How to save money on college textbooks

The Pain. The Agony. The Price.

Plan Ahead to Save Money on Textbooks.

Textbooks are a necessary “evil” when it comes to your college expenses. While essential, there are many ways to reduce the burden to your budget. The fall semester is almost here, but a little work now can reap big savings. The biggest money saver is to purchase your books used. For expensive books, savings of over 50% are common.

The most convenient way to get your textbooks is, of course, from the college bookstore on campus. However, because of the contract they have with the college, it is likely to be the most expensive choice. In some cases, like with certain scholarships or grants, the bookstore is your only option.

The biggest factor in looking at alternative sources for textbooks is making sure you get the right book. Under federal copyright regulations all books are required to have a ISBN (International Standards Book Number) assigned to the book for easy identification. This is a ten-digit number, and it usually appears above the bar code on the back of the book, as well as on the copyright page.

Most college bookstores now have online ordering and you can check the book requirements online, and get the details on what is required: title, author, edition, and the ISBN.

If the instructor is listed as “TBA” or the course has no books listed, contact the department head listed on the college website to get more information. Let them know you are planning on getting the books from a different source because you want/need to save money. The professor should tell you the ISBN as well as the title, author and edition. Also, if any of the books you need are part of a collection of CDs, web-study programs or other “accessories”, be sure to contact the professor and find out if you actually need these items. Frequently the bookstore bundles products together and not all of them are used for the actual course you are enrolled in.

There are several options to buying your books once all the necessary information is obtained. Between semesters, one is to wait outside the classroom where the course is currently being taught and offer to buy a used book from the students as they exit. This technique is a bit tricky, because most students aren’t going to sell their book before the final, and most students don’t bring the book with them when taking the final exam.  A good solution to this is to make a flier with the course name and number, the title of the book along with your name and phone number and hand it to the exiting students. It’s a good idea to have an amount you are willing to pay in mind, and perhaps put it on your flier. Generally, half of the bookstore price for new books is considered reasonable.

Another option is to put a flier on the bulletin board listing the books you are interested in. This would definitely be something you’d want to do before the end of term, because once students finish their finals, they won’t be back until the next term begins. You can also browse the bulletin boards looking for textbooks for sale.

Another great place to find used textbooks is to find local sellers on Just be sure to get the correct edition. Just because teacher X used a certain book last semester, doesn’t mean they are using the same one this semester.

If soliciting for used books on campus isn’t your style, you might prefer to check out the internet and shop from home. The best sites let you search by ISBN, and several of them let you enter more than one ISBN at a time, which saves time if you’re buying books for more than one course.

Local bookstores also sell textbooks, and their prices for new books aren’t much better than the campus bookstore. A better option is to browse the used book section on, and Ebay, where you can either buy at the price requested or make a offer. An alternative to manually searching several sites is to use a price search site such as It displays the results from many different sites and includes the book price and the shipping price.

When buying online, be sure to pay attention to shipping charges and the shipping method. Media mail rate saves the most money, but it may take up to two weeks for your book to arrive. Another source is online auctions like eBay™. EBay™ owns, so they work much in the same way, though searching on eBay™ isn’t as efficient and doesn’t seem to be included in the book search engine results.

For textbooks that you won’t need in the future (which is most of them!), keep in mind that most of the sources that sell used books also buy them. Before you accept a low price from your college bookstore for a book that they will re-sell for 80% of it’s ‘new’ price, consider selling online or even stand outside the classroom door on the first day of school and offer your book to students at a price somewhere between. If you buy your books from sources other than the school bookstore you will have to sell them yourself, most college bookstores won’t buy a product they didn’t sell you.

If you buy used and then resell your textbooks your actual cost can be close to nothing. Just because you have to buy textbooks doesn’t mean you have to go broke doing it.

We bought all of my son’s textbooks via secondary sources. Only one of them was purchased new, and that was because it was a new edition, so we had no choice. We sold all of them online after his classes were done and our total expenses for the whole year were less than $30.

For purposes of comparison, several websites were tested using a science textbook and public speaking handbook. Data is from a couple of years ago, but current prices are similar.

Website Geology Textbook
ISBN 0534375502
Public Speaking Handbook
ISBN 0312400780 $35 + $2.79 S/H = $37.79 $10 + 2.79 S/H = $12.79 $33.95 + $5.25 S/H = $39.20 Not available
COLLEGE BOOKSTORE New $93.75; used $70.50 New (used not available) $20.50 $22 + $2.50 S/H = $24.50 $22.22 + $3.75 S/H = $25.97 Marketplace $35.95 + $3.49 S/H = $39.44 $13.75 + $3.49 S/H = $17.24

Compare sites carefully, they don’t always have the lowest price on all items. Carpe diem!