How to find the cheapest college textbooks

by Paul Michael on 5 March 2009 34 comments
Photo: Wohnai

I’m not in college any more, thank goodness, but I remember every penny-pinching moment. Some days I hardly had enough money for food, mainly because the materials and textbooks I had to buy ripped a hole in my pocket the size of the Grand Canyon. And so I’m always on the lookout for ways to help out college students. Today, I found two.

There are numerous methods available to search for textbooks, including the ever-popular “shopping” search option in Google. But if you want to go deeper, a few of my favorite sites in the past have included:

Abebooks.com
Addall.com
Amazon.com
Alibris.com
Craigslist.org
Bizrate.com
Half.com (which is part of eBay)
Textbooksnow.com

No doubt you’ve used one or two of these already. But it’s a pain to search each one and compare results. Usually, you find the book you want, ponder the price and then pay. Not good enough for me. I want to help students, who are suffering like the rest of us in this hellish economy, to get the absolute rock-bottom price on any book they’re looking for.

So I did a little more hunting around and found some much more powerful search engines, devoted to scouring multiple books sources at once. The two I like the most are CAMPUSBOOKS.COM and BIGWORDS.COM. And they really are the ultimate search engines for books, especially textbooks.

All you need to know are a few basics about the book you’re searching for. The easiest way is to have the ISBN number readily at hand. If that’s not available, you can search by keyword, author, title, the usual search engine options. And as you can see, the results from both sites are impressive. Here are two searches I did for an advertising book I love called “Hey Whipple, Squeeze This.”

CampusBooks results

BigWords results, via their Uber-Marketplace

They’re both great resources, offering different results, so try them both for size.

No money left to buy books? Well, there are also several ways to check out books for free. You have the library as an option, but that of course comes with limited time restrictions. If you’re looking for something more permanent, you should take a look at the following rockin’ free online resources:

Project Gutenberg
Google Books
Many Books

Remember, the campus book store won’t give you the bargains you want. Neither will the usual book stores like Barnes & Noble and Borders. If you want your textbooks at the lowest possible price, online is the way to go.
 

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Guest's picture
Guest

This is great! Although I am no longer a student (it's my spouses turn) I stumbled upon second hand books a few years ago, and was shocked at the savings. One in particular was an 80pg text for a Hydrology course, and it was worth $165 Cdn, at our college book store, but I scored a mint condition one online for $16 (cdn, and included shipping). For a student on a limited budget this was HUGE savings! No one else in my class could be bothered, but I ended up making money on the deal when I sold the book back to the bookstore for $45!

Guest's picture
Guest

Depending on your major and the relationship you have with your instructors, the best way to get a text it to borrow it from them. I borrowed tons of books for my upper-level English classes just by explaining to the teacher that I was broke and couldn't afford the text. Of course, this works less well in a giant survey class. Oh, and you can't write in the books directly, but that's what post-it notes are for.

Guest's picture
iLikeAccounts

Thank. You.

The worst part about accounting is that the books get updated every year (new laws). Any book I can snag for a deal is amazing. Thanks for looking out for us students!

Guest's picture
Brianne

I've started buying all my books from ebay after years of half.com and alibris.com. I generally buy Indian editions for a quarter of the listed price, if not less.

Guest's picture
Guest

This likely only works for humanities majors, but it's worth a try no matter what. I bought only around 15% of my textbooks, for classes like psych or computer science. For history, english, etc. just go to the library as soon as you get your book list. Most schools have multiple copies of books, or have connections so you can borrow from other schools, and in that case you can often even wait until you need the book to check it out. Just keep on top of due dates and be sure to renew your books before they're due. I just graduated, and throughout four years I only had to pay $25 because they claimed I didn't return one book, and then a few bucks in late fees.

Guest's picture

You can also get cheap textbooks through the national Goodwill online auction site, www.shopgoodwill.com or our Goodwill site through Half.com: www.gooodwillnne.org/half.

Thanks for the informative post!

Guest's picture
Sarah

I can't believe that no one's mentioned renting textbooks through Chegg! Textbooks available for rent on Chegg are normally half price, you can highlight in them, and return shipping is paid.

The best part is that they MUST take back your textbook. If a new edition comes out the semester after you use a book, then bookstores or online sites often refuse to buy it back. In theory, you get half of what you've paid by selling back textbooks, but I've been offered too little (sometimes as low as $0.25) too many times.

Guest's picture
Guest

I am working on my B.S. in accounting and have used Chegg many times. I love it! You can choose your rental period, either semester or quarter. The prices are great, often half of retail. As an added perk, Chegg plants a tree for each textbook you rent.

