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How to Buy your College Textbooks On the Cheap

Updated on July 4, 2012
When the title of your book is "Mathematics," you know you aren't good at math.  I'm an English major; give me a break!
When the title of your book is "Mathematics," you know you aren't good at math. I'm an English major; give me a break!

Why Your University Bookstore is Not Your Friend

Being a super senior means I have bought many, many books--most of which I will gladly never open again. And I have learned a lot since my first intimidating day on campus: like ingenious ways to buy books cheap so I could afford to purchase better things, like coffee and clothes. *Sigh*, priorities, priorities. For this reason, it pains me to see the unsuspecting freshmen in line at the university bookstore, paying $100 on a single book! I wish someone would have given me the advice I'm about to share when I was but a wee lass. Ah, but you can learn from my foolish mistakes, and in the end you will buy your text books dirt cheap. Just follow these simple rules:

Start Early. In many cases, the earlier you begin your book hunt, the better. Why? Because some places I'll recommend, like Ebay, require bidding: you can reserve your greenbacks for other mischief if you're able to wait for an auction's completion, which often takes a week. Also, having time on your hands will prevent you from settling for higher prices simply because class begins, uh, like, tomorrow.

Here are some of my favorite sites for comparing prices and finding steals:

1) Amazon.com 2) Ebay.com 3) Random Google Search 4) Abebooks.com

I always begin my search with Amazon. Why? Starting with all of Googleland is a bit overwhelming, and Amazon has a very competitive edge due to its size: many people are selling on Amazon and this drives prices down. However, Amazon does not always have the lowest price, so please don't stop here. It all depends on how much digging you are willing to do. Sometimes, when I'm feeling lazy, I'll stop at Amazon simply because the book is only a couple bucks. When the stakes are high, however—as in a $50/book—I become more diligent in my hunt.

When You Should Procrastinate. If you're a procrastinator, you may actually be able to save even more money than that early bird eating that flavorless worm.

Here's how:

Did you know that you can often get away without buying books in many classes? It's true. In fact, if you avoid ordering books until after classes begin, you will often find your professor gives you everything you need in class, and that the book is nothing more than supplemental material. Professors often list textbooks as suggested reading — like we have time to read anything other than the required stuff!

Worst case scenario: You find that you did in fact need that book. Uh oh. Well, you can borrow from a friend (or soon-to-be friend), or tell your professor your situation, and he or she will often lend you their book (for smaller schools), or inform you there are copies on reserve in the library. Library copies are a great way to avoid buying a book.

Can You Settle For a Different Edition or Version of the Same Book? If you are not satisfied with the prices turning up on the web, you then must decide if you require the exact edition of that book. Often, you can get away with an older edition, or perhaps even a different version of the same text (i.e. different publisher, different page numbers, same content).

Different Edition: Why are there 29 editions of your particular philosophy book? Has Plato changed his mind? Did we rediscover that the earth really is flat? The truth is, publishers want to keep making money from the information they've already invested in. It's an ingenious plan, really; however, it doesn't keep the student's interest in mind. What I like to do, is utilize the preview option on the internet. For instance, if you think you may be able to get away with the 28th edition instead of the 29th, see if you can find a sneak peek (think Amazon and Barnes & Noble) of the glossary and compare the two editions. If the books look primarily similar, you could save huge money buying a previous edition; as in up to 90% savings! This really does work.

Different Version of Same Book: Sometimes your teacher gives you one ISBN for, let's say, The Great Gatsby. However, there may be up to ten versions of this novel which are perhaps only different in publisher and thus page numbers. If you don't mind having the exact same text but being on a different page number all semester (if it saved me enough money, I'd deal with it), then this trick could save you a lot. Using Amazon, look up your book by title as opposed to by ISBN, as this will give you all versions of this book. Warning: For intensive English courses, or courses in which you will be reading aloud from pages, or sharing in discussions, I might consider sticking with the exact ISBN given by your professor. If you get a book with different page numbers, you'll find yourself saying things like: "Okay, If I subtract two page numbers I should be on the same page.” Not a good plan.

