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7 Ways to Save Money on Your Textbooks

The Complete Guide to a Debt Free Education

he following is an excerpt from my book The Complete Guide to a Debt Free Education which is being offered for free on Amazon from September 4th. I only ask that you consider leaving an honest review on Amazon as payment.

After tuition, and room and board, textbooks are the number one expense for college and university students. Here are the secrets to saving a ton of money on your textbooks.

1. Buy a different edition:

I did an English degree and in the beginning I always felt I needed to buy the same edition that the professor had chosen. It was generally always an expensive edition with lots of critical content and essays and I figured that the professor had chosen that edition because we would also be reading the essays. Guess what? Over the course of my whole degree we were only required to read one of those essays.

Luckily, I smartened up and started going to the local used bookstore and buying the cheapest used versions of the plays, poetry, or novels we were reading. It meant it sometimes took me a few minutes to figure out where in the book the professor was referring to when we were asked to flip to a specific page number but I generally did fine at following along.

Buying a different edition doesn’t work for every subject. For example, there are often big changes in new editions of science textbooks. If you’re considering buying a different edition of a textbook be sure to talk to your professor or TA before doing it. They’ll be able to tell you if you can get by with the old edition. I remember one class that I took where the only difference between the new edition and the old was that they had added more pictures and a chapter that we weren’t even going to study in that class. The old edition was a lot cheaper and the professor actively encouraged me to buy it. In another class, we were using the additional chapter but I was able to borrow a copy from a friend and photocopy the new chapter.

While English books are probably the easiest to buy different editions for there are a lot of books in other disciplines that also have multiple editions. If you’re taking even one English, Philosophy, History, Psychology or Religion class there’s a good chance that one of your books might be available in a cheaper edition or potentially even free online (if it’s so old that it’s no longer copyrighted). Check it out before you buy.

2. Take books out of the library rather than buying them:

Later on in my degree I became even smarter and stopped buying the required books for my English classes entirely and just took versions of them out of the library. I wish I had done this sooner but I had a romantic vision of having big bookcases full of books. Let me tell you something about that romantic vision – it never materialized. Truth be told, there were many books that I never looked at again after reading them for school. About a third of the books that I amassed I didn’t like, and another third I liked but had no reason to read again. Because you don’t know which books you’ll want in your permanent collection, don’t buy them unless you have to. I ended up selling most of these books for pennies on the dollar when I later got tired of moving them from house to house with me.

What’s great about using a library rather than buying books is that this is one circumstance where you might actually be able to find a copy of your textbook for free. Some libraries will order a limited number of copies. Often these books can be taken out for short periods of time. In other cases, they can only be used while you’re at the library because they’re held in the Reserve collection. Even if your library has no books or just a few on reserve, you can still potentially get a textbook that you can use. Libraries often offer something called inter-library loans and they have a network of libraries that they will search through for the book you’re looking for. I know people who used interlibrary loans as a way to get the textbooks they need without having to buy them.

Remember to look at your local library and not just your university library for the books that you need. More than one student might be searching for the book that you want at your university library so you might only get to keep it for the 2 week borrowing time. But your local public library might not have as many people actively trying to take out that book.

3. Share books with friends:

One way to save on books is to share them with others people you know in the class. Sure, you won’t be able to use them whenever you would like to but I know people who did this and it worked out well for them. They split the cost of the book and then they each had it for half the week. When exams came around they studied together. This would work really well for roommates.

If you do plan on sharing textbooks be sure whomever you’re sharing with is someone you can get along with well and trust. You wouldn’t want to get into a fight with someone before a big exam and have them hold the textbook hostage.

4. Buy used books:

Buying used books can be a simple way to save money on textbooks. While used books might have some doodles in them or some sections highlighted, it won’t generally affect your ability to read and get the information you need from the book.

There are a few ways to buy used textbooks. First, your campus bookstore will almost always offer a used version of your textbooks. This is often the most expensive way to buy a used textbook but it’s also the most certain. If the course has been offered in previous years there will probably be at least a few used books that the bookstore has bought back. The problem is that there are generally a limited number of used versions that the campus bookstore offers so it might make sense to buy a used version and keep your receipt as you look to potentially get a better deal on a used textbook.

