The University Network

The Ultimate Guide To Finding Cheap College Textbooks

*Updated February 3, 2020

Here’s the scenario that plays out all too often:

Incoming freshmen and their parents focus on what to bring to college, where to get the best deals on laptops and dorm-room essentials, and whether to rent or buy their dorm room refrigerator. Students head off to college, get settled in, start classes, and then head to their respective college bookstores to get ripped off royally. They pay full price for books when, with just a little planning, they can avoid getting ripped off and find the cheapest textbooks.

In this article, I will show you everything you need to know to purchase your textbooks cheaply. This article is broken down into five dos and five don’ts for your book-purchasing endeavor!

1. Do use the best book price comparison tool — The Textbook Save Engine

The first step in your book search is to see who has the cheapest price for the textbooks you need. To find the cheapest book, you will need to know who is selling it at the best prices, at the time when you are looking to purchase your books. There are many booksellers, so it could be very time-consuming to research them all. But there is no need to do that. Just use the Textbook Save Engine, and in seconds it will search thousands of booksellers to find the cheapest books.

For example, when searching for a popular biology book, Campbell Biology, 11th edition, we found over 80 results in less than three seconds. We were able to find a $260 book for less than $36 delivered.

Using the Textbook Save Engine, we were able to find 10 of the most popular textbooks for just $155.70, but the bookstore list price is $1,887.27. You would be saving 91.75% by using the Textbook Save Engine.

2. Do look for the Cheapest OVERALL textbook option

When it comes to buying textbooks, the question is not whether you should buy new, used or rent, but which is the cheapest option overall.

And that depends on the day ….

For example, in the Textbook Save Engine Search (screenshot) above, rentals and used books were both the cheapest options 50% of the time. New books and e-books were NEVER the cheapest option. We have done similar searches hundreds of times and have observed that new books occasionally can be the cheapest, but e-books rarely are.

When the rental price is the cheapest, also look to see how much more the used books are. While rentals are often the cheapest option for initial cash outlay, if you buy textbooks, you can resell them later.

For example, if students were to buy the used version of Campbell Biology: Concepts and Connections (8th Edition) for $15.99, they could get as much as $6.35 today by selling it back. Assuming the resale value is the same when it’s time to sell it, students would have had a total book cost of $9.64 (96% off list price).  

So, buying a used book can be a better option even if it is initially more expensive than a rental book. While you may not want the hassle of having to sell your textbooks, it’s actually pretty easy to do, and you can always wait until the start of the next semester to sell them. (In fact, you may get more for it if you wait until the start of the next semester.)

3. Do start early — Timing is everything!

There are good and bad times to buy books because used book prices fluctuate daily throughout the year (and even new books are subject to changes in price). Hence, getting your textbook list as early as possible is a good way to plan ahead.

The Invisible Hand of the Textbook Industry: The Best and Worst Times to Buy Textbooks

Below is a popular textbook tracked over the last year.

Often, books tend to be the cheapest after a semester ends and become more expensive just after school starts (notice the spike in pricing at the end of August/early September). The prices then drop a few weeks into the semester, as the dropped books come back into the available inventory. Then, just before finals, textbook prices tend to rise again, as demand increases when students who thought that they could get by without the textbooks suddenly realize that they do in fact need them.

In addition, the spread between new and used books becomes more dramatic over time as textbooks get closer to being replaced by the next edition. The textbooks industry is a very fluid market that has to be timed correctly to maximize savings.

4. Do try to make a profit on some books!

Book prices fluctuate so much that, if you time it right, you can actually make a profit after you are done using the book. If you were to buy your textbooks before school starts, take care of them during the semester, and then sell them at the beginning of the next semester, you can make a profit on some of them. While not advocating for college students to become book entrepreneurs, you should be mindful of the fluctuating values when you go to sell your books.

The Secret to Making A Profit Selling Back Your Textbooks (Seriously!)

If you are counting on re-selling your textbooks, keep the following tips in mind:

  • Don’t buy international editions because several of the book buyers won’t buy them;
  • Keep the books in good condition (consider using book covers); and
  • Don’t lose the CD or online codes that come with the books.

