Frugal Living 

Tips for Buying Used College Textbooks

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College TextbooksMy wife started her first semester of classes this fall on her way towards a Ph.D. One of the best things about a Ph.D., besides the degree, is that candidates are paid to go to school. The salary isn’t something you can retire on but with the cost of education, anytime you can get college education for free (or less than free, in this case!), you jump on it.

With the start of classes comes the need for college textbooks. As I remembered years ago, college textbooks are not cheap. In fact, the prices seems exorbitant to me but that’s what happens when there’s a small market forced into buying a product. Fortunately, there are some techniques you can use to defray the costs.

Buy from Previous Students

The easiest way to get a textbook is to buy it from a previous student who took the class. This works best for “foundation” type classes where every student in the program is required to attend because it means the supply of books will be high. Be sure to check that the textbook and that edition will be used again your semester (check with the professor).

The best place to find willing sellers is bulletin boards, either online or physically in the department building. Once you find a willing seller, negotiate a little to see if you can knock a few dollars off the price. Review the prices you can find online so you don’t overpay. The benefit of buying in person is that you can get the book immediately and not worry about shipping costs or delays.

Buy Online

Just put your book’s ISBN or title into Google and see what pops up. There are hundreds of vendors selling textbooks from big names like and Amazon to smaller bookstores (too numerous to name). When buying, you want to buy used and in relatively good condition. Check the seller’s feedback to see if they can be trusted. If they have hundreds of thousands of results and good feedback, chances are they will be a store or textbook distributor and can be trusted.

I took a quick peek at the results for one of the books my wife bought, Biochemical Engineering by Harvey Blanch. Brand new, the book sells for $65.77 and resellers are offering it for as low as $63.45. In this case, I’d buy it new rather than used because of shipping costs.

Rent Textbooks

I’ve never tried this but there are services where you can rent a textbook for a semester. One site I found, but have never used, was You can rent a book for 60 days, a quarter, or a semester. If their semester period ends before yours, they extend it for free.

Is it worth it? Not sure, because I checked the prices for renting Biochemical Engineering and it wasn’t that much cheaper than the $65.77 price at Amazon. For a semester, it was $56.99. You could probably buy the book new and resell it for more than $8.78 (purchase price minus the rental price). It’s an option worth considering if it makes sense for the books you might need.

Buy In Bookstore

This is the most expensive option for buying used textbooks and I’m always amazed that people will sell the books back to the bookstore, given how much they gauge you (or used to gauge you, I haven’t looked at bookstore book prices in a while). One strategy I used to use was buy the book new in the store, order it online, and then return the book when it appeared. In response, many college bookstores have now rejected returns unless you bring confirmation you dropped the class.

I believe I’ve covered all the good used textbook buying options available to the frugal minded college student. With the spring semester coming up, the used sections of these sites and in bookstores is likely to swell as people try to recoup their expenses.

Do you have any used textbook tricks up your sleeve? Tactics you used to defray the costs?

(Photo: psychobabble)

{ 41 comments, please add your thoughts now! }

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41 Responses to “Tips for Buying Used College Textbooks”

  1. athena1224 says:

    I teach at a University and I always tell my students that they can purchase an earlier edition of the book ( usually about $10) rather than the latest edition for $119. I know many other instructors who are o.k. with this as long as they don’t use the homework questions from the book. Also, I always have extra copies of the book I am using and lend them out if students ask.

  2. Soccer9040 says:

    University bookstores are generally a rip off.

    The best way to save is just like athena1224 says. See if the professor will use an older version. They are often times MUCH cheaper and always available.

    I was an accounting student. Nothing like buying that 2005 IRS Federal Tax book one semester for $100 then knowing you will only be able to sell it for $2 by the time the semester is done because the 2006 book is out.

  3. Gimena says:

    When I was in college I always used to buy my books. It compares the price at over a dozen book selling sites. Also, I bought back editions.

