10 Ways to Save Money on College Textbooks

by Jalen & Sarah Bromley

College textbooks are a non-negotiable resource for getting through tertiary education, but they can also be one of a student’s biggest enemies when it comes to keeping costs low. In fact, the average college textbook costs $105.37, which adds up to $399-$600 per student in an academic year. 

If you’d prefer to put some of that cash toward food, fun activities, or even an emergency fund, you’re in the right place. We’ve pulled together ten ways to save money on textbooks, none of which require your pricey college bookstore.

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1. Use library and course resources

If you want the ultimate money-saving option, you’d struggle to beat obtaining a book free of charge. And that’s exactly what a library can offer.

It’s worth checking both your college library and any local libraries, although your college library is more likely to stock the niche textbooks required as part of your course.

But a word of warning. If you haven’t used your university’s library before, we recommend checking out the rules and policies before you need to borrow a book for an important assignment or exam. 

In some cases, colleges only let students use books while they’re in the library (instead of taking them home) or borrow them for very short leases of less than a day. This gives all students a fair chance to access in-demand textbooks, but it hardly makes for a convenient studying experience. 

2. Source digital ebooks

While many people are still fans of the musty smell and crisp paper feeling that comes with physical books, digital versions of textbooks can be a great way to save money. Since they don’t require publishers to spend money on printing physical editions and shipping them to you, they often come with lower price tags.

This is especially true when you buy from discount retailers. For instance, VitalSource is a retailer that specializes in selling digital textbooks and course materials, and promises students discounts of up to 80%. It also offers handy features such as the option to make margin notes, a search function, and have the book narrated to you.

3. Check open-license resources

Some textbooks have open licensing, meaning anyone can access them for free — if you know where to go.

The Open Education Network sources textbooks with this licensing, which members can then download straight to their computers. Your college will need to be a member for you to access the site, but with a membership that includes more than 1,800 institutions, there’s a good chance your university is already involved.

Alternatively, anybody can access Project Gutenberg, which contains a selection of major titles for which US copyright has expired. As a result, most of the titles here are literature and other classics, so it’s not the place to go if you need an up-to-date textbook on US politics. But it can be a great option for students of humanities subjects.

4. Consider international or global editions

Sometimes, saving money on textbooks can be as simple as choosing the most cost-effective edition. Many textbooks are printed in various versions, with editions tailored to specific countries (i.e., US edition or Canadian edition). While you probably don’t want to buy the Australian edition if you live in California, opting for an international or global edition often covers most of the same bases — and increases your chances of finding the cheapest price possible.

However, make sure the book is compatible with course materials first. Often, there are only subtle differences, such as the odd example or case study. But if you’re studying something like law where you need to keep up with the specific regulations of one country, an international edition probably isn’t going to be suitable.

5. Consider older editions

On a similar note, you may be able to grab yourself a bargain by opting for an older edition. The updates made to a book from one edition to the next are often minimal, yet the price differential can be astronomical. 

But as with international editions, you’ll need to check if an older edition will be suitable for your course. Some subjects are more time-sensitive than others, and you may also get unlucky by studying in a year when there’s been a massive breakthrough in your field.

6. Buy used textbooks online

It’s unlikely you’re the first student studying what you’re studying and needing the textbook you need. Thousands of students have come before you, and most of them probably don’t want to keep their old textbooks as souvenirs. 

Instead, many turn to online marketplaces to try to shift their textbooks and make some extra cash. Since they’re competing with mainstream textbook retailers, these students will generally offer lower prices to incentivize sales.

Some sites to check out include:

  • Chegg
  • Textbooks.com
  • CampusBooks
  • AbeBooks
  • Amazon
  • eBay

7. Buy from previous students

Another great source of second-hand textbooks is to purchase from previous students at your own college. If you’re friends with students in the year above you, let it be known that you’d be willing to buy their textbooks from them. It’s a win-win situation as it provides them with the chance to make some extra cash!

But you don’t need to be a socialite to buy textbooks from other students. Some colleges have book exchange groups to facilitate these exchanges, and many students will turn to social media sites like Facebook Marketplace to sell their old books.

If you can find a seller, this may be a preferable option to buying used textbooks online since you won’t have to pay for postage.

8. Share textbooks with classmates

One of the more out-there entries on this list is to save money by sharing resources with fellow classmates. For instance, you could club together to buy course textbooks with two or three other people and use those books on different days. If you have the patience, you could even photocopy the entire book so that you both have your own copy.

Of course, if you go down this route, you’ll need to make sure you have an agreement among your friends about who is going to use which book and when. If you live in the same student housing, sharing may be more practical than trusting an all-important textbook with someone who lives an hour away from you.

9. Rent textbooks

The sharing economy has been consistently rising in popularity in the twenty-first century. We can now rent everything from clothes to electronics instead of buying upfront, and college textbooks have now joined the party.

Chegg has a rental service, which lets you borrow books for 21 days. Some brick-and-mortar bookstores also offer the services. Note that Amazon used to have a textbook rental service, but it discontinued it in 2023.

10. Sell your old textbooks

This idea is a little different from the others on the list, because it’s about funding your textbook purchases. Selling your old textbooks technically won’t reduce the price of your next round of textbooks, but it will certainly ease your budget.

You can use all the methods outlined in this article for selling textbooks of your own. Selling to local students will mean postage and fees won’t eat into your profits, but selling online through major sites like eBay will increase the market you can access. The choice is yours!

Save those bucks on your books

When it comes to saving money on textbooks, the cheapest option will vary depending on which books you need. You’ll probably need to do some shopping around to figure out whether renting, buying online, or opting for an alternative edition makes the most sense for your course and college. But we can guarantee you that anything beats paying full price at the bookstore.

For more tips along your financial journey as a student, Frugal Student has you covered. We post regular advice about saving and making as much money as possible while you study, from working through debt to choosing the right accommodation. Make sure you stay tuned!

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