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The Ultimate Guide to Finding Cheap Textbooks

If you want to save as much money on your textbooks as is humanly possible this semester, this guide is for you.

Let’s just put it out there – buying textbooks sucks. I’ve seen estimates of the average cost of textbooks per semester go as high as $1,100That’s absolutely ridiculous.

It’s also, incidentally, a figure I never came even close to paying.

Through a combination of deal hunting, forward communication, and good planning, I was able to keep my total textbook costs under $200 during each of the 8 semesters I was in college.

This guide is a blueprint that will help you do the same. Here I’ll list a ton of resources for finding used books, rentals, and other textbook alternatives, and I’ll also go over the tactics I used as a student to avoid wasting even more money.

If you can’t see this article’s companion video above, you can watch it on YouTube.

Know Your Textbook Buying Options

In a publishing company CEO’s perfect dream world, you’d walk into your university bookstore and buy a brand new copy of every textbook you need each semester. And, of course, you’d buy the latest edition as well.

Luckily we don’t live in that dream world, and you’ve got a good number of options for buying your books. At a glance:

  • New books
  • Used books
  • Rentals
  • Electronic versions
  • Electronic rentals (these are like the Megazords of textbooks!)

For any given textbook, the lowest-priced option could be any one of these. Maybe your textbook is kinda old, and you can find it used on Amazon for $0.01. Or maybe it’s one of those horrible books that come with an access code, forcing you to buy it new. (Dear professors: we don’t like paying for these)

Either way, there are a ton of different places online where you can find your books – so don’t just rely on your campus bookstore. Here’s a good-sized list:

Use a Price Comparison Tool

Of course, if you spent all your time looking through every textbook store and site in the world, you’d have skipped the first half of the semester by the time you found your perfect price. You’ve only got so many hours in a day.

Luckily, the heavy lifting has already been done for you by price comparison tools like StudentRate Textbooks.

Textbook Comparison Tool

There are other options in this space as well, including:

These tools are basically just like Kayak for textbooks; they aggregate book prices from all the major sellers, give you options for buying new/used, renting, or getting e-book versions, and even calculate shipping rates.

When you’re comparing the prices of different stores and book formats, however, keep two very important facts in mind:

  • Price comparison tools don’t track every possible store and channel you can get books through. Some that I’ll mention below, like student-to-student book exchanges, naturally can’t be tracked easily by a system.
  • If you’re willing to do the work, selling your books when you’re done with them can save you money in the long run. In this situation, a rental or e-book version might end up being more expensive than a print edition with an initially higher sticker price.

Find Previous Editions and International Editions

Textbooks get new, updated editions every so often – and when that happens, it’s a good bet that your classes are going to “require” those new editions.

However, a lot of textbooks don’t change much from edition to edition, especially for subjects that change slowly (I doubt the history of the French Revolution will change that much from 2011 to 2014…)

This just in: French Revolutionary Army discovered to have been assisted by invisible time-traveling Batman

So, for many classes, you can just buy the previous edition of your textbook and get by just fine. This is especially true if you’re focusing your efforts correctly and aren’t shooting for absolutely perfect grades.

A few caveats to this strategy:

  • You probably should get the latest edition of a textbook if it’s going to have problem sets that will be used as homework in your class. Math and science books are more likely to fall into this category.
  • I recommend emailing your professor before the semester starts and asking if this is ok

Aside from previous editions, you can also look into international editions of your required textbooks.

During my first couple years of college, I used TextbookRush (formerly TextbooksRUs) to find international editions of some of my required books. The main differences between these and the domestic editions:

  • They’re generally paperback
  • Images might be in black-and-white
  • They’re often hella cheaper

If you’re cool with flimsy covers and no color, buying an international edition can save you a good chunk of change.

Blaze Free and Open-Source Trails

What if you want to pay exactly zero dollars for your textbooks? Well, that may be somewhat possible as well. Let’s look at a few strategies.

Hitting Up the Library

If you’re on a tight budget, this is actually the place you should probably check first when looking for textbooks. One of two options may exist:

  • A textbook may be available for checkout. Be incredibly wary about depending on versions available for checkout – another student might have it just when you need it.
  • Your professor may have decided to be a bro and put a copy or two on reserve. This means that you can go check the book out for a couple of hours for use in the library. For books you don’t need very often, this is awesome. Just be prepare for some mortal combat with other students come finals-time.

