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Archive for August, 2008

How to Save Money on Books (What Your Campus Bookstore Doesn’t Want You to Know)

(NOTE: Even though the first version of this popular post was written in 2008, I edit it every now and then to reflect new strategies, technologies, and websites. Last edit: January 2015.)

Some of you sell your souls to your campus bookstore. And some of you save a *little bit* of money by using Amazon. But here are tips and tricks for saving A LOT of money for your books this semester.

My personal record for biggest savings was a $180 pair of textbooks at the bookstore for $18 total online—that’s including shipping. There were many other times I got my books for free from community resources!

I’ll explain how I did it. First, I’ll explain how to find the cheapest books to buy online. After this long section, I’ll give you ideas on how to get your books for free or really cheap from various resources. Deal?

CONDENSED Instructions for How to Find the Cheapest Books Online
Step 1. Get the ISBN for the book you need. It’s on the back cover.
Step 2. Search for the best prices on It looks through all the dozens of online merchants and compares prices for you. It even compares rental prices, such as those at, which is sometimes but not always the cheapest.
Step 3. Use to search for coupon codes before settling on what appears to be the cheapest option. You would enter,, or whatever.
Step 4. Order the book and sit back in happiness, knowing how much you saved.

EXTENDED Instructions for How to Find the Cheapest Books Online (with important details)

Step 1. Get your list of required books.

(For BU: Go to, click on “Current Schedule” under Academics, log in, and click “Buy Books” on the left. Click OK or whatever a bunch of times. Not all your courses might have the books up yet though. Some professors never even put them online.)

Step 2. Get the ISBN of each book you need to buy. (The ISBN is the unique International Standard Book Number on the back of a book or on its inside copyright page. It guarantees you’ll have the same exact edition and printing as the book your professor intends for you to buy.)

Even if you find a book with the same title and author, it doesn’t necessarily mean you found the right one! Only the ISBN guarantees you’ve found the right edition and printing. This is especially true for classic paperbacks that have dozens of different printings in the world, such as something like Huckleberry Finn or Leviathan.

How do you get the ISBN?

– Your list of required books might list all the ISBNs. In that case, skip to step 3. (BU’s doesn’t.)

– If this is over the summer or winter break and you want to buy your books NOW so they’ll ship to you before the first day of class:

  • Check the old semesters on your college course archive to see if the syllabus and required books are listed (for BU: Make sure the old semester’s books match this semester’s. If your prof didn’t list your required books yet but you found the required ones from last semester’s syllabus, I wouldn’t jump the gun and assume the prof is using the same books this semester.
  • If the old syllabus doesn’t list the ISBNs, email the professor to ask for the ISBNs. It’s a good excuse to introduce yourself too!
  • If all the above steps failed, use Amazon’s product details. If your book list says you need “The Prophet, by Gibran; Knopf, 73,” it means you need The Prophet by Gibran, published by Knopf in 1973. (The list might also say Knopf, 2 ed, which would mean the 2nd edition published by Knopf.) So type in “prophet gibran” on Click on each search result and for each, scroll down to the “Product Details.” Find the one published by Knopf in 1973. When you find the right one, copy the “ISBN-10” or “ISBN-13” number listed. Either is fine.

– If you’re already on campus:

  • Go to your college bookstore. Go to your course’s bookshelf. Copy down the ISBN number from the back of each required book.
  • Or if you received your class syllabus already and it lists ISBN numbers, you don’t need to go to your bookstore (unless you want to compare prices).

Step 3. Once you have the ISBN for a book, use to find the cheapest option online (it searches through,, and many more merchants to conveniently list the best deals for you).  You’ll notice that and are not always the cheapest, even if thousands of students swear by them!

Find a copy that’s the right balance between price and condition for you. For some classes, you might not care if you buy a super cheap but super beat-up book with a dozen different highlighting colors, whereas for other classes, you might want to spend some extra money to buy new or like new books so you can depend on your own highlighting and keep the book for years.

Don’t be afraid of the super duper cheap international student editions! Other than being paperback and often having black and white photos, they’re the exact same thing as the regular editions. Even their page numbers will match. (Don’t quote me on that, but at least it’s been true for all the ones I’ve ever bought.)

