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A Guide to Saving Money on College Textbooks

Savvy Textbook Shopping

Booky computer Once you have decided to commit to a class and buy the required textbook, how do you save as much as you can?

Most importantly: be informed. Don't just buy the book at the bookstore! Do your research, compare the bookstore price to prices online. Take shipping and taxes into account. Always compare the total price which is the only price that matters.

New vs. Used

In my opinion, this is a no-brainer. You can save 20-50% buying used. Online stores usually sell copies in good condition. They will state the overall condition of the book and whether there are markings within. When buying from the bookstore or fellow student, leaf through the book before handing over the cash.

Regarding price - your best bet is finding another student that owns the book you need. Both of you will get the best deal with no middleman taking a cut on both sides of the transaction. If you can't find that used copy then do an online search.

Rent vs. Buy

Icon dollar Renting is a good way to save money, though always compare to other options because prices vary considerably. You can often find a used book for about the same price as a rental which gives you the option to keep the book or sell it back.

eBook vs. Physical Copy

You may decide to purchase an eBook for convenience or other reasons. However, in most cases, it will not be the cheapest option. Prices these days are typically 10-20% less than the list price for a physical book, but as we discuss here there are ways to cut down the price even more. Remember - you can't sell a used eBook. Publishers love that.

Older Editions

One way to save a lot is to buy a previous edition. Creating new editions is one of the techniques that publishers combat the used textbook market. Students and faculty often report that the new editions are no more than changing the chapter order, page numbers and exercises. Always ask the instructor if the older edition works for the class - your savings will be significant. As an example let's look at the current best prices for the popular textbook "Principles of Microeconomics", 7th edition (ISBN 9781285165905) : Mankiw 7 Compare that to the 6th edition, which was published only 3 years ago, (ISBN 9780538453042) and you will see that you can save 60% to 80% off comparable choices: Mankiw 6


You may want to consider using a Boundless textbook. Boundless is a company that offers e-textbooks compiled from open-source material. They align the material to match the required textbook chapter by chapter. For $20 you get a "matching" book bundled with quizzes and flashcards. They also publish some free textbooks. Boundless textbooks are not available for every textbook, but The Cheap Textbook will show this option when available. You can learn more on the Boundless website.

Selling Back

Booky cash Whether you bought new or used, sell your textbook back at the end of the term. There are however some caveats:
  1. You need to be on top of things - i.e. do not procrastinate when it is time to sell. See this NYTimes article on timing.
  2. Danger of new editions appearing (see above) which will reduce the value of your book to much less than before.
As stated above in the "New vs. Old" section - selling to another student may get both of you the best deal.


In general the best strategy is to buy used and then sell back. That usually will be half the price of renting. Even better, use an older edition of the textbook if possible.

This article was last modified on 1/5/2014