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Tips for Buying Used College Textbooks

Posted By Jim On 11/04/2009 @ 12:33 pm In Frugal Living | 41 Comments

My 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 [3] (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 Half.com 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 [4]. 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 Chegg.com. 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 [5])


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[4] Biochemical Engineering by Harvey Blanch: http://www.bargaineering.com/articles/r/amazon.php?asin=0824700996

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