Step 4. Also check for coupon codes before settling on what appears to be the cheapest merchant. (You would enter,,, or whatever. rarely has coupons though.) You’ll probably find coupons only about 10% of the time, but you can still test your luck with this step.

Step 5. After you buy it online with standard shipping, you’ll have to wait anywhere between 5-14 days before you receive it. In the meantime, maybe buy it from the campus bookstore and return it for a full refund by the returns deadline later. Or hang out at the bookstore and read what you need to there. Or pay for expedited shipping with all the money you saved!

P.S. Choose reliable sellers! If you’re buying used books through merchants on Amazon or or whatever else, be a little careful. For books that I think I’ll keep after the course is over, I like being more careful in choosing a used copy. I like copies that have limited highlighting. And I like sellers with a good balance between high ratings and decent number of products sold. For example, I’d much rather trust a seller who has made 100 transactions and has a 4-star rating out of 5 than a seller who has made 3 transactions and has a 5-star rating. Use your own judgment to decide which seller and which book copy you want. I’m not always pleased with the book condition when I choose a copy that is only in “acceptable” condition, but life goes on. I still saved money. And it’s not like I have to lick my book or anything. If it’s that icky, I probably just won’t ever put it on my pillow.

~ ~ ~

Additional Wonderfully Delicious Methods for Saving Money on Books:

– Buy the book on Facebook marketplace or through your friends.

– Buy the book through your university’s textbook selling and buying Facebook page or the general page for your university. (BU has several. Here is one:

– If the book is a classic, you can read it online for free at . It’s an archive of all the books that are old enough to be in the public domain. All the oldies by Shakespeare and Plato are on there, as well as books by more “recent” authors, such as Twain and Oscar Wilde. This is possible because after a certain number of decades, any writing is in the public domain. Check to see if your books are there. (Reading it online has an extra advantage: you can easily copy and paste important passages and condense the book down to what you really need to reread for an exam or what you want saved to put in a paper.)

Google it. Remember that “Prophet” book I used as an example for obtaining ISBNs? For some reason it’s not on Gutenberg, but a simple Google search for “prophet gibran” finds dozens of copies of it online for free. It’s a short read and an amazing “life advice” book. (Shameless plug: If you like personal development, motivation, and inspirational stuff, please check out my other blog too!:

Buy an electronic copy of it or a Kindle copy of it. Amazon sometimes offers them and they’re usually cheaper. Or buy it on Google Play. Or download it (legally, of course…).

If it’s a little paperback, buy it from the campus bookstore (*shudder*). Sometimes it’s actually the cheapest option because you don’t need to pay for shipping. So once you get hooked on buying cheap books online, don’t forget this traditional way. And hey, if you bump into a friend who’s about to sell their soul to the bookstore and buy textbooks there, tell them about this awesomely useful blog post. =)

Borrow it from the public library or the college library. Factor in the maximum number of renewals and time it out so you know you will still have the book right before an exam or for writing a paper (the Boston Public Library in Copley, one of my favorite places, allows up to 5 renewals of 4 weeks each—adding up to a whole semester!). Ask about the details for someone putting the book on hold if it’s a rare book. You wouldn’t want to be required to return the book right before exams if someone else puts it on hold close to the end of the semester while you still have it. But if it’s a book with tons of copies, then hakuna matata.

Read it in the bookstore. It forces you to sit down to study. YOU MAY NOT LEAVE UNTIL YOU FINISH YOUR WORK. DO NOT PASS GO.

Read the copy put on reserve at your university library. (But not all profs put one there.)

Borrow it from a really hot classmate. (It’s a good excuse to “study.”)

Borrow it from your professor. Go to their office and tell them that you can’t afford the textbook. Ask if they have an extra copy you can borrow. Some of my bold friends have done this. While you’re in their office, discuss your interest in the class, your career plans, and whatnot. Perfect bondage time with your professor! Oooops, I meant bonding!

– Buy it and share the book and split the price with a classmate. Sometimes professors want you to buy the whole book even if you’ll be reading just one or two good chapters from it. If that’s the case, the book will be easy to share.

Purposely buy an older edition of the book. Usually not that much changes from one edition to the next. Then maybe check with a classmate or at the bookstore to catch up on what you’re missing.

