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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

Nathan Chow is a graduate of Boston University's College of Communication. As a leadership and career coach who helps millennials land their dream job, he helps them 1) figure out their strengths and purpose, 2) edit their cover letters and resumes, and 3) negotiate higher pay with confidence. Nathan's mission is to minimize people's stress and anxiety and lead them to happier lives. One client's pay multiplied by 1.5x after two hours with Nathan. Another received $4000 more after 15 minutes working with Nathan. Check out and subscribe to the free newsletter. In his free time, Nathan loves to read, write, dine out, eat ethnic food, run, salsa dance, play soccer, take photos, juggle, joke, laugh, and meet new people---but certainly not all at the same time. Nathan reads and responds to all email.


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Time July 13, 2009 at 4:05 am

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