How to Save 20-100% on Textbooks

By Stacy Johnson on 6 January 2010 (Updated 6 June 2013) 23 comments

Since I graduated from college some time ago (I won't embarass myself by saying exactly how long) I had no idea that textbooks had gotten so expensive. How expensive? Well, according to a 2005 study by the General Accounting Office, the average estimated cost of books and supplies per first-time, full-time student for academic year 2003-2004 was $898 at 4-year public institutions, or about 26 percent of the cost of tuition and fees. At 2-year public institutions, the average estimated cost of books and supplies per first-time, full-time student was $886 in academic year 2003-2004, representing almost three-quarters of the cost of tuition and fees. And that was five years ago!

Why is the cost of books and supplies increasing at such a rapid clip? Read all about it in articles like this one from Wikipedia. But as far as this course is concerned, the "why" is academic. This mini-course isn't about finding fault; it's about finding deals. Check out the following TV news story, then join me on the other side for more details.

So the simplest way to get a free textbook is from the school library or your professor. Since supplies will be extremely limited in either case, best you hit these two options the instant you know your schedule. If neither of these ideas work, head for the web. Here are links to the sites I mentioned in this story in order they were mentioned.

Sites where you can download out-of-copyright (old) books:

Sites where you'll find a limited number of free textbooks for online reading or downloading:

Site that offers free, advertiser-supported textbooks in .pdf format: (There's a half-page ad every 3 pages.)

Sites where you can swap textbooks with other students:

Sites where you can find all manner of free stuff, including textbooks:

These are the sites you might find free textbooks; whether you actually succeed is a function of how hard you look and how common the title you're looking for. And if you're thinking of a swapping site, beware of the pitfall of any online transaction: fraud.

If you can't find what you're looking for on a free site or a swap site, what then? Time to try a rental.

Textbook Rental

There are several sources for textbook rental. The first place to try is your college bookstore. The cost to rent a book should be no more than half the price of buying the book; hopefully less. You might find a better deal online -- two popular rental sites are Chegg and BookRenter. The downside of book renting is the same as with renting anything: you don't own anything when it's over and you've got to keep it in great condition. One way to avoid the wear-and-tear issue is to rent a digital copy. You can find these at CourseSmart -- they claim to have more than 8,000 textbooks available for digital download at savings of up to 50%. You can print out up to 10 pages at a time and the license to use the book expires after six months.

Buying Overseas

As with drugs, some publishers sell cheaper overseas. And some booksellers re-import international-edition textbooks and offer them at prices less than in the US, which means you might find a bargain. One site that features international editions is AbeBooks.

There are two potential problems with international editions of textbooks. First, you've got to be sure that the international edition is the same as the domestic one (your professor might know). Also, be aware that some people aren't happy about the reimportation of international edition textbooks, since pretty much everybody from the author to the campus bookstore makes less money as a result. If you want to read more about the controversy, see the Wikipedia page I mentioned earlier.

Buying Used

Used textbooks can often be found at the campus bookstore, not to mention campus newspaper classifieds and bulletin boards. But you should also check sites like Craigs List, eBay, and Amazon. Just be sure you're buying the edition you need -- textbooks are revised often.

Shopping for Savings

When you shop at the campus bookstore, it's convenient, and they'll have the textbook you're looking for. But like buying your groceries at 7-11, convenience often comes at a cost. So shop for savings on books the same way you (hopefully) do for every other expensive purchase you make: do a quick online search at sites like Amazon, BarnesandNoble, Half, ecampus or others (do a search for textbooks and you'll find tons). Or use a textbook shopping bot like GetTextBooks and DirectTextBook.

Comparison shopping is a fairly simple way to save 20% or more on new book purchases and a way to perhaps find a used version for even greater savings.

Bottom line? The cost of both tuition and textbooks has been outpacing inflation for many years. It's not fair, but don't get mad, get smarter. View the challenge as an opportunity to learn a life lesson. Confront costs by combining creativity and legwork, and you can have the things you want for less.

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Guest's picture
Ben

At my alma mater, they had a number of textbooks at the reference desk. You couldn't sign them so you knew that they were always there. I never had a problem using the textbook when I needed it at the library.

Guest's picture
Guest

Stacy-
You made a great start to an article but fell short of really going cheap. All of the pointers you give have been in the know for around the last 4-5 years. Although purchasing overseas doesn't always get mentioned because of high shipping costs.

