How to Buy College Textbooks Without Breaking the Bank

Buying textbooks can be one of the most daunting tasks facing a college student. Chances are, simply following university guidelines will turn out to be extremely expensive. However, following a few simple guidelines can turn this into a relatively painless experience, if you’re willing to do a little grunt work. Comparison shopping at alternative school books in your town, using Internet booksellers, and shopping at regular book stores all will help cut the costs of a potentially daunting text list.

The first thing you have to do is get a list of what texts you actually need. It is worth dropping by the university bookstore to check what prices they are offering these books at, as well, since you need to have something against which to compare. However, you may find that you can check these prices online at the bookstore’s website. It is also useful to note which books are required and which are “suggested.” If you have a concern about what exactly “suggested” means, you should contact your professor via email or phone, as they are often very understanding about the high prices of books – this is often why they offer suggested texts. While you’re talking with your professor, it might be helpful to ask how important it is that you purchase the edition of the book that he or she has ordered.

So, now what? First, hit the net. There are multiple online booksellers that can afford you the luxury of purchasing your school books not only at discounted prices, but to be delivered to your front door. The best way I’ve found to do this is to have your book list sitting right beside your keyboard, since you’re going to need to comparison shop. As an English major, I’ve gotten the best results at,, and Other disciplines may benefit from,,, or any of the myriad of online used book sellers now operating. Open each of the sellers’ websites that you plan to search in a separate browser window, then search for each text simultaneously. This gives you a much simpler way of comparing prices on the spot. Your text may only be available at one site, or you may have several choices. Keep in mind while considering the different prices that you have to figure shipping into the cost (it usually runs about $2.50 to $5.00 per book), and shipping varies from seller to seller.

What I normally do at this point is add my choice to the shopping cart I’ve chosen it from, then move on down the list. When I’m done, I normally have the bulk of my textbooks placed into shopping carts at each site, and I can check out nearly simultaneously. After this, I can normally expect to receive my books within the week. It’s important to note that most of these sites are collectives – the used books are each being sold by individual sellers who subscribe to the site, so your shipping times will vary, and you will likely receive each book shipped separately. Because of potential delay, it is important to be aware of when you need each book you’re ordering. If you need seven novels for your English class, you may want to purchase the first one with expedited shipping (normally a nominal up-charge) and the rest at regular shipping, which is primarily via media mail.

Often, I haven’t found all of my books online, so I head out to traditional brick and mortar book stores. I am particularly set to do this, as my required books are often novels or poetry collections that are readily available. Other classes requiring more specific textbook-style books may not have as much luck, but it is hard to tell what you might find. My first stop is always Half Price Books (, a reseller that advertises all of its books for at least half off. Now, this is not like going to Borders – they don’t carry everything, and their stock depends mainly on what ordinary people have sold to them. However, the sales associates are always very helpful, and they often can tell you straight away if a book you’re looking for is in the store. This is also one of the times when it will come in handy to know if you can use an alternative edition of your text. Half Price Books often buys old edition textbooks that the university book stores no longer buy back. When I needed a Norton Anthology of British Literature, I found that I could purchase an older edition at Half Price Books for only $2.00 (compared to the current edition, selling used for about $50.00). When I checked my syllabus for the class, I found that the old edition was missing only one selection, which I purchased from HPB for $2.98. All in all, I saved $45.00, just on one book.

If you still aren’t having luck, or don’t have a store like HPB in your town, go back to the Internet. At Barnes & Noble ( and Borders ( you can search for each of your remaining books. If the store as a whole even carry the book, the website will tell you and provide you with a UPC number for the book. Rather than having to drive to each Borders or Barnes & Noble to see if the book is in stock, you can simply call one store and give the associate the UPC#. They should be able to tell you at which store in your city the book is available.

If after all of this you still aren’t able to complete your text list, you are likely going to need to utilize one of the local textbook stores. However, don’t forget to comparison shop at the alternative textbook stores in town. Unless you go to a very small school in a very small town, chances are that the university-endorsed bookstore is not the only one in town that stocks the books you need. At my school, there are two large alternative bookstores and one smaller one, all within walking distance of the university-endorsed bookstore, and all carrying various books on the curriculum. Make sure that you comparison shop!

As many of us find out the hard way, relying on your university to supply you with your textbooks can be an expensive, depressing experience. Do yourself a favor and use these tips to save yourself some money. I know that feel a lot more positive about my entire school experience when I’ve spent $75 on books instead of $200. Even better, when I sell them back to other students like me, via, I get the price I want, instead of the price the university bookstore is offering, and I’m keeping the service alive.

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