Guest's picture
Sue

I was just getting ready to make a post regarding Chegg as I had purchased a book from the company and saved a bundle in comparison to how much it would of cost me had I purchased it outright.

I just started my Doctorate and I've got three years (maybe four depending) of high priced books. Since I went through my IT degree, the majority of those books were kept for future reference however there were some that I did sell back. With my Masters, all material was computerized (e-book) since I did a lot of research and writing of thesis papers.

As for the Doctorate, I just started so I'm not sure how that's going to work out but I did see the university which I am attending has e-books which is fine. I'm specializing the Doctorate in marketing, finance, and international business so depending upon the text, will determine whether or not it gets kept.

That is something else that should be considered, if the book can help you as a future reference is something wanted to be kept, it is best to determine what type of media can be be purchased within your budget.

Good luck on studies!

Regards,
S.L. Elvins, MBA Business Administration, BSMIS

Guest's picture
Mary

I've actually had a bit of trouble buying books online. I'm in Canada, so the selection of used Canadian books out there is already much smaller, and often the editions of the books are different. I was in a two year Accounting college program, and obviously none of the books would be the same except since the laws and everything are different from the US. Also, most of the books were new editions. Finally, over the two years, I had 4 courses which had an online component, and required a valid Lyryx card and/or some other code to access the publisher's websites for quizzes, which was often bundled in with the text. In that case, if you got a used book, you had to purchase the card/access code separately, and then it might not be worth it to be used or online.

There were a couple of things I did to save some money though:
-go to the bookstore early to see if they have any used copies from the previous semester
-buy books from Amazon.ca; although you are still paying full price, you might be able to get them for 5% less than the bookstore price. With their free shipping over 39 dollars, it's worth it.
-share books. I have a friend who is taking two courses this semester that I took last semester. I will lend her my books. You can come up with some kind of agreement on paying half/half and then selling and splitting the sale, or one person pays 15% of the book to 'rent' it from you if you want to keep it, etc.

Guest's picture
Laura

This past year I've been able to get quite a few books for my daughter (English and history major) through PaperBackSwap. I had plenty of credits and the sender of the requested book paid the price of media mail to get the books to me.

I also posted and mailed out a couple of textbooks my daughter and my son had used and decided not to sell back to the bookstore on campus. Again, all I paid was the media mail rate to mail the book, and when it was received I got another credit to use for more books.

Guest's picture
Nicki

Betterworld.com has: 1) an ENORMOUS selection of books, 2) the shipping is almost free in the US with just a $0.27 charge for carbon free shipping ($3.97 for international shipping which you cannot beat with a stick - I know - I've tried), and 3) the money goes toward global literacy programs. I live in Belgium and have only been buying from Betterworld.com for 3 or 4 years now. I have never had a single problem with them (and I buy alot). I'm sure you've heard the saying "if it seems to good to be true, it probably is". I keep looking for the trick or the loophole but have yet to find it.

Guest's picture
Steve

In addition to the websites already mentioned, I also use BookDealFinder.com. I can find the best possible price on all my books in under 5 minutes. It usually saves me about $200-$300 per semester. I would highly recommend checking it out if you haven't already!

Guest's picture
Guest

Ooooof! I wish I'd read this information a few years ago when 3 of our kids were in college simultaneously. Talk about trashing your budget!!! We used Abebooks.com and Barnesandnoble.com and saved some serious money with used textbooks, but it looks like these rates are even better.

I took classes myself and used books several editions out of date or went to the library for humanities class literature resources as a previous poster suggested. I got by OK and passed each class doing this, but it was a lot more work for a student with limited time who was working their way through school. None of the page numbers matched up with my syllabus and a few chapters/topics had been added that the old books didn't have. I also got caught with my pants down a few times because some information in the old text had changed over time and I had learned the wrong answer. Still ... I didn't have money for both tuition and books, so this enabled me to take the classes and pass with at least a "B."

CLEP out of as many general education requirements as you can (if you have kids still in high school, encourage them to take Advanced Placement classes to accomplish essentially the same thing). For $55 you earn 3 college credits to put towards your degree. Some colleges won't accept CLEP or transfer credits, but all will let you take the next higher level class, so either way you win! If it's going to cost you $30,000 either way, you might as well take quantum physics sophmore year from the nobel laureate professor instead of 3 years of Calculus and not have to pay $60,000 to take that same class as a "graduate" student because you wasted the first 4 years of college fulfilling GER's and rudimentary field-of-study classes.

