How to Save Money When Buying College Textbooks

The gargantuan expense of college is not limited to tuition, room and board. Outfitting a dorm room and buying textbooks can add thousands of dollars to the sky-high price tag of sending a teen to university. While dorm shopping is usually a joint-effort between parents and students, buying textbooks is often the responsibility of a brand-new college freshman with no experience with the confusing choice of options.

New or used? Rent, buy, or download? What about reselling books? Here’s a guide to help both parents and students find their way through the textbook maze and save money at the same time.

Tips on saving money on buying college textbooks

9 Tips for Saving Money on Buying College Textbooks

1. Get On It!

As soon as your student has their schedule, often as early as summer orientation, they should look for the books required for each course. According to one source, buying books in August right before school starts is the cheapest time to buy. Pay careful attention to the “ISBN number” (International Standard Book Number) – a 10 or 13-digit number found near the bar code that identifies the specific edition of the book the professor requires.

Now – at Barnes & Noble Get up to 80% Off Textbooks at Barnes & Noble

Check out the Amazon Textbooks Store for comparison shopping for buying, renting or selling.

Reminder: Find out what the return-by dates are for any books not needed if there is a chance your student might change his class schedule, a fairly common practice at the beginning of the term.

19 Tips to Save Money Buying College Textbooks

2. Triage the Book List

Students with a course schedule of four or five classes will need to buy textbooks that can easily cost in the many hundreds of dollars each semester. New hardback textbooks can be $100-$200 (or see below, $337!) while small paperbacks cost substantially less. Focus efforts on the costly textbooks, first, and look for ways to maximize savings for the most expensive books.

3. Should Your Student Buy at the Campus Bookstore?

Look at the school bookstore website for comparison shopping on new and used books. The advantages of buying on campus are ease of securing the correct books for each class, the potential option of buying during the summer but picking them up when the semester starts, and simplicity of returning books if a student changes their schedule.

However, relying on the campus bookstore can be a costly approach as books may not be discounted and, once the inventory of used books becomes depleted, only full-price, new books will remain for purchase. Further, some campus bookstores do not have the options of book rentals or E-books.

Reminder: students should hang onto the receipts of any books purchased through the bookstore until they are positive they will not make any changes to their class schedule.

4. Why Buying Books Online Can Save Money

Online booksellers, like Amazon or Barnes and Noble at have enormous inventories of college textbooks.  Search for both new and used copies by the ISBN number to see where the best deals can be found.

Reminder: Some textbooks have an online component that could have been used when the book was new. Before buying a used book, students should make sure the online code has not been activated by a previous student.

5. Is Renting a Textbook a Good Idea?

Renting textbooks can be a good alternative to buying an expensive new copy, that may only be used for a semester.

Renting is a low risk proposition but students need to be careful not to lose or damage a rental book which can cause the total price to rise.

6. What about an E-book?

Downloads of textbooks are some of the best bargains, especially if your teen is already comfortable reading books online. Check the terms of any e-book purchase to determine how many devices it can be used on and for how long the student is able to use the download – forever or a more limited period of time.

How to Sell Used College Textbooks

7. Are You Stuck With Used Books After The Semester?

Like new books, used books can also be returned for cash but students should shop around, especially on the most expensive textbooks, to see where they might get their best price for returned books.

8. How to Sell Books at the End of the Term

One way to look at the cost of a textbook is to consider the net price of the book, taking into account the likely resale price at the end of the term. Some booksellers will buy back the books for cash and will send you a prepaid label so your student can send them back without shipping fees.

9. Other Ways to Lower Textbook Prices

  • Students can email their professors or teaching assistants at the beginning of the term to ask if there is flexibility in using a previous edition of a textbook, which might be found at a cheaper price.
  • Sometimes professors make arrangements for textbooks to be held as reference books in the college library.
  • Before students buy workbooks or study guides that sometimes accompany the textbooks, they should check with their professor, first, to see if they are absolutely necessary.
  • Textbooks may be available through the town’s local libraries or through vast library networks.
  • Facebook or other online groups where fellow students list books and dorm supplies they are buying or selling, may offer textbook bargains.
  • Roommate or hallmates in the same class can sometimes share a textbook. And friends who have bought a textbook the previous semester may be willing to share or sell their textbooks.
  • To seek out the best prices for a book (to buy or to sell) from a range of booksellers (including Barnes and Noble) take a look at
  • A small number of books may be available through “open source” licenses which gives students the rights to download or print books free of charge or at a very low-cost. OpenStax (Rice University) is among the largest providers of open source books supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and other philanthropists.

You Might Also Want to Read:

New! All Grown and Flown top picks for holidays, grad gifts, dorm shopping and birthday presents for teens and college students here. 







About Grown and Flown

Mary Dell Harrington and Lisa (Endlich) Heffernan are the co-founders of Grown and Flown the #1 site for parents of teens, college students and young adults, reaching millions of parents every month. They are writers (Lisa is a New York Times bestselling author), moms, wives and friends. They started the Grown and Flown Parents Facebook Group and are co-authors of Grown and Flown: How to Support Your Teen, Stay Close as a Family, and Raise Independent Adults (Flatiron Books) now in paperback.

Read more posts by Grown and Flown

Don't miss out!
Want more like this? Get updates about parenting teens and young adults straight to your inbox.