Use Technology to Your Advantage: Do you own a smartphone? If so, you can go to your bookstore and scan barcodes to discover your savings. First, download a price comparison app, like Amazon's Price Scanner, or the handy RedLaser Classic Scanner. Both are superb because they perform a broad web search. Take your phone to your bookstore and scan away (try not to look creepy). Interestingly, you might find that with online shipping costs, your school really does have the best deal. This is rare, but it happens.

Reselling Your Books and Getting the Highest Return Possible: Please, please do not think your bookstore is going to give you a fair price for your books. You will be lucky to get anything. If you want to get the most money for your books, do follow these rules:

1. Keep your book in good condition. This means avoid excessive notes and highlighting if you can. However, do not do this if it will hurt your grades.

2. Resell online. Amazon and similar sites are great because you can list your book for free until it sells, while setting your own price. Amazon asks you to rate the condition of your book; you get more money for books rated “good” or above. Ebay is great too, but you may not get what you expected if you start your asking bid too low. If you want the highest return, however, Amazon takes a whopping 15% + other fees, whereas Ebay's asking rate is much lower.

3. Once someone has ordered your book, send your book promptly (within 1-2 business days) using media mail. This is very important for heavy books. USPS offers media mail, which is limited to media (i.e. CDs, books, records, DVDs), and media mail prices are phenomenally cheaper if you have heavy items. You might pay only $4 for shipping as opposed to $12. You have to specially request it be sent in this fashion, as the USPS workers may not know you have media in your envelope.

Well, that's all for now. I hope you can save big bucks this semester, and if you'd like to share some of those savings with me, I like peppermint mochas, no whip. Good luck and happy reading!

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    • LindaSmith1 profile image

      LindaSmith1 5 years ago from USA

      There was a book we needed for a college class which was $200 or more. Another student found her book online and only paid $75 for a brand new book.

    • jaylucas profile image
      Author

      jaylucas 5 years ago from Midwest, USA

      Thank you for sharing LindaSmith1. Yes, after my initial semester of being broke, I knew I had to find a way to save money. Since then I have never paid even $100 for a book. I appreciate your input. Searching the web really works.

    • profile image

      Cesar 5 years ago

      I spent over $500 my first semester on 3 books. T_T I wish I had read something like this earlier!!

    • jaylucas profile image
      Author

      jaylucas 5 years ago from Midwest, USA

      Caesar:

      I KNOW! It's a bummer. Alas, share your wisdom...maybe we can get these bookstores to be more competitive.

    • LindaSmith1 profile image

      LindaSmith1 5 years ago from USA

      Bookstores don't need to be competitive. Students need the textbooks, and they run to the bookstore to get them. Do you ever see a bookstore advertise a sale on textbooks, probably not.

    • jaylucas profile image
      Author

      jaylucas 5 years ago from Midwest, USA

      That's true. It's the nature of the beast; no competition no need to lower prices. This is similar to the philosophy of amusement parks. Where else would you buy a hotdog for 6.00? However, I do think with the internet so readily at our disposal that we can create a sense of competition and at least level the playing field a bit. What do you think?

    • Brupie profile image

      Brupie 5 years ago

      Much of your advice is useful, but trading savings on college textbooks for six dollar mocha frappuccinos doesn't sound like wisdom to me. You'll have a lifetime to indulge in expensive coffee drinks, but probably only have one shot at college. Certainly, look for bargains, but I'd take a close look at my professor's syllabus before I'd decide to dispense with a textbook or two.

    • Rosie writes profile image

      Rosie writes 5 years ago from Virginia

      Thanks for such an informative article. I am returning to school after many years for graduate classes and have been thinking about ways to avoid the high prices of college books. I will definitely be shopping online.

    • jaylucas profile image
      Author

      jaylucas 5 years ago from Midwest, USA

      And thank you, Rosie, for utilizing my article. That's what it's here for ;) Good luck in your studies.