Buy a copy of the textbook without the accompanying CD. I’ve never had a prof who required us to use the textbook CD.

– This one is ultra-risky, but maybe don’t even read the “required” book at all. If word-of-mouth and (which isn’t always the the best way to choose professors) say you won’t be tested on the reading, you might go this route. Of course this might take away from your learning experience, but sometimes you need the courage to read and learn what you want to. I have a bad (or is it good?) habit of choosing and reading my own stack of books on similar topics for free at the bookstore or library, and sometimes just skimming the required ones. Professors usually get very impressed by my additional knowledge. Free brownie points!

Good luck with the process! And remember to tell other students not to sell their souls to their campus bookstore. Use your extra saved cash to buy something useful, like red cups and ping pong balls, right? Or maybe you can even adopt an endangered koala. Too bad you’re usually not allowed to pack them for your dorm.

~ ~ ~

Found this article useful? Saved a lot of money? This blog runs on visits. How can you help?
–> Share this site with your friends, especially on social media and social bookmarking sites. Tag How to Spell College on Facebook or use #howtospellcollege on social media.
–> Let me know how much money you may have saved!!

Thank you!!

– by Nathan Chow
Boston University Class of 2009

Master Checklist for Dorm Packing

Packing for college and don’t know if you’re forgetting something?

This is the single most comprehensive dorm packing list that exists. All the other ones neglect something that another listed, but this is a combination of them all.

Thousands of students have used this list over the years, but I still caution: You don’t need everything here. Before you pack something, ask yourself if you really need it. I guarantee that every year you’ll get wiser and pack significantly less and less. Try your best to just do that now.

This list is not a “buying list.” You’ve probably had the good sense to buy and pack the absolute essentials, so this list is more of a checklist to keep you sane the moment before you leave home. This is everything you could possibly need. That doesn’t mean you need everything though.

My recommendation is to copy the list and paste it into Word. Then delete the stuff you don’t use and have never heard of. Then print that personalized list out. But of course visit here again in the near future or share this list with others. This blog runs on visits. =).

Also note to yourself:

  • which items are easier to purchase upon arrival,
  • which items are easy to improvise (after getting take-out or visiting restaurants for a while, you’ll probably have enough napkins or food storage containers),
  • which items are easy to share with or borrow from roommates and floormates (It’s also a good way to meet the ones you haven’t met yet!—even the ones who look as if they sacrifice squirrels but turn out to be super friendly. Okay, I digress.),
  • and which items can be brought with you later, exchanged from home later, or shipped later, such as winter clothes.

Other notes

1. Remember to check your college’s housing site to see what’s not allowed. For Boston University’s:

2. Have a list of serial numbers, makes, and models of all expensive items. Have one hardcopy in your dorm, one left at home with your parents, one as a computer file, and one emailed to yourself. It’ll help in case of a robbery. You can also take pictures of the items.

3. If you think I forgot anything significant, please leave a comment!

Aaaand on with the list already:

Important General Stuff

wallet, purse, hand bag
ID, license, college ID
cash, change, credit cards, debit cards
glasses, contacts

Basic Kitchen Stuff (even if you won’t have a kitchen)

— Necessary: —
forks, knives, spoons (silverware or plastic)
Ziploc® bags, various sizes
reusable water bottle
— Good to Have: —
paper plates
plastic cups
chip clips, clothes pins, twisters
— You Decide: —
microwaveable bowl
thermo cup/mug
food containers
can opener, bottle opener, corkscrew
water purifier/filter/pitcher
sponge and cloth for dishwashing
wet wipes

Additional Kitchen Stuff (if you’ll have a kitchen)

— Necessary: —
ceramic plates
pots and pans
dish detergent
hand soap
paper towels
— You Decide: —
plastic wrap, aluminum foil
kitchen towel
dish cloth
oven mitt
coffee maker (only allowed at BU if you’ll have a kitchen)
blender (only allowed at BU if you’ll have a kitchen)
hot plate (only allowed at BU if you’ll have a kitchen)


— Necessary: —
general medication (Tylenol®, Aspirin®, headache, cough, pain reliever, eye drop)
your prescription medication
— You Decide: —
non-perishable food: noodle cups, canned foods, soup
candy, cough drops, gum, mints
snacks, popcorn, cereal, etc.
bottled water, bottled drinks, soda
tea bags, powdered drink mixes
protein mixes