5. Do take advantage of your school’s library

While this may be obvious, many students often don’t realize that they can find several copies of their required textbooks in the campus library. A library is a great place to find a textbook that is not the primary book for the class. Often, a professor will assign a primary textbook and also require that you read a chapter or two from a secondary textbook. You may not want to invest in the secondary book, so check your university library’s online catalog for the books on your syllabus, or ask your librarian for help. This is also a great way to learn more about the resources available at the library, a place you will get to love

1. Don’t pay with a mascot-named currency

Many colleges have their own forms of on-campus currency, usually named after their mascot. If you are using any mascot-named currency to pay for books, whether it’s Tiger Dollars or Weasel Bucks, it’s a guaranteed rip-off.

If students fund an in-school account to include the purchase of textbooks, they can only buy from the single campus bookstore, and are subject to extraordinarily high prices. While universities assure students that their bookstore is competitive on textbook pricing, the reality is that students can always find lower prices online. Don’t forget that universities need their campus bookstore to be profitable, whether they operate it themselves or have it operated by an outside company like Barnes & Noble, since bookstores typically pay a revenue share in lieu of straight rent to your college.

Still, some students choose to use the campus bookstore because they believe it’s easier. The reality is that it’s just as easy to shop online where you can get the best prices and have the books delivered straight to your dorm or student housing.

2. Don’t be loyal to one bookseller

You had a great experience with that one bookseller that got you that awesome deal on that overpriced biology textbook. And so, you should buy all of your books from them, right?  


It’s all about supply and demand. No one bookseller dominates the market when it comes to the cheapest option. In fact, textbook prices change every day and the vendor offering the cheapest book also varies daily.

For example, in our sample search above, we looked at each of the book providers to see who had the cheapest price for 10 different books on 3 different dates — the beginning, middle, and end of the semester. As can be seen in the graph, the cheapest book provider varied greatly throughout the semester. No single book provider was the cheapest on more than half of the books on any of the dates.

Textbook Underground got the closest by being the cheapest 50% of the time in June, but it offered the cheapest books only 20% of the time in March. It should also be noted that the books were all used books rentals. Many students who buy their books online tend to use Amazon exclusively, but Amazon was the cheapest just 20% of the time in March and June, and not at all in January. Abe Books reached the 40% mark in March, but was not the cheapest option for any of the books in June.

These days, buying textbooks can be compared to booking a flight. It is a good idea to see which provider has the cheapest option on the day you are ready to make your purchase, since prices fluctuate so often.

3. Don’t steal — “Free” PDF versions aren’t actually free!

When faced with the sticker shock of books, many students feel justified in using one of the many sites that sell illegal .pdf versions of overpriced textbooks. This is not only illegal, but it defies common sense given the student’s investment in college and the many ways to find cheap textbooks.  

But if you do like free online books, there are websites like Open Culture and The Open Textbook Library that will let you download free legal versions of subject courses.

4. Don’t take classes with professors who treat you as a profit center

Every school has that professor who believes (s)he is entitled to the revenue stream from that overpriced latest limited edition book that (s)he insists must be bought new each year.

And it’s only sold in the college bookstore.  

And it comes with an online code that is needed to do your homework.

And it becomes outdated as soon as the semester is over.

The best way to save money with such professors is to avoid them completely. If you really have to take their class, check to see how many copies of the book are available in the school library before you open your wallet.  

5. Don’t use student loans to buy your books!

Students can cut their loan repayment period by nearly 2 years if they refrain from financing their textbook purchases with student loans. The average student could cut a total of $7,200 in principal and interest, which translates into either a savings of $59 a month in loan payments, or the ability to pay off the loan 1.9 years earlier.

Students who finance their textbooks with student loans experience a double whammy because they have no choice but to buy their books at the college bookstore. That happens because the full financial aid package rarely comes in before it’s time to pay for books. Many colleges, with good intentions, have created arrangements where they will ‘front” the students the money to buy books with their mascot-named currency. But, as explained in point #1, students are then restricted to the campus bookstore and are forced to continue paying for them long after they’ve graduated.

Higher education is insanely expensive, so there is no reason to spend more on textbooks when it’s so easy to find and buy cheap textbooks using the Textbook Save Engine.