    • profile image

      bubbsporky 5 years ago

      Ahhh I have such an intelligent sister. :)

    • jaylucas profile image
      Author

      jaylucas 5 years ago from Midwest, USA

      Why thank you, sister. :)

    • Simone Smith profile image

      Simone Haruko Smith 5 years ago from San Francisco

      Wow, SUCH good advice! If only I had known all this when I was getting ready for freshman year @_@

    • jaylucas profile image
      Author

      jaylucas 5 years ago from Midwest, USA

      Why thank you, Simone...Liked your butter idea. Can't say I've ever tried it, but then again I don't bake much.

    • profile image

      poorcollegestudent 5 years ago

      Thanks for your help :)

    • jaylucas profile image
      Author

      jaylucas 5 years ago from Midwest, USA

      You are welcome. :)

    • ripplemaker profile image

      Michelle Simtoco 5 years ago from Cebu, Philippines

      A helpful hub for college students! Thank you for writing and sharing your tips! :)

      NEWS FLASH: Congratulations on your Hubnuggets Nomination! You are one of the Personal Finance Nominees! Hurry and see for yourself right here: http://koffeeklatchgals.hubpages.com/hubnuggets6/h... Now remember to read, vote and promote! Love and blessings in behalf of the Hubnuggets Team and ME as the Hubnuggets official cheerleader! Enjoy the Hubnuggets and wishing you a year of financial abundance!

    • DougBerry profile image

      DougBerry 5 years ago from Abilene, TX

      Hey, contratulations on your HubNuggets nomination. Good luck!

      Also, within my major we used to sell our books to each other. Some poor sucker got stuck the first time, but if they're giving you 25% back at the bookstore, why not pass it on to a fellow student for that price?

    • jaylucas profile image
      Author

      jaylucas 5 years ago from Midwest, USA

      Love this idea! I've always thought there must be a way to be profitable AND local with this resale tactic. Great advice! Not sure what a HubNugget is...but on my way to check it out! :)

    • jaylucas profile image
      Author

      jaylucas 5 years ago from Midwest, USA

      How FUN! I voted for myself...is that...illegal? :) Thanks for inspiring me to keep creating.

    • profile image

      crochet48 5 years ago

      I like the tips you wrote about - my son is a freshman and books are definitely not cheap. One of my journalism professors used two strategies to fight expensive texts: first, for his propaganda class, he had us buy used versions of a 40-year-old book; second, for the other mandatory book, he had us go to the library and make copies, then use those all semester long. As a single parent on her second round of college, that really helped!

      Voted you up and congrats on the hubnugget!

    • jaylucas profile image
      Author

      jaylucas 5 years ago from Midwest, USA

      I think it's great when professors are sensitive to their students' financial situations. Thanks for the encouragement. :)

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 5 years ago

      This is great information for the college bound and current college students. As a professor, my students inform me that they do look at the sites for savings on book purchases. Hey, I've been there and know the savings are there if you look for them. I had not heard of abebooks so this will be helpful. I also encourage instructors to teach from the books the students have to purchase to justify the cost. Great hub and voted up!

    • Gemini Fox profile image

      Gemini Fox 5 years ago

      Great information even though my student days are long past. I do have a friend though who is going back to college and she told me how much some of her books were - outrageous! I smell a scam! But she also told me about a website (and I can't for the life of me remember the name of it) but she used it to 'rent' books - I think for even less than buying them at discount through Amazon, etc. Never heard of this when I was in college!

    • jaylucas profile image
      Author

      jaylucas 5 years ago from Midwest, USA

      As a student. I TRULY appreciate this sensitivity to your students! Wonderful comment; thank you.

    • jaylucas profile image
      Author

      jaylucas 5 years ago from Midwest, USA

      Times are a-changing :) Fortunately, the internet makes competition ripe! I never did the rental thing, only because I could usually find deals good enough to purchase the book for the same price. You have to look, however, and it sometimes takes time. It time is money, than I think renting is the way to go! I will think about adding "rental" as a subcategory...thank you!

    • jaylucas profile image
      Author

      jaylucas 5 years ago from Midwest, USA

      As a student. I TRULY appreciate this sensitivity to your students! Wonderful comment; thank you.

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