Also, don’t forget to check the public library as well, as your university library isn’t the only one around.

Find Other Sources for Free Books

Lots of books are public domain or otherwise free to use. If one of your classes requires a book that’s in the public domain, there’s no reason to pay for it unless you simply want to own a physical copy.

Here are a couple links that’ll point to a treasure trove of these kinds of books:

Bypass Sellers and Use Your Networking Skills

Building up your networking skills might help you get a job, but it can also help you save a ton of money as well. In the realm of textbooks, here are three killer strategies:

Seek Out Those Who Came Before

Here’s the textbook-buying plan of the motivated extrovert:

  1. Realize other students are currently taking (or are done with) classes you’re going to take
  2. Find those students.
  3. Agree to buy their books off them after the semester ends.
  4. Save lots of money.
  5. Maybe even become great friends and journey around the world in a hot air balloon together

If you don’t have a strong sense of adventure, feel free to skip the last part. But the other parts of the plan are definitely good to pursue, and it’s not too difficult.

To find students who are already in the class you’ll be in next semester, try out these channels:

  • Facebook – search for groups within your university. Class year groups, textbook exchange groups, major groups, etc.
  • Craigslist – students might already be offering their books up for sale there
  • Student Clubs and Groups – Your major probably has a few student organizations affiliated with it. Join them. You’ll meet people within your major, make friends, and probably find a friendly student to buy your books from.
  • Student-to-student book exchanges – I’ve seen several sites try to do this on a large scale, but none of them ever really got off the ground. However, your university may have a local one you can use.

Form a Secret Cabal

When I took my freshman physics class, I noticed something funny. 95% of the students in the class were foreign students from China, and after the first day of class, only about a quarter of those students would show up for normal lectures.

They were sharing everything. They’d rotate who would go to class, sending that person with all their clickers so they all could get clicker questions.

Now, while you should probably go to class, you can take inspiration from these students when it comes to textbooks. Find a friend or a group in your class and decide to share one book. My girlfriend and I did this for a religion class one year, and it worked out well (and by that, I mean she read the book and I never cracked it open).

Maybe you’ll even form a study group as well!

Email Your Professor

I mentioned this above, but it bears repeating. I’ll even put it in a blockquote for extra emphasis:

Getting to know your professor is a good thing!
Also, it’s a great way to gauge exactly what your textbook requirements for a class are actually going to be. My strategy was to email my professors before the semester started and:
  • Introduce myself
  • Ask if the textbook would be needed frequently
  • Ask if an older edition of the book would be acceptable

Typically, they were friendly and provided answers that helped my buying decisions.

Of course, it’s always a good idea to keep up with your professors, and to talk to them in person!

Becoming a Gambler

While I think it’s always a great idea to email your professor (having more information is always an advantage), you can also simply wait until the semester starts to decide whether or not you need to buy the textbook for a particular class.

However, this can be risky business – many classes jump right into the material right away and dole out homework quickly. If you find yourself in a class like this, you don’t to find that the textbook is going to take a week to ship.

That’s why I call this strategy book gambling. Done right, it can save you a lot of money – after all, you might find out that you simply don’t need the book for a certain class (it happened to me several times). Done wrong, it can put you way behind and cause a lot of stress.

As a student, my general rule for book gambling was this:

  • If I need to, can I get a cheap version of the book within one day? If so, gamble away.
  • If not, play it safe and buy the book before the semester starts.

Gamble wisely, my friends.


Here’s a flowchart to help you recap the process of finding the cheapest books:

Textbook Flowchart

Textbooks are freaking expensive, but if you’re willing to put a bit of effort into searching out the best options and forging some relationships, you can save a ton of money.

If you want to save even more money in college, you might like these other articles I’ve written:

What strategies for saving money on textbooks did I miss? Let me know any tips you’ve got below in the comments 🙂

Note: I originally published this article in June 2014 – I’ve republished it now in order to update things and add the video version.

Images: dog, bookstore, money