Some schools have local independent used textbook stores and others have groups of students who buy back and then sell used textbooks to students at a cheaper price. These groups and independent stores often offer better prices than the official campus bookstore.

Another option is to buy your used textbook directly from a former student. As soon as you know what books you need, I would suggest you check out Craigslist or any campus electronic message boards where students post things for sale. You’ll often find the best deals here. These students know that to be competitive they need to sell their used textbook for less than the bookstore, the independent stores and the student groups.

I’ve also found some of my best deals on textbooks right before my first class. Savvy sellers will make flyers and post them near the entrance to the classrooms. Get their phone number or e-mail and contact them right away because you can be sure that other students will be doing so as well. Offer to meet them asap and pay cash. Once you’ve secured your used textbook deal you can easily return the used textbook you bought from the bookstore at a higher price.

5. Sell your old textbooks:

I’ve heard so many people tell me that they want to keep their textbooks for ‘reference’ or to add their books to their library. I personally never thought I would part with my English Literary Theory books which as an undergraduate I loved so much. But then I went out in the real world and realized that though literary theory was sexy and exciting (I promise, it is!) it wasn’t something that I needed to own. The library had what I needed if I ever felt a hankering to read Foucault or Marxist literary theory. I did not need to keep the books to take up space in my small apartment.

By the time I wanted to sell them they were no longer being taught so I had to go to local used bookstores. I don’t know about your town but in Vancouver many used books stores have closed in the last few years. I can guarantee you that they’re not staying afloat by buying literary theory books or Biology textbooks, or Historical theory. They either passed over my books without any interest or offered me a dollar for each.

I recently asked friends how often they looked at these textbooks for reference sake and all of them said that they never did. The great thing is that if you ever need to look at one of those books again, you can easily do so at a library. So why not sell your books now and get the money back so that you can buy books for next term?

When it comes to selling books, I wouldn’t recommend selling them back to the campus bookstore unless you’re pressed for time. Selling them to an independent used textbook store, online, or directly to another student will generally get you the best bang for your buck.

What do you do if a new edition comes out? Is your book worthless? Not at all. Not every professor rushes to teach the newest version of a textbook. In fact, when a new version comes out it’s extra work for them to redesign their curriculum to fit with the new book. Many professors will continue teaching the old books for a few years. If no professors at your school are teaching the old book, list your book on Amazon or another used books marketplace. I was able to unload a few old versions of textbooks at great prices this way. Just be careful about how you price it – Amazon gives you a fixed price for shipping and while you can make money if you’re shipping a light book, you’ll lose money if the book is heavy. And what textbooks aren’t heavy?

If you bought your book used from an individual for the lowest price available, you just might be able to get the same price of something close for it in return at the end of the term or the beginning of the next term. Just make sure you take care of your textbooks while you have them and you might just be able to use them for free.

6. Rent books rather than buying them

I learned recently that you can now rent textbooks rather than buying them. It’s a novel idea, that’s for sure. Generally, the rental price is a percentage of the new or used purchase price and at the end of term you can decide whether you want to return it afterwards or buy it.

Renting a book generally only makes sense if you know that there is a new edition coming out the next year which will make it harder for you to sell your book. If there isn’t a new edition and that textbook will most likely be used the next term, then you’re often better off buying it used from an individual and then selling it yourself to someone else.

7. Shop online for your textbooks

If you can’t find a deal on your textbook on Craigslist, at the bookstore, from another student, or from an independent used textbook store, then I would recommend going online to see if there are any books for sale on places like Amazon or more specialized textbooks sites. I recommend this option last because I’ve found that the time it takes to ship puts you at a disadvantage because you’re waiting to get your textbook. I’ve also found that I can get better deals elsewhere once you factor in the shipping.

Happy Textbook buying!This is an abridged version of a section from the e-book The Complete Guide to a Debt-Free Education. If you liked this post, consider buying The Complete Guide to a Debt-Free Education on Amazon.


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