wikiHow to Buy Cheap College Textbooks

College is a big business, and one of the biggest expenses in this business––next to tuition, room, and board, is college textbooks. Nothing hits your party pocketbook like a trip to the campus bookstore. Reselling books may recoup some of your investment, but not all. Don’t take out the extra loans. Just follow this lesson to lessen the cost of your education.


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    Register for your classes as early as possible. Start researching courses as soon as you can, and solidify your schedule early. If you have to change classes at the last minute, it’ll be hard to escape high textbook prices.
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    Find out what books you’ll need for your classes. Go to the bookstore just to browse. Leave the wallet at home, but bring a pen and paper. Look for your classes and the new semester's required books. Ask the bookstore employees to assist you if needed. If your classes' book requirements are not in yet, inquire as to when they will be and come back on that date. You may also be able to get this information off the bookstore’s website or your classes’ web pages.
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    Write down the following information for each book:
    • the name and volume/edition of the book
    • the name of the author
    • the book’s International Standard Book Number (ISBN), found on or near the barcode on the back of book
    • the price.
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    Try to find the books in the library. Check the catalogs of your school library and the local public library. If you can’t find a book there, try to obtain the book via inter-library loan. Depending on the library’s borrowing policies, you may be able to check out books for the whole semester or at least for as long as you’ll need them. You’ll want to get on this early, though, because supplies will be limited. If they do not have the current edition, it is likely that they may have previous editions, with most of the same information (see below on previous editions).
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    Check your library reserve. If a book is on reserve, the professor has provided the library with one or a few copies of the book for students to borrow for several hours at a time provided they do not leave the library. Be careful before class, tests, or major homework assignments, because reserve copies are often checked out at critical times; however, with proper planning you will have no problem. Alternatively, buy or borrow a previous edition for the chapter content, and use the reserve copy only for the homework problems. If the text isn't available on reserve, e-mail the professor and ask if she'd be willing to put a copy on reserve.
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    Search for books on the Internet. If you can’t get a book at the library, or if you’ll need to be able to keep a book or write in it, look for better prices online. Usually all you’ll need is the book’s ISBN. In the search box of your favorite search engine, enter only the ISBN number, without the dashes that separate the digits. You should come up with several exact matches; in the unlikely event that you don’t, try searching by title. Verify you have the correct book using the other information you wrote down. Many online booksellers now sell books shipping-free, which can increase the attractiveness of an online buy.
    • Shop around online. Most likely just about any price you find online will be cheaper than the bookstore, but check as many sites as possible to find the cheapest possible book.
    • Check out online auction marketplaces. While you won’t be able to find as many books at auctions, you may be able to find screaming deals.
    • Keep checking into the early semester––some people change courses and can't wait to sell the books so that they can buy different ones. You might grab a bargain this way, especially where the student is dropping college altogether.
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    Consider renting. Some sites will rent you textbooks for a fraction of the cost of purchasing them. Shipping is often free for either the receive or return, depending on the service you use.
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    Buy bundles. Bundled books save you money by allowing you to buy your books in one shrink-wrapped package, often at a discount.
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    Check out local bookstores. You may be able to find a good deal locally, especially once you factor in shipping charges. Even if you can’t quite match an online price locally, you’ll be able to see the book before you purchase and you’ll get the satisfaction of helping local merchants.
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    Consider used books. Used books are almost always cheaper than new ones, and if you can, find a used version online in good condition it may be a good bet. You may also be able to get used books at your campus bookstore, especially if you shop early or pre-order. Compare prices to find the best deal. Also used books may have the previous students notes in them which is a plus because you won't have to make them.
    • Check for highlighting or ask about it where it's sold online. A book that has been heavily highlighted can be very difficult to read, especially as it distracts you from finding the important points for yourself.
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    Compare textbook prices online. There are many book price comparison sites, such as,, and that allow you to compare prices at multiple bookstores with a single search.
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    Inquire about earlier editions. If the current edition's used price is still too much, use the book name to find an earlier edition: enter the book title in the search box and remove any references to what edition it is. You'll find that the cheapest used version of the newest edition generally sells for three to five times the price of a previous edition. Before buying, be aware that page numbers, chapter order, and homework problems will almost certainly be different, and content may vary as well. However, often there are only minor differences between the two, and the homework problems are the only thing that may give you trouble (see above about library reserve, or below about sharing). Other than that, you will rarely have a problem, particularly for core texts on basic subjects. If in doubt, however, ask the professor or TA about using an earlier edition before you buy; you don't want to have to pay for a book twice.
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    Share. Particularly for your core courses, try to take the same classes as your roommates or friends, and share a book. You'll learn better if you study together anyway. Alternatively, get an old edition (see above) and borrow from a friend only minimally to access the homework problems.
    • With sharing, another approach to allow individual study is to roster the days you have the books in question. That way there is no doubt as to when you'll have access to it.
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    Scour your campus. Some colleges have student groups that sell used textbooks for older students or that otherwise facilitate buying and selling of books. Ask your friends, look at flyers around campus, and watch the student paper for deals.
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    Resell your books. If you don’t foresee that you’ll need a book after the semester ends, try to resell it as soon as possible. Find out what your campus bookstore and local booksellers will pay, and consider putting up flyers around campus and/or selling it online. If your book is in high demand, you may be able to sell a book online within a day, and at a much higher price than you’ll get at the bookstore.