As a more recent grad and an expert in the textbook trade I'd suggest doing a bit more research. For example my last few courses in college I was able to get through w/o the required textbook(s).

Cheers

Guest's picture
Guest

Another online book-buying site, Better World Books, is a great resource for used textbooks. They offer free shipping anywhere in the US and a portion of every sale funds literacy initiatives worldwide.

-Eddie

Guest's picture
Guest

Don't forget ebay or half.com. I've found a few of my textbooks there. I also get them through Amazon.

sounds strange -- but also check Barnes and Noble. i actually got a brand new accounting book from there for 75 dollars LESS than Amazon or my campus bookstore. i did have a 20% off coupon for them.. AND I cliked to the barnes and noble site from mypoints.com.

so I ended up getting 4 points per dollar for mypoints (which I turned in for a $25.00 gift card) and 75.00 off with FREE shipping.

Not a bad deal --

Another thing to try is to rent out your old textbooks to your classmates if the classes are concurrent. I bought a used finance book for my class, rented it the next semester to a class mate taking the same class, then sold it at the end of that semester. I actually profited 50.00 on the book.

i also usually put my books for sale on amazon or ebay on the day I take the final. by the time i'm done with my test, the book is usually sold.

When renting a book -- if you really look.. it's not always cheaper. I've seen rentals for a few dollars less than i could buy used. then I always resell my books.. so i find it cheaper to just buy it used.

Guest's picture
Guest

Depending on the state or college, there are usually library programs where you borrow books from other college libraries. In Illnois, its called I-share. I would check out all the books from other schools (or my own) and just keep renewing them until the semester ended or I didn't need the book. The books I wanted to keep I would buy off used off amazon, etc.

I saved so much money this way, its ridiculous. And then I didn't get stuck with books I really didn't want to keep for when I took classes for gen eds (like German Romanticism or Sociology.)

Guest's picture
Jon

All of this would have been nice to know when I was back in school- closest I came to saving money was occasionally buying friend's used books to avoid the high cost at the bookstore. They also had a store called "Beat the Bookstore", which I guess did a lot of book exchanging, but I'm not sure if it did well in the long run...

Guest's picture
Jess

University libraries don't like to keep textbooks on hand, because professors change up their required books frequently, new editions come out every year, etc., although many do provide access to e-book versions of texts. But, you can borrow ANYTHING through InterLibrary Loan and similar state-wide lending programs (OhioLINK, MeLCat in Michigan, I-share listed above, and so on). The only catch with this is that you have to time it right, so that the books get there when by the time you need them, and you make sure that you can renew them or get another copy until you're finished with them.

I never spend more than ~$100 for a semesters' worth of books. If I need to buy books, either ones I know I'll want to keep, or ones I can't find online or get in time through the library, my first stop is a search site like bookfinder.com, which searches sites like Amazon, AbeBooks, Barnes & Noble, eBay, half.com, etc., to see who has the lowest cost for a used copy (including shipping costs). Many schools also have some kind of online classified postings with people selling old books. In many college towns, there are also non-university bookstores that have better prices than the school store.

Honestly, my most expensive "school supply" is ink for printing at home, &/or costs for printing and copy services on campus. You'd think the student fees would cover that, but...........

Guest's picture
Jess

I forgot to say, I think that the average student ends up spending way too much on books through sheer laziness. Unless it's a brand new book, or a new edition that's substantially changed from the previous one, in which case having the newest edition is essential, there is absolutely no reason to walk into the university bookstore and pay full price. But, every fall and spring, that's what I see so many students doing - walk in, list in hand, and buy every book, because that gets it finished quickly and they don't have to think too hard about it. They don't consider whether a used copy can be bought cheaply online, or whether it's even a book they'll need to read all of (if you're only going to be assigned one chapter, borrow a copy and scan that one chapter or spend a couple dollars photocopying i!), or if they'll only be using it for one week of class, etc. Laziness, pure and simple, and thus the crazy costs pile up quickly.

Guest's picture
Stephanie

I love bigwords.com. You search by title, author, ISBN and so on. It searches all the major sites and many lesser-known ones, as well, for the cheapest price. It factors in shipping costs and special deals, and then breaks down the results into cheapest individually, and cheapest buying all from one place. (Usually the cheaper of the two, considering shipping.) It's never failed me!

