Yesterday I reviewed strategies for saving money on personal books. As a recent grad student, I also have several strategies for saving money on college books. These are my top methods, but you can also use sources like on-campus exchanges, off-campus exchanges, and Craigslist to find books.

Request Books from the Library
Years ago, I was contracted to write a how-to book. It was an area I had expertise in, but I needed to heavily research some side topics and related history. I’m fortunate to live in Los Angeles, which means I can search the massive LAPL catalog online and request that any book not in the reserve section be sent to my nearest branch. I ordered and checked out 40 books. By tracking due dates online, renewing online, and scheduling regular trips, I avoided any late fees. I believe I spent a total of $12 on books to research that project.

If you have access to a college library, you’re in even better shape. Most college libraries are more extensive than public libraries. In addition to a massive print collection of obscure academic titles, my school had some books available electronically, either directly through my library or through their associations with other university libraries. They can also borrow print books from many other major universities, so you can find almost any book you need. There may be a fee for undergrads, so you may want to ask your professor to order it if you really need it for a big project. If you don’t know how to find these resources in your library, ask the librarian in the reference section for help. They’re more than happy to show you how to find what you need or help you track down alternative sources.

Buy College Texts Online
Half.com is an excellent way to save money on books for students, especially humanities students. You can often get them from the library, but I preferred to own them so I could mark up relevant passages. Nothing angers me more than checking a book out of the library and discovering that someone has written in it. I found that most books from Half.com weren’t written in. If they were, the description indicated that.

I’ve also found some science textbooks in the used section of Amazon and Half.com. Here’s a little known fact about the real reason textbooks cost so much: updated editions. Publishers will release an updated edition with only a few changes, but it forces many students to buy books new. For most majors, you can probably use a textbook that’s a few years older and get the same information for much less. Shakespeare’s words haven’t changed in 400 years. There’s no reason to buy the brand new, updated compendium when you can get one a few years older for less. Obviously, some majors like computer science might require new texts because of the frequency of important changes. If you’re not sure, ask your professor if the older edition still applies.

Some textbooks are also bundled with workbooks, CDs, or software that you’ll never use. Unless your professor specifies that you need them, buy a copy without the extras and you’ll save serious dough.

The key to this strategy is ordering ahead so you have the books on the first day of class. Here’s how I did that:

  1. Check the online synopsis, if available, 3-4 weeks before the class starts. Note titles, authors, edition numbers, and whether the book is required or optional
  2. Check the online college bookstore for the book list. Note the above information and the ISBN number.
  3. Search Amazon and Half by ISBN number for the required list and decide whether you want the optional books. See if you can find all the books you need from just a few different sellers to reduce shipping costs. In most cases, you can buy the books cheaper online, but if you only need a few, it may be worth it to stop by the school bookstore a few weeks before class and buy the best used copies there.
  4. Factor in shipping and tax (where applicable) when comparing the online and campus bookstore costs, then go to the cheaper place.
  5. If you’re buying online, order the books at least two weeks before class starts to ensure they reach you in time.

Access Free Books Online
If you’re really strapped for cash, look for public domain books online. The biggest source is Project Gutenberg. They offer over 17,000 ebooks (pre-1900 mostly, but some early 1900s texts have now fallen out of copyright). You can also Google the title to find all free online sources. I’ve also used this for poems and short stories where I didn’t want to buy a whole book for just three poems or one story. Author society websites (e.g. the Jane Austen society), academic websites, and fan websites are good places to start.

Using these strategies, I spent no money on research texts for various papers and projects during my grad school career. In preparation for my comprehensive exam, I spent about $100 on 40 books. Once the exam was over, I resold most of them and earned back most of what I’d spent. I probably spent around $50-100 per semester on books, but I was able to resell most of them for nearly what I paid for them.

Comments

3 Responses to “Save Money on College Books”

  1. Festival of Frugality - #112 on February 12th, 2008 5:39 am

    [...] Sound Money Matters gives three tips for saving money on college books. [...]

  2. Kaye on February 12th, 2008 12:37 pm

    I discovered during college that I was brilliant! =) Of course I always purchased used books (unless forced to do otherwise), but I had a plan when reselling. I would keep my books at the end of the semester and then at the beginning of the next, I would scout the bookstores during “peak” book season (you know…the first day of class after everyone has gotten a syllabus and needs to get the books!). I would go to the aisle of the book that I wanted to sell and find someone eye-balling that book. I would sell it to them and we’d both make off like bandits! =) For example: A chemistry book costs $80 used. However, after I used it and tried to sell it back to the store, they would only give me $25 for it and then resell it for $80 again. That’s how they make money. However, if I sell it to the person in the aisle for $50 or $60…we both win! Don’t be obvious of course, as I doubt the store would appreciate you doing this. =) Worked great for a student who needed to buy her own books for the new semester! =)

  3. Spencer Johnson on February 19th, 2008 1:09 pm

    I found a new site this year. Its called http://www.college-etrade.com. It help me save a lot of money. You can sell or buy textbooks from others at your college, so you don’t have to pay for shipping. Its a great site!

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