  • Different professors teaching the same course often use different books. Find out which professor requires the least expensive books and sign up for his or her course.
  • Always include shipping costs in your calculations. You may be able to save money on shipping by purchasing several books from one merchant.
  • Some students feel the need to hang on to a book after a course in case it might be needed later. The chances of this are often quite low in many fields and even if you do need the text, you can always borrow it for that particular need. Remember too that updates will happen once you're working and can afford to buy them or your workplace buys them. In some cases, accessing new copies should be the only way to keep abreast of information once you're working professionally.
  • There are times when some professors will list books for their class that they admittedly have no intention of using. If you have not purchased books for a class early on, go ahead and wait until you've been to class once or twice and found out if any books will not be used. You'll have to balance the risk of getting a bad deal vs. the risk of having to sell back a used book you never opened.
  • Don't forget about international editions. They're generally exactly the same as their American counterparts, except they often come only in paperback, and the pages may feel a bit different.
  • The best time to buy is between semesters, when people online are trying to get rid of their old books, but before people are buying new ones. It's usually between 2 and 4 weeks before classes start. If you track sale prices over time, you can see the dip, then a radical increase. Buy when the price is low, but you still have at least 2 weeks for shipping before school. If you want to sell, try selling the first week of school, or the week before when everyone is running around like madmen.
  • If your Internet search for the ISBN brings up a lot of unrelated items, try entering the ISBN along with the letters “ISBN” in the search bar.
  • Try to search in search engines that specialize in book searches, like,,,, or similar. They compare prices from different online vendors.
  • Consider electronic versions of textbooks from sites like iChapters or Safari. Online books can't be resold but they often sell for as little as fifty percent of a new book's price. Classic literature no longer under copyright, can be downloaded for free at sites like Bartleby and Project Gutenberg.
  • If you are taking a literature course, consider buying individual books instead of the anthology. Usually an up-to-date anthology will run at at least $80, but if you look on the syllabus, you're usually not reading more than 12 books/stories. These are usually classics that have been published over and over, and will run at about 50 cents on Amazon. So if each book costs $4 including shipping, that's $48 instead of $80. If you are doing this, make sure to Google short stories, as many are free online. Also, you can resell these books to a local used bookstore, usually for credit, which will enable you to buy more classics without any money changing hands. (All used bookstores have an abundance of classics, so be sure to check there too and save on shipping.)
  • Using more than a few online book resellers might not be beneficial. Don't waste time and confuse yourself with multiple sites; focus on finding what you need, especially if the prices all appear to be about the same.
  • Look for unofficial off-campus bookstores. Sometimes they are 10%-20% cheaper than the on-campus bookstore.
  • If a search engine search isn’t very fruitful, try searching directly at online booksellers’ sites.
  • Find out if any books are optional, and think twice about buying them. Some optional books are really quite necessary, while others aren’t. Ask your professor or TA for advice if in doubt, and consider your own study habits. If you tend to ignore the optional materials anyway, then there's no point in wasting your money on it.
  • When shopping online, try to shop with some sort of rewards program and use a points-accruing credit card if you can. This way, you'll be getting an additional (albeit deferred) savings on your purchase. Some bookstores have their own affiliate programs. Sign up for the program, then buy all your textbooks through your 'referral link.' Convince others to do the same (splitting the money, maybe) and altogether you could save a half decent amount of money.
  • It may be worth getting a membership with stores which offer 10% off. Even when paying membership per year, after getting 2 semesters' worth of books, it's something to consider.
  • Most websites will offer free shipping and can get to you within 3 days. Some areas could get the order the same day.
  • If you and a friend have the same class, but at different times of the day, work out a deal with them (like supporting them half of the cost of the book, etc.) to let you borrow their book every day for the time that you need it, then return it to them between classes. This tactic works even better if you share a dormitory with them, as it will be easier to locate them.
  • If you have a friend or family member who has recently done the course you're doing, be sure to ask them first if they still need their textbooks. They may be happy to lend or even give them to you for nothing.


  • Remember when getting the book from the library that the library giveth and the library taketh away. Sometimes the library will request you return the book mid-semester due to high demand for the book. (i.e. other frugal students like yourself want the book too.)
  • Allow ample time for your book to arrive for the new semester. It's normally okay for you not to have the book for the first few days of class, but if you procrastinate, you may be forced to go to the bookstore and it'll cost you.
  • Always make sure you’re purchasing the right book, especially if you’re buying online. Remember, sometimes the correct edition of a book is absolutely necessary, and if you get the wrong book, you’ll end up either paying for two books or pay shipping to return one.
  • Weigh your risks when purchasing a used book that might not be in the best condition. There could be missing pages that would be critical for studying.
  • Used books don't always save you money. If you buy a used book but there is a software package bundled with the new texts, you won't get the software and may not be able to get it. If it's required for class, you're out of luck. At the very least, you will have to buy it separately, which could end up costing you more than the new textbook bundle.

Things You'll Need

  • Pen and paper
  • Computer with Internet access
  • Credit card or PayPal account or other online payment method
  • Exact ISBNs to order, as well as author, title, and edition

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