10 Ways to Save Your Money From the Textbook Black Hole

One major hidden expense of going to university is paying for textbooks. Most people don’t realize that a full course load worth of brand new textbooks from the campus bookstore can easily run over a thousand dollars! The good news is that there are a lot of ways to bring this number down to something more reasonable. If you’re just starting university or about to, listen up, DO NOT go buy your books brand new! Save your money! Buy them used!

Related: How Much Will School Cost … and Is It Even Worth It?

1) Go To The First Class.

Often professors have to hand in their booklists for the fall semester at the end of the winter semester.  This means that they often don’t care, and it is the last thing on their mind as they are getting final grades out and deciding which tropical destination to go to for their break. The end result is that professors throw down the names of all of the books they may use in the course, but when you show up the first day the professor will likely say, “This is the main textbook for the course, but theses make great supplemental reading.” This is code for, “You really only need this one book, but if you want to go from an A to an A+ you could probably read these…oh yah and I actually wrote this one, that’s the only reason it’s on the list.”

10 Ways to Save Your Money From the Textbook Black Hole
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2) Never buy your books from the campus bookstore!

I’m a closet book nerd so Campus Bookstores are feel-good places to me. They have all this great knowledge packaged in shiny new vessels. It makes you feel like a real part of higher learning. Feel free to soak up the atmosphere, but if you want to save your money, don’t buy your textbooks there! If you look, the bookstore will often have some good deals on school clothing and other assorted items, but textbooks never go on sale. They realize that most students blindly will walk in with a booklist and assume that this is the only real option to buy their textbook. Once you follow their assumption they have you in their trap.

3) Buy from other students.

Why line the pockets of the huge companies that change editions and care only for profit margins? Buy from your fellow students and save your money! In my experience students will usually give you a fair price for your book, and ask for a fair price in return if the book is in decent shape. At the University of Manitoba we had a used bookstore run by the student union. I thought it was a brilliant business model. You set your own price on the book (usually after looking at similar copies already on the shelves) and then the administration kept track of everything else. There was even an automatic deposit option. In return for the services offered they would take a relatively small percentage of the price for their profit. It works especially well for large first year classes.

Related: Apple Textbooks vs The Textbook Industry

4) Buy Online.

Although I never personally bought textbooks online, almost all of my friends do now. Amazon.com or numerous other websites (just Google “buy text books online”) offer very competitive prices to save your money. The only caution I would give when ordering online is to make sure and factor in the cost of shipping from USA locations (where most sites are based out of). On the other hand, if you do a quick search for online coupons, you can often take off another 10-30% with 2 minutes of work. I’m not usually disciplined enough to use coupons, but even I can handle a quick search if it’ll save me some hard earned cash.

5) Share and ‘share creatively.’

Another popular option is for students get together and share a textbook to save your money. This is overrated in my opinion, unless you live in residence or have a roommate in the same class. It becomes super difficult to share the textbook and inevitably one person ends up dominating in ‘book time.’ A far better set up is to make liberal use of a photocopier and then split the cost for the original book and the photocopied version. I know this is illegal, but my conscience is clear on the matter. I’m sure you can make your own call on whether or not you feel a moral obligation to the people that run textbook companies. For my classes in education we had the fortune of having multiple classes with the same people (called a cohort). One of the people in my cohort worked at the student union-run copy store, and consequently we got a great deal on textbooks with mass photocopy rates. Not a bad idea to pitch if others in your class share my moral (immoral?) standards.

6) If you live in residence try just simply putting a poster up.

One of the many benefits to living in residence and being around hundreds of young people is that there is a ready-made market for used textbooks. This is especially true considering that so many residence students are in their first year and in very common classes. Every year I sold and bought books by simply putting up a few posters in high traffic areas such as the elevator and lounges with my name and room number attached. I also bought lots of books for 50% off the new price just by keeping my eyes open.

7) Buy older editions if you can get away with it.

No matter if your textbook was published in 2006 or 2009, Caesar still died, the square of two sides will equal the square of a hypotenuse on a right angle triangle, and E still equals MC squared. Not much changes in new editions in textbooks except for an introduction and an appendix or two. If you want to pay top dollar for this appendix that’s up to you, but major bucks can be saved by purchasing last year’s edition. Most students simply look at their booklist and don’t stray very far. This means that there is little demand for the old edition, and guess what that means for your lucky capitalistic self? Low demand means low price. Low price means more money for important stuff like paying off those student loans…or beer, whatever the priority might be.

8) Some books you can actually completely download.

I have to admit to never having done this one, but there are cases where entire books can actually be downloaded. Especially if you are an English major. Copyright laws state that any writing older than either 70 or 95 years (depending on a few variables) is no longer protected. Check out a website called project Gutenberg for more details. Basically that anthology of old poems that was going to cost a hundred bucks (for 4 of the 99 poems) is now free.

9) Often professors will put a few copies of the book in the library.

If you are especially committed to saving your money you might try checking out a textbook at the library whenever you need it. Usually a prof will have a copy or two on reserve. This is annoying because it forces you to only study at the library, and it is often signed out when you get there. I have known a few students to use this method and then purchase copy credits to…ahem…enhance their educational experience so to speak. Often only select chapters of the text are used, so it can work well.

10) Sell them back…just not to the bookstore.

If you know any older students they probably have a stack of old textbooks sitting in their basement collecting dust. The only fringe benefit I have seen from these books is that when they are displayed they can act as sort of chest-puffing display for academic types. This is not my style, so I would recommend selling the books. Chances are you will see all kinds of advertisements encouraging you to sell your textbooks back to the bookstore. Most bookstores will pay about 10-30% of what the book is worth and then turn around and charge next year’s poor student 80-90% of the new price. Don’t feed this system! Instead, sell using one of the ways listed above. Use a student-ran service, throw up a poster somewhere, or sell them online.

Bonus: Save Your Money, Don’t Get Book At All!

I wouldn’t recommend this for every course, but let’s be honest here, how many courses have some of you veteran students out there taken and never cracked the textbook? The sad truth is that many courses (especially in the Arts) can be completed without ever looking at the almighty textbook. If you go to class and listen to the lectures (even easier if the prof posts notes online) and research your essays you’ll probably be fine. The sad news is that your bookshelf will look empty next to the person that splurged for a brand new set of books every year. My only advice for those people is to make sure you take the plastic off the ones you never used…you want to get full ‘chest-puffing value’ for your dollar after all.

Anyone else have some ways to save your money by taking it out of the pocket of the profit-mad textbook companies?

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10 years ago

I would just like to add a little note to the final piece of advice, that is, not actually buying the textbook. I’m a TA for management/marketing courses, and I would recommend taking a structured approach to your decision on whether or not to buy textbooks. In the first year or, in some cases, two, of your undergraduate studies, books are often quite heavily relied on. Students even get away with citing them repeatedly in essays (keep in mind, though, that seeing the author of the core book cited 5 times in the same paragraph isn’t conducive of lenient marking).… Read more »

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