving money that way too.

  12. AnneB October 23rd, 2013

    A good way to save hundreds of dollars is to purchaser a textbook one edition older than the current one.
    Once a new edition is published the older editions lose their market value and are significantly cheaper.

    You can get some idea about difference between latest and older editions from picktextbook.com

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