This post was originally published on August 3, 2015. It was updated on August 11, 2020.
You may have spent years focusing on GPA and extracurriculars; you may have spent time and money preparing for and taking the SAT/ACT, researching and visiting colleges, trying to figure out how to pay for college, trying to understand the financial aid and student loan processes, applying for scholarships, and on and on the list goes. You dealt with all these things, and you are finally able to relax and soak in the excitement of heading out on your own for the first time.
Not so fast!
Don’t be blindsided by college textbook expenses. If you don’t set a plan and do some research, your required college books can quickly pile up and cost you hundreds or even thousands of dollars.
When it comes time to purchase college textbooks, here are several ways that you can keep the book costs at a minimum. It may take a little legwork, but the savings can be considerable.
Step #1: Check the Course Syllabus and Get Those ISBNs
Each book has a specific identification number called an ISBN. You can usually find these on your course syllabus. If the syllabus is not yet available, call the campus bookstore or look on the bookstore website.
Do not, I say again, do not purchase any books from the bookstore unless mandated by the professor. The bookstore prices will almost always be higher than other vendors. At this point, you just want information.
Why is the ISBN so important? It will ensure that you get the correct edition of the book. Sometimes, professors are ok with students using older editions. These are often drastically cheaper. If you are unsure whether or not you can use an older edition and the syllabus does not provide an answer, just wait until the first day and ask the professor in class.
Step #2: Begin Your Search
It’s time to go hunting for the best savings.
In order to get a general sense of what each book costs to buy or rent, visit sites like Amazon, Chegg, or Ebay, and search for textbooks by ISBN (or by title and edition if the professor does not require a certain edition).
Many students choose Amazon for its combination of decent pricing and Prime shipping. You can also sign up for Amazon Student using your college email for HALF the cost of a regular Prime account. Even better, the student account comes with a six-month free trial.
Another strategy for beginning your search is to use a price comparison website like CheapestTextbooks.com. It will search all the major textbook sales websites (some you may not know of) and is super convenient for finding the cheapest prices on one page.
Note: For a price comparison site like CheaptestTextbooks.com, you still need to research the private seller’s reputation/score/shipping policy, etc.
Step #3: Ok, You Have the Pricing Info. Now, It’s Transaction Time.
With the pricing information, decide whether you want to:
- Buy new (terrible idea).
- Buy used from an online seller (better idea) and then trade them in at the end of the semester (fantastic idea).
- Rent (good idea).
Let’s run through each option in more detail.
Some students like the convenience and peace of mind of buying their books from the campus bookstore. Please, please DON’T DO THIS! There are so many better options out there when it comes to price. As a general rule, think of your school’s bookstore as the last resort.
In fact, buying new from any seller is generally a waste of money. Do you really want to spend the money on a book you will use for one semester (if that) and never touch again?
There are two main exceptions to this rule:
- If you think you will use this book again or want the book as a future staple for your library, sure, go ahead and buy new. I’m talking timeless classics or intriguing reads here. Often these are cheaper humanities books anyways, so it works out pretty well.
- Sometimes a professor requires the newest edition of a textbook that may also come with a unique code for online learning. There’s rarely a way out of this, besides seeing if you are allowed to purchase it in e-book form. This is most common in math and science courses.
You can get a lightly used textbook for far less than you would if you bought new. You can save even more if you can overlook some scribbling or highlighting.
You also don’t need to worry about keeping the book in excellent condition, unless you are trying to trade it in/re-sell it (this may be a good idea if the book is in decent condition)
This is increasingly a popular option among college students, whether it’s from Amazon, Chegg, or another site. It’s a no-hassle strategy that can massively cut book costs.
You do need to take care of the book and make sure you return it on time! If you can go without the physical copy of the book, see if you can rent an e-book (even cheaper and you don’t have to physically return the book!)
Know that the college bookstore will usually still have higher prices to rent than online sellers.
Some Unorthodox Ways to Get Books on the Cheap/Save Money
- Look to the Libraries: College libraries will often have several copies of class-required books. This is not a home-run option. These books are often checked out immediately by savvy students, and sometimes the library just doesn’t have them.
- The Wait-and-See Approach: Many students, especially first-year students, will purchase or rent their books well before the start of classes. It gives them peace of mind and helps them start on the right foot. Here’s a tip that you may or may not have heard which applies to bigger schools: Don’t buy/rent your books until you are absolutely, positively sure each book is required AND you will definitely remain in this class. I knew people who would wait a week, even two weeks in a class before getting the book. Rarely was this an issue with a professor, especially if the student was resourceful and used someone else’s/got it from the library/found the first few pages online (etc.) in the meantime.
- The Networking Approach: Check with your friends and peers to see if they still have the books from when they took the class earlier. They’ll probably either give it to you straight up, let you borrow it for a semester, or sell it to you for a steep discount.
- The Utilitarian Approach: If a book is particularly expensive, pool your money with a friend or two and study amongst yourselves. I don’t necessarily love this option, as there will be times (e.g. before an exam) where each person will need the book. This will take some planning.
- The Internet is Your Friend: Some books are in the public domain and can be found online for free. Check out Project Gutenberg, which has over 60,000 free e-books. Yes, some of us do prefer physical copies, but e-books will save you money AND, an added bonus, you are able to search by keyword or phrase for research purposes.
- No Paper, No Problem: If you absolutely have to buy an expensive textbook, see if you can buy or rent it as an e-book. A Kindle textbook, for example, will often be cheaper than the real thing.
1) Be proactive, not reactive! This goes for everything in life, not just book purchases.
2) There are so many ways to save on textbooks; all it takes is a little effort and creativity. Do your research and make a gameplan.
3) My two cents: take the book search seriously. Look at it with a competitive mindset and treat it as a game against the “system”– find ways to beat it (legally, of course).
4) I said it already and I’ll say it again: DON’T BUY FROM THE COLLEGE BOOKSTORE.
For many families, the high cost of higher education is a daunting proposition. The College Funding Coach is here to help. To learn more about paying for college while saving for retirement, register for one of our free workshops/webinars or speak with an advisor to get started on your college funding journey.