    I majored in engineering and have a word of caution about renting books. It is not a good idea to rent books that are specific to your major. I find myself going back to my college textbooks all the time. If I would of rented them back then, I would be buying them now.

  4. anon says: compares across many sites and lets you select new vs used. It’s definitely saved me a bundle on all my engineering books.

  5. jsbrendog says:

    i don’t know if it is still going on but Barnes and Noble had free shipping on textbooks awhile back when we were looking for books. Some of the books were cheaper too due to an online discount so coupled with the free shipping it was a better deal than buying a used one, which surprised me greatly.

  6. Chris says:

    Go to I have been told you can download entire textbooks, but it may be illegal, and it takes a long time so do your research first!

  7. jaye says:

    At my University many of the student organizations hosted a “book swap” at the end of the semester. People could post their books on an online forum for about a week or so. Then the organization would host the actual swap, which coinisides with the last meeting of the semster. This was also recruiting event for my organization. Lots of money was saved. In addition you can swap notes, and other study materials. A book swap works best for a student organization that belongs to a certain major. Biology = Tri Beta.

  8. Hank says:

    I buy as many of my textbooks as possible used from

    I also used to approach students in the class I was going to take the next semester to ask about they textbook especially if it was a particularly expensive one. Then, I basically had first dibs on them which helps when you go to a very small college with a limited supply.

  9. daemondust says:

    Of course, used aren’t always available. Here they like to re-order the chapters and end of section homework questions in math textsbooks and call it a new edition. Math at that level hasn’t changed in hundreds, perhaps thousands of years, but every year or two we have a new edition of the text, with no real new content. The teachers even admit that, but are powerless to change it (so they claim).

    Or one of my econ classes had a special class packet that we had to buy. It consisted of 1) the teacher’s half-written book 2) attendance cards 3) a code for the teachers own homework submission system and 4) excerpts from another econ. text. All this for just under $200. The entirety of other text itself was available new for under $30. The rest wasn’t available separately, but similar homework submission sites cost around $50 for a semester, so ostensibly, the professor was valuing his unfinished textbook and and cards to turn in during class for attendance at around $120.

    Then there was one class where the only text went out of print some eight years prior. There were a few classroom copies of it, but the only place to buy it was the university bookstore, where it was sold at an outrageous price due to its rarity. Every year there were fewer and fewer copies available for purchase.

    Many textbooks aren’t really required, either. Sometimes the bookstores here will add books as ‘required’ that the professor hasn’t even heard of, or will take books the prof. listed as ‘optional’ and mark them ‘required’ anyway. And, of course, they won’t let you return anything after a week prior to school starting without a note saying you dropped the class, and then only until the end of the first week.

    I’ve even seen hardcover textbooks with tear-out assignment sheets, insuring that either the person who buys the book will fail the class, or will be unable to sell it back as used. That way they don’t even have to spin a ‘new edition’ every few years to stave off the used market.

  10. hoht says:

    Agree with all the above except the bookstore. First semester of college was the only time I ever bought from them…. so so expensive. Would rather spend the extra on a several boxes of Ramen 😀

  11. Jill says:

    I use – kind of like an Expedia for books – searches multiple sites and shows you the best prices.

  12. Brittany says:

    I can also vouch for Chegg. I only discovered it last semester, and it isn’t ALWAYS the rock bottom price. But it’s certainly worth adding to your list of sites to compare prices, and as stated, they pay for shipping when it’s time to return. Another cool, eco-friendly thing about Chegg is that they plant a tree for every book rented, bought, or sold through them.

    They give out codes to save an extra 5% when renting or to make an extra 5% when selling back. Mine is CC108863, feel free to use it!

  13. kelseyo says:

    have you ever tried out for buying, renting, and selling books? I tried chegg and was having problems so I thought I would try something else out. a friend told me about them and I loved it! the prices are already cheaper and plus she gave me her code EE15007 and it saved me 5% on top of that. you should try it out!!

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