If your town landfill has a swap shop, you'll frequently stumble across old textbooks too out of date for a traditional class, but perfectly acceptable to study for the CLEP exam because the information is still good and you're not catering to a teachers idea of how you should regurgitate the knowledge on a test. I CLEP'd out of U.S. History, Biology, and Algebra I and II and wish I'd learned about this trick earlier (could have saved myself $30,000). The information CLEP tests you on is mainstream, so almost any old textbook can be used for self-teaching. My Algebra I text was an old military officer training book from World War I and my biology textbook was from the 1970's (though I also scanned a "reserve" textbook at the library to fill in blanks because I noticed a lot of DNA information was missing).

Some colleges, such as Lesley University in Cambridge, have distance programs where you take a weeklong seminar on campus, propose which subject/class you would like to self-learn and work with an course advisor to piece together your own class and degree program (Intensive Residency Option program), then go home to finish your work on your own. They encourage you to go to the "source" to learn each subject (such as actually reading Freud, Jung, Watson and Piaget to learn psychology instead of reading a paragraph about them from a textbook). This is how I finished the last 60 credits of my bachelor's degree. You read the books, write a paper outlining what you learned, and you get your grade. The first semester we went to the bookstore and bought used books, but by the second semester I smartened up enough to check what was available through inter-library loan first and only bought books I couldn't borrow for free. Since most primary sources are readily available for free, I saved a bundle. However, to do this, you need to be self-motivated and disciplined enough to stick to your own program (good for getting yourself through college, not so good for your 19-year-old kid).

If you take a foreign language class, instead of paying a fortune for all the expensive bells and whistles that go with your textbook that most people never end up using, you can download free supplemental foreign language texts and audio drills already paid for by your tax dollar decades ago at the Foreign Service Institute website.

Well ... we've got 3 more kids who will also be heading off to college in a second budget-busting block in a few more years. Thanks everybody for the useful information!!!

Paul Michael's picture

for all the additional resources you guys. Keep 'em coming.

Paul Michael's picture

for all the additional resources you guys. Keep 'em coming.

Guest's picture

I agree with the previous poster. Buying older editions will definitely be the cheapest way. Most college textbooks are pretty much the same from one edition to another with the exception of a new article or different pictures or something added to the appendix. But content wise should stay fairly the same, unless you have some cutting edge technology that changes every semester...

I finished my masters with minimal cost by buying older editions on Amazon and Half.com. You just have to do research to find the right ISBN number or title to get the edition that you want.

If there is a newer edition out, don't buy it... buy the older edition and compare with a classmate who has the current version... you'll see the similarities.

Guest's picture
Margaret

for putting the Teen Study Bible at the top of the stack of textbooks. :)

Guest's picture
Guest

Create an ebates.com account and then search for half.com. It will take to directly to the half.com website. If you then make a purchase you will get a rebate check for 3% of your purchase once a quarter.

Guest's picture
Guest

Using an old book to CLEP out of biology was a good idea. No need to dissect some poor unfortunate kitty murdered by the in-humane society!

Guest's picture
JC

One of the cheapest ways to save money on books is to borrow them from the library. My school allows you to check out a book for the entire semester. Also, even though some class textbooks may be on reserve... you really just need a few hours with them. Better than dishing out 100 bucks.

With regards to price comparison sites, I found GPABook to be quite useful. Bigwords has more features, but GPABook has course reviews integrated with comparison tool.

But as always, you can always ask around. A lot of people have taken the class before, but still have the book lying around. Maybe you can get their old exams too =)

Guest's picture
Dr. Watson

All these recommendations, but have you tried to search them all at once? I get the best results that way. Just look up book price comparison sites (example: http://www.bookspy.net/). They let you search all the bookstores online at the same time and returns to you a list of the lowest prices, condition, etc... Great tool

Guest's picture
Frances

You can also check out www.DealOz.com , DealOz compares 200 bookstore prices and free discount coupons too. Their coupons are valid and have saved over $500 on my textbooks.

Guest's picture

A must have Greasemonkey script for Firefox. (Very useful script. A must have if you buy 5 or more books per year.)
http://userscripts.org/scripts/show/65482

Compare book prices from various book stores. Realtime, fast and accurate. Included sites: Abebooks, Alibris, Amazon.com, Barnesandnoble, Betterworldbooks, Biblio, Borders, Craigslist, Ebay, Ebooks, Google Books, Half, Kindle Editions, Powells, Strandbooks, Thriftbooks, Walmart. Fixed and Improved BookBurro.