Room Needs / Storage

— Necessary: —
alarm clock
bags: garbage, plastic, paper
small wastebasket, small recycle bin (or improvised with a paper bag)
photos of family, friends, pets
— Good to Have: —
night light, flashlight
all-purpose cleaner
Lysol® / disinfecting wipes (clean the desk on move-in.. you really don’t know how few showers the previous inhabitant took)
dry erase board and markers
storage bins, stacking baskets
air freshener
— You Decide: —
bedside lamp, clip-on lamp, desk lamp, decorator lamps, extra light bulbs (In some BU dorms, a desk lamp is provided.)
over-the-door hooks, adhesive hooks
desk chair seat cushion/pad (sometimes the dorm chairs want to abuse your butt)
desk chair (BU has them already, but I’ve seen some students bring more comfortable ones)
bulletin board and push pins
shoe rack
closet organizer
closet add-in shelf
various organizers: for CDs, for papers, for cosmetics, etc
tools, screwdriver, hammer
RackRaisers®, bed risers
bunking kit
bookcase (BU provides a small one on your desk that should be enough)
dust wipes

Computer Stuff

— Necessary: —
laptop, battery, AC adapter
CDs: your favorite software, emergency startup CD, backup of most important files (keep a copy at home)
ethernet cord, modem
headphones or earbuds
portable USB flash storage drive
— You Decide: —
mouse, mouse pad
laptop case, laptop bag
desktop computer, monitor, keyboard
tablet, iPad
Kindle, Nook, eReader
blank CD-Rs
CD cases
laptop lock
printer (you may want to share with your roommate or use your college’s printing labs), extra ink cartridges, blank printer paper


— Necessary: —
surge protectors / extension cords
cell phone, cell phone charger, accessories, and a contract that says you will call home every now and then to talk to those loved ones called parents
— You Decide: —
camera / digital camera
camera accessories: memory card/stick, upload cable, camera battery, battery charger, photo software CDs, other camera accessories
PDA, electronic organizer
battery charger, rechargeable batteries, extra batteries
favorite movies
mp3 player, earbuds, cord for charging/uploading, accessories
audio recording device
CD player, cassette player, headphones, favorite CDs and cassettes (CD? cassette? people still use those?)
land phone, answering machine, phone cord (along with other items if you’re from the Jurassic era)

Linens/Laundry Supplies

— Necessary: —
sheets (for most colleges, including BU: extra long)
comforter and duvet cover
clothes hangers
laundry bag/hamper/basket, pop-up hamper
laundry detergent (liquid or convenient tablets)
fabric softener
— You Decide: —
small pillow, headrest pillow
mattress pad / egg crate
laundry stain remover
sewing kit
lint brush
drying rack

Bath and Toiletries

— Necessary: —
towels: body, hair, hand, face, extras
shampoo, conditioner
body wash, or soap and soap container
toothbrush (and extras), toothpaste, toothbrush case
bathroom cup
dental floss
comb, brush
razors, electric razor, shaving cream, aftershave
nail clipper, nail file
extra eyeglasses, case, cloth
contact lens solution
contact lens container
shower shoes, flip-flops (if communal bathroom) (your feet will thank you)
shower tote/caddy (if communal bathroom)
— For Girls (and for guys who wish to pack too much) —
pads, tampons
nail polish, nail polish remover
hair dryer
hair straightener
curling iron
makeup, cosmetics
— You Decide: —
body sponge, back brush
mouth wash
hair gel, pomade, mousse, hairspray
facewash, acne cream
lotion, facial moisturizer
sunscreen, suntan lotion/spray
perfume, cologne
cotton swabs/balls
small mirror
bath robe
Band-Aid® bandages
suction hooks
bathtub scrubber (if your room will have a bathroom)


— Necessary: —
sweaters, hoodies
sneakers, comfortable walking shoes
jackets: light, heavy, rain
dress shoes
dress clothes
1 set formal/business attire
1 set semi-formal attire
— For winter: —
winter coat
— For Guys: —
— For Girls: —
— You Decide: —
slippers, flip-flops, sandals
hat, cap
bathing suit
sports equipment: shin guards, helmet, etc.
gym/athletic clothes
hairbands, hairpins
— For Parties: —
Clothes that barely cover anything

