How to Save Money on Textbooks

| TBS Staff

Are you ready to discover your college program?

You're on your way to college, which means you're pretty smart. So here's a riddle just grease the gears in your brain. What weighs a million pounds, costs five hundred bucks and will be of almost no value to you exactly one year after you buy it?

Give up?

It's the giant stack of textbooks you'll be lugging back to your freshman dorm. If you feel like you just kind of got hosed for a bunch of your hard-earned money, we sympathize. College textbooks are crazy expensive. For generations, getting ripped off on textbooks has sort of been a college tradition. Big, serious authoritative references and philosophical treatise not coincidentally authored by your professor are often mandatory purchases. And according to the National Association of College Stores, students on average spend in excess of $702 a year on books.

As you do the rounds on your first week of classes, you'll get a bunch of syllabi outlining exactly which books you are expected to purchase. For many, the first stop will be the on-campus bookstore, often the only place that carries certain university- or professor-specific texts. This on-campus store will typically be your most expensive option as well.

Back when I went to school, this was pretty much your only option. Lucky for you, the world has changed dramatically. Your ability to access information is so much greater than was true for the generation before you. You needn't merely resign yourself to selling plasma until you can afford enough books for a physics major. There are ways to save money on your textbooks. And considering how much you're probably spending on tuition, housing and everything else under the sun, you might as well save a few bucks where you can.

Books can make you smarter, but dropping a fortune on them won't exactly make you feel like a genius. Use these tips to score yourself some bargains and you'll feel pretty smart before you even crack page 1.

Find it Online For Free

It's a brave new world out there, where you can get a ton of reading material at the price of a Google search (If you're paying for your Google searches, somebody is seriously messing with you). Anyway, you can get anything you want, like, just off the top of my head, Brave New World. You can get the full text of that one for free at Internet Archive. If you don't see what you're looking for there, check Project Gutenberg, or even Amazon and Google Books, which sometimes have full texts available for free. Before you run out to the bookstore and buy everything listed on every single syllabus, take inventory of those things you can find online for free. Bookmark a few websites and save yourself a few bucks.

Share With a Friend

Books are a lot cheaper when you're only paying for half of them. If it's a book you'll actually need while you're in class, it's best to find a friend enrolled in the same course at a different time. Any number of classes and professors might be using the same heavy calculus text. If it's the kind of course where you'll only be using the book for out-of-class reading assignments, you could probably get away with a timeshare. Just make sure it's somebody you actually genuinely like. You don't want to make enemies with your book mate. It gives them way too much leverage over you as finals approach. But assuming you get along well enough, you've also got a built in study buddy.

Go To The Library

I know you've heard of it, and not just because your college probably has some sort of streaking tradition that involves a library or a library-adjacent courtyard. (Not to rain on your naked parade, but every school has something like that.)

Anyway, for those of you who don't know your history, a library is a place with good air-conditioning, clean bathrooms, and a ton of books that you can actually borrow for free. The one catch is that the library won't have everything you need, and it may only have a few copies of the books you really need, and you may have to take your book out multiple times across a semester, and at those crucial times when you really need it, somebody might have already gotten to your book. Ok, so that's a bunch of catches. So the library can only help you out so much, which is probably why I had to explain what it is in the first place. The internet is faster and easier. But if you can get by on a couple of photocopied pages from a borrowed book instead of laying down a bundle to own it, you'll develop the kind of fondness for the library that people felt in the old days. Learn more about the library and its history at…well…your local library.

Dig Up Used and Older Editions

You syllabus is going to advise you to get the latest edition of the assigned book and sometimes you'll have no choice. These days, a lot of texts come with supplemental online material. In order to access this material, you often are required to use an Access Code. This can be found on the back of your brand new textbook. Usually, you have a scratch it like a lottery ticket to reveal your Access Code. Exciting stuff. Speaking frankly, the Access Code thing is generally a way that publishers make it necessary for you to buy a new book instead of grabbing a used one for less money. I'm not saying it's a scam but I'm not saying it isn't either. Before you go out and get a brand new book, ask your professor if the newest edition is required or if the supplemental online material is even relevant to the class. Sometimes it isn't. If you don't require an access code and the professor sees no objection, go out and get yourself an older edition or a used copy. Amazon and eBay have no shortage of used texts, and sites like AbeBooks and RedShelf can help you price compare. If you don't need the newest copy, find yourself a nice vintage.


A lot of sites also run text rental operations, meaning that you can borrow books at a slight cost.,,, and all specialize in rental options. Try to think of it as bowling in borrowed shoes. It's kind of gross and you have to give them back before you split (see what I did there?), but they make bowling far more affordable for those of us who aren't likely to own lane-appropriate footwear. For a fraction of the cost of actually buying a book, you can just rent it. Just remember not to get emotionally attached.

Find the eBook Version

Ebooks are usually cheaper, and you don't need to have a Kindle or Tablet to access them. You can enjoy a good eBook (or a bad one, who am I to judge) from the comfort of your PC, laptop, tablet or phone. Just check any page on Amazon and you'll see that the eBook version of a text is almost invariably cheaper, all the more so when you remove the cost of shipping (or alternately, the time wasted standing in line at your campus bookstore. If there's an eBook option for a classroom text, take the option.

Use Your Financial Aid

In some cases, money from your financial aid package can be directed toward the purchase of books. We still think it's best to seek out the most affordable option available, but if you have a chunk of money coming your was from a federal student load refund, this might be a good place to invest it. Though you will generally wrangle with the price of books separate from your tuition payments and dorm room shopping, it is a real and tangible educational expense. A lot of student financial aid officers agree and can almost certainly advise you on the most optimal way to channel loan or grant money into the purchase of books.

Get a Book Scholarship

In addition to financial aid, there are not only scholarships that will allow you to direct a sum of money toward books, but there are some scholarships that are exclusively designed for that very purpose. For instance, Barnes & Noble actually maintains partnerships with an array of colleges and awards up to $1000 annually to a number of deserving students earmarked specifically for the purpose of buying books.

Skip The Books Altogether

I know this sounds like a radical departure, but here's the thing, some texts are really just a formality. If you're studying biology, I can assure you that the taxonomy of the animal kingdom is the same no matter where you look. Use the web wisely and you'll find what you need. And if you have a chance, ask those who have taken a given course or worked with a given professor before. They can give you an honest sense of whether the book is a necessary part of the course or whether the professors tends instead to test on his or her own lectures instead. You will find that the latter of these possibilities is not all that uncommon. In general, you are well-served to ask around, or to read up on sites like Rate My Professor, to find out just how important it is for you to buy that book. Sometimes, you really can skip it with minimal risk.


The reality, though, is that you will have to pay top dollar for some texts. Some professors are sticklers, some newer additions are simply more accurate, and some books are just plain expensive no matter where you look. But taking the expense of textbooks as a whole, a combination of the strategies outlined above can really bring down the price, and considering what college costs on the whole, every single dollar counts.

Oh and one more thing. Don't forget to sell your books at the end of the semester. You can bring them directly to the school bookstore where, of course, you'll get the least return on your investment. Or you can try selling them at most of the book trading sites mentioned throughout this article. Either way, unless you plan on revising your texts as references, send them back into the universe from whence they came, and make a couple bucks while doing it.

Got more questions? We've got answers! Check here for more helpful tips on stuff that every student should know.

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