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Back to School 101: Save on textbooks

With fall semester around the corner, now's the time to study this primer on how to save big on one of your biggest college expenses outside of tuition: Textbooks.

By Smart Spending Editor Jul 25, 2013 5:42PM
This post comes from Rob Berger at partner site The DoughRoller.

MSN Money partnerStudents spend thousands on textbooks. It doesn’t matter what field you’re studying. Literature? You’ve got to buy 35 novels for every class. Science or math major? Textbooks for these classes routinely cost upwards of $100. But there are ways to get ahead of the curve on textbooks, and great ways to save money. Here’s a look at a few of the sites you can use to buy books on the cheap.

Image: Graduation cap (© Brand X Pictures/Photolibrary/PHOTOLIBRARY GROUP LTD)There are a few things to remember when buying textbooks from places other than your college or university bookstore. By buying elsewhere, you can save massive amounts. But you lose the sure bet of buying exactly the right edition.

The safest way to avoid this problem is to head to the campus bookstore and jot down the ISBN numbers (available on the bar code) for every book in all of your classes. Do this ahead of time if you can, this way you don’t have to worry about falling behind while you wait for texts to arrive in the mail.

Armed with these numbers, start shopping around these sites for the best prices.
Google "textbooks," and you’re bound to find this site at the top of the search results. In addition to tons of offerings on new and used titles, also allows you to rent texts. In this scenario, you pay a flat fee to hold onto the book for the length of the semester, and then return the book. For example, one mathematics text sells on the site for around $100 new, $71 used, and a four-month rental for $45.

Among the biggest names in online book retailers, Amazon sells textbooks at up to 30% off new titles and 90% off used titles. A membership with Amazon Student comes with free shipping for a year. There’s no sign up cost: You just sign up with your name, major, and .edu email address.

Barnes and Noble

A huge name in both brick and mortar book shops and online retail, Barnes and Noble also sells college texts at discounts. It also buys and rents textbooks.
is an eBay sister site. Instead of auctions, sellers offer up their items at a flat rate. You can find all manner of media and other items for sale on CDs, DVDs, and textbooks.
This relative newcomer to the online textbook market focuses on rentals. boasts savings of around 70% when compared to buying new.

Search Tool
There is also a great search tool on the blog, My Next College, that allows you to search for textbooks by ISBN, Author, Title, or Keyword. The search results list dozens of places to buy the book along with the price, which makes comparison shopping a snap. You can find the search tool here.

When considering rental programs, make sure you’re using an apt comparison. Rather than comparing the rental price against the new or used price, compare it against that price minus the average buyback amount. In the example above, a rental seems like a bargain. But, if you can buy the book used for $71 and sell it yourself for a similar amount, you’d wind up $26 in the hole by renting the textbook.

When it comes time to sell your books back at semester’s end, don’t feel any loyalty to the store you bought the book from. See which retailers are offering top dollar for your titles. And, remember that you’ll probably get the best prices from sites where you are the direct seller to the buyer, such as or the Amazon marketplace. These sites make their money from sales fees, rather than markup. Other sites have to buy the book from you at a low enough amount to leave room to sell them at a profit.

Also, don’t disregard your campus bookstore as a place to sell your books back. This writer once bought a mathematics textbook for $40 and sold it back to the campus bookstore for over $60. (Yes, you read right: sometimes you can actually make money selling your books back.) Just make sure you remove any price tags from other stores. Otherwise, the sell-back can get awkward.

There are also ways around getting books for certain classes. You may be able to find novels and literary works at libraries, and your friends might be able to loan you books they decided to hold onto. Don’t be afraid to give these methods a try.
Regardless of where you buy and sell books, remember the golden rule of saving: shop around. Check multiple sellers for the book you want, and find the cheapest price. Sell the book to the store that will offer the most for it. That’s the surest way to keep your book costs under budget.

More from The DoughRoller:

Jul 26, 2013 5:27AM

Always check first on a textbook price comparison website to make sure what option and merchant is cheapest. Sometimes a used textbook can be cheaper than a rental or e-book. Remember to include shipping price in your consideration !!!



The Cheap Textbook

Jul 26, 2013 2:51PM

Students can save a lot of time by using a price comparison website such as that specializes in real-time used, rental and new price comparison. The advantage of a price comparison website is that it will search all online booksellers at once and return the lowest prices along with any available coupons and free shipping offers. The available coupons are usually integrated into the price comparison, so all the discount/shipping cost math is done for you.

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