However, when I lost my work study (and therefor lost my job) I couldn't afford that anymore, so I started checking them out of the library and using Inter-Library Loan (ILL). To avoid late fees, I would scan the entire book in the library and then print them out and keep them in a massive three-ring notebook. This might not be a cheap solution for some, but my school has free unlimited printing. Scanning them into a PDF got around the cost for making copies, which would have added up rather quickly.

Guest's picture
Guest

Another major component of textbook cost is the amount of money that you can get for your used textbooks. Almost all colleges will offer to buyback your textbooks for some amount (assuming they are using the textbook the following semester). As I am sure most of you know, professors change the textbooks constantly or the campus store does not offer much.

I would suggest you try www.bookjingle.com. You can simply enter in the ISBN of the book you are trying to sell and it will return an instant offer. You can then visit your campus store knowing that you have another offer. You can then decide to sell your books to the place with the best price. If you choose bookjingle, they also offer a free shipping label. I think it is a great way to sell used books.

As I see it, you have 2 factors that determine your overall textbook cost: 1) the cost to acquire your textbook and 2) the amount that you receive when are done with your textbook. There were some excellent ideas about #1 but I think #2 is also very important.

I hope this helps.

Guest's picture
Guest

My kids attend community college as high school students, so the state pays their tuition, but I buy their textbooks. The problem that I have run into is that many of their textbooks cannot be purchased elsewhere because they are books made especially for their college. I have heard from other parents that other colleges do this also. Not only cannot you not buy these books from most of the discount textbook sites, but places like Book Jingle won't buy them when you are finished with them. Also, the college will have brought in a new edition by the quarter's end, so you can't even sell it back to the bookstore. At my kids' school, they just started a student site to buy and sell books, which I am hoping we can start using.

Guest's picture
Peter Adams

I just discovered Chegg.com this semester and so far I love it. I spent $40 to rent a book that I would have purchased used for a minimum of $90 (and we all know I'd be lucky to get $40 back when selling it back). Either way if you are looking into chegg.com you can use coupon code CC110354 to save 5% on an order you place. The code can also be used to get a $5 bonus on any books you sell to Chegg.com. The code has unlimited use so take advantage.

Guest's picture
Anna

I would also recommend BookDealFinder.com as another website for finding great deals on college textbooks.

Guest's picture

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

And in no time you will: 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.

Maggie Wells's picture

There seems also to be a growing number of instructors that are trying to use the older editions to help out! It never hurts to ask your instructor if you can get away with using an older edition.

Margaret Garcia-Couoh

Guest's picture
Guest

I'd like to second the http://www.bigwords.com suggestion. I've been using them for 3 semesters now for buying and renting, and am very pleased with the results. What I like best is that you can search for all the books you need and their robot tells you the best combined purchase option to get you the best overall price for all the books you need. It's pretty cool.

Guest's picture
Anna

When purchasing textbooks, I use BookDealFinder.com because it is hands down the best website available for this purpose. If someone is purchasing a book and not using this website, I am willing to be that they are paying too much!

Guest's picture
Chelsea

Always buy an older edition if possible. Last spring, my required anthropology book would have set me back about $95 used at the bookstore. I found the previous edition online for $5, read it only sometimes, and got an A in the class. This sort of thing has happened multiple times.

I have a system for selling books "back" to the bookstore. My university's bookstore (a Barnes & Noble) buys books back for up to 50% of the original price. If you buy the book online or from another student for 50% less than the bookstore price, then you'll make more money selling it to the bookstore than you would selling it online. I've made a nice little profit off a few books this way.

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

Compares 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.

Guest's picture
Guest

I found abut about chegg through a friend and was given a discount code for 11% off all books with coupon CC100005 plus I used this code and got an extra $5 cash back on one book I sold.I love http://www.chegg.com they offer renters and sellers free return shipping and I don't know how long the 11% off will last,but I know the normal discount is 5% off and no expiration with unlimited coupon usage.

Guest's picture
Guest

Use code CC120011 to save 11% for a limited time, 5% after that. Also get an extra $5 when you sell you used textbooks.

Chegg saves me a ton of $ every semester!

Guest's picture
Max

I'm glad you mentioned Chegg in your post. To save money on your order, use Code CC123047. Put in the code when ordering and hit the "apply" button for the discount. Code also gives an additional $5 back when selling Chegg your used texts.

The code does not expire so use it every time you order!

Guest's picture
Sarah

Just used CC100107 and saved 15% off my order, this is the best coupon they've ever given out.

Use at checkout over at www.Chegg.com