If you are not familiar with Greasemonkey or FireFox I highly recommend that you:
01. Get FireFox
02. Install Greasemonkey Add-on
03. Install BookInfoLine script

You'll love FireFox and multiple Add-ons and Greasemonkey scripts for all occasions. All process would take less that 15 minutes.

Guest's picture
Guest

We love using Chegg to rent textbooks and save a lot of money! I wanted to share a code that your readers can use to get a discount on their text order. Put in the code when ordering and hit the "apply" button. The code also gives you back an additional $5 when selling Chegg your used texts.

The code does not have an expiration date so it can be used with every order. Here it is:

CC123047

Feel free to pass this code to friends!

Guest's picture
Guest

As a college professor I hate seeing the price of books go higher and higher every year. Part of the cost is all the pretty colors and pictures. Much of the costs are related to all the bells and whistles that go with the text--CD study guides, instructor manuals, PowerPoint slides for instructors. If the texts were basic-not many graphics and a basic softcover study guide--the cost would be less.
When a new edition of a text comes out, professors are required to use it. We do not have an option. The publishers do not sell the old editions any more.
My recommendations for when students ask me if they can use an old edition of a text:
1. I am required to use the newest edition. All test/quiz items will be based on the edition that is listed in the syllabus.
2. Look at the table of contents in both new and old editions. See if there are any major changes--chapters added/deleted, chapters rearranged.
3. Look at the preface of the new edition. Many new editions list the changes from the old edition.
4. At least get the paperback study guide for the new edition. You can see the individual chapter objectives. If you can answer the practice questions in the new study guide based on the old text chances are you will be OK with the older text.
5. Texts that are in higher editions--8th/9th edition tend to have fewer changes than newer editions. New editions come out about every three or four years and, frankly, authors tend to get complacent after the first few editions.

Guest's picture
Lisa

Having just graduated, I can relate to the struggle to reduce the cost of textbooks, spending thousands of dollars on textbooks, even after dedicating hours to finding the best deals online.

Book.ly is a textbook price comparison site that makes buying textbooks easier and less expensive. The website offers options including purchasing new/used books/e-books or renting and standard or expedited shipping. Through Book.ly, you may also look up a book by its ISBN or sell a book back.

Most uniquely, Book.ly has school specific information so it knows what books you need for each class and which of our reputable affiliates sells them at the lowest prices. All you have to do is select your preferences along with the classes you are taking and Book.ly does the rest.

Guest's picture
Rick Rexor

I couldn’t stand how much I had to pay for books on top of tuition. To Buy College Textbooks at a fair price, I went to http://www.cheapesttextbooks.com and got the prices that every student deserves. Not only did I get a fair price, but I got the most up-to- date edition for all of my classes.

Guest's picture

If you’re looking for cheap college books, you have to check out http://www.cheapesttextbooks.com/. I used to buy used from one of the stores at UDEL until I found this site, they had every textbook I needed for this semester for like half the price. Then, you can sell them back to the stores for the same price. Can’t beat it.

Guest's picture
Jeff

Price comparison sites are the way to go to find the best deal. You can usually find a used copy somewhere for less than it costs to rent. Google "CheapFTW" to find the best (IMO) textbook price comparison site.

Guest's picture
Guest

I can hardly believe what I'm reading. Not only did this post provide me with some GREAT resources (it was getting really tiring trying to find a comprehensive search engine so I didn't have to look twenty different places to find the best deal), but the comments also provided some great ideas too. When I completed my bachelor's the online thing was only really just starting to blossom. Now that I'm going back to do my master's I don't have a lot of money or time to be doing all kinds of research to find a book. Now I can knock out two birds with one stone. Awesome! So glad I found this post.

Guest's picture
Jason

Its so hard to figure out how to find deals. A friend of mine referred this site http://www.helpineedbooks.com …Its very simple to use and a good interface..Its basically a priceline for textbooks, I think there are many of these sites out there.. but I find more features and more stores on this site. Its been by far the best resource to find cheap Textbooks. Cheap College textbooks are a curse in this time and days..sucks that you have to buy them but thanks for sites and the resources they provide

Guest's picture
Guest

Another option I used was BookRenter.com,they tell me they are the original online textbook rental service. They offer one-stop shopping with the largest selection of high quality college textbooks at unbeatable prices. Students save up to 80% and never pay for shipping by renting their college textbooks – Lets be honest its far cheeper to rent them, once you finish your course you will never open them again.It helped me survive

Guest's picture
Shane

I just saved over $200 using those tools. Great post - thanks so much!