Office/Desk Supplies

— Necessary: —
assignment book, planner
lined paper
pens, pencils, pencil holder, sharpener, eraser
Scotch® tape
— You Decide: —
notebooks: new, old (the bio class you took 10 pages of notes for could still be used like new—please learn to reuse!), composition notebooks
binders, dividers
colored pencils, markers, crayons
highlighter pens (multiple colors)
heavy duty tape, masking tape, mounting tape, duct tape
tacky adhesive
stapler, staples, staple remover
paper clips
rubber bands
Wite-out® (yeah, there’s no H. who would’ve known?)
hole puncher, 3-hole puncher
index cards
Post-it® notes
stamps and envelopes, standard size and paper size
labels of various sizes
adhesive hooks, tack
graph paper
book light
book ends
small memo books / Moleskin books
typing paper holder/clip
stackable desk trays
hanging files or folders, folder storage bin
combination lock

Papers, Books, and Documents

— Necessary: —
textbooks for your classes
phone/address book, important phone numbers, contact list (all of this can be digital)
maps of the campus, of the city, and of public transportation
insurance card/papers/forms
checks, bank stuff
any documents your school told you to bring (as far as I know, BU doesn’t require any special documents, other than your college ID for returning students)
— You Decide: —
old notes from previous classes that may be useful
course catalog
dictionary, thesaurus
reference books
guides/instructions for laptop, digital camera, cell phone, graphing calculator, etc
some of your favorite books
high school yearbook, BU Freshman Record
college phone/address directory
phone card
social security card (probably don’t need it)
renter’s insurance
car insurance, registration (if you’re bringing a car)
Visa information, citizenship info, alien info
passport (if you’re considering traveling for Spring Break or other breaks)
financial aid forms (leave a copy at home if your parents will need them for reference when they’re renewing your aid in the spring)
road maps for how to get to the school.. (or a female driver who’s willing to ask for directions when you’re lost and it’s already the second day of class and you’re gonna fail and you wasted $50,000 in tuition just because a male driver was too macho to ask for help)

Misc Things

— Necessary: —
suitcases / luggage bags / duffel bags (for going home during short breaks)
house key
any necessary items for specific classes (especially art classes and gym electives, such as ice skating)
any necessary items or books for your culture and/or religion
— You Decide: —
quarters (most of the big BU dorms have change machines)
key chain / lanyard
favorite mementos/souvenirs
stuffed animals
ear plugs
sleeping mask
patches, thermal patches for aches
beach towel, swim cap, goggles, swimming gear
bug spray
Neosporin®, Imodium®, Pepto-Bismol®, Viagra®, and so on…
condoms, birth control pills, contraceptives (and a copy of the movie “Juno”)
pregnancy tests
favorite board games, electronic games
deck of cards
items for your hobbies (such as musical instruments or sports stuff)
sports equipment (basketballs, volleyballs, and a few other items can be rented for free at BU’s FitRec gym)
car, keys, GPS, EZ Pass
bike, skateboard, roller skates, roller blades
bike lock, cover, pump

Shared Items (check with roommates to avoid duplication)

— You Decide: —
microwave-fridge aka microfridge (can be rented at BU for about $225—split it with roommates/suitemates)
microwave (not allowed in a BU dorm, but you can bring one and share it in the common room)
TV, TV cable, remote
DVD player, Blu-Ray player
DVDs, Blu-Ray movies
video game systems, controllers, games
audio equipment
air conditioning (not allowed at BU)
handheld vacuum (can be borrowed for free at BU’s RA offices)
small brush and dustpan
bathtub scrubber
area rug
iron, ironing board
floor lamp, tree floor lamp
TV/snack tray
fold-out chair
full-length mirror
shower curtain (most BU dorms and apartments have them already)
curtains (most BU dorms have them already)

Absolutely the Most Important

1) a desire to learn, grow, take chances, change, develop, socialize, network, meet people, have fun, get inspired, get empowered
2) a desire to cherish your college experience from Day One! =)

– by Nathan Chow
Boston University Class of 2009


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