Back to school = back to buying some of the most expensive books you’ll ever hold in your hand, be they actual books or electronic versions you can access on a computer or a tablet. There are a great number of articles on the subject this time of year… and here’s another one!

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What/When to buy?

This is one of the areas that has changed the most since I first started college; you used to show up day one of class and read the syllabus to see what you would soon be shopping for. Now school bookstore websites and portal sites— the online places you register for classes, check grades, etc.— will often give you access to the required readings sometimes weeks in advance of the first day, giving you a leg up on folks who wait until the last minute and may not have the same roster of choices (new, used, rental, 24K gold edition, etc.). This gives you more time to shop— see the list o’ websites below— and is one less thing to worry about on your first day.

Conversely (you’ll learn that word in science class if you haven’t already), waiting until the class begins could do a few money-saving things for you:

  • You may decide to drop the class straight away and would have to sell it back, taking a bath in doing so almost for sure (kinda like buying a new car, you drive it off the lot and it loses a ton of value, dernit :\).
  • You may determine you have a higher risk tolerance for trying to get through a class without the text, either by sharing with someone in class or doing some skillful perusing of the class calendar to see how many assignments actually require the text (or the usual: beg/borrow/steal ;))..
  • Your instructor may reveal— generally the first day of class as you’re going through the syllabus— that he/she has no problem with you buying an older version of the text, which will surely save you money over the new one.

How to shop

Use ISBN numbers to ensure you’re getting the correct version/edition as assigned by your instructor (unless you’ve opted for the converse route described above ;)). Aggregator sites will find the text and display its many different costs (including S+H, generally) on the many different sites that sell the text. Find the best fit for you and these aggregator sites will whisk you off to the seller’s page to complete your purchase.

Rent or buy?

This depends on your priority. Are you looking to save money uber alles, or is this a class or instructor that you’ve heard a lot about and/or could be an important resource for your career moving forward? Renting— and especially renting for briefer periods than the whole semester— is almost always cheaper, though one of those aggregator sites once got me to a used copy of a book that had been donated by some kind, foolish college kid to the Goodwill. I ended up buying the thing (‘cos duh!) for ~3% of what it would’ve cost to rent!

Where at?

Your college or university will certainly have you covered, but with convenience often comes higher prices. Online sites will often cost less, but you’ll sometimes have to figure in shipping costs and the time it can take for your (physical) textbooks to arrive (note: some sites will “rent” you an electronic version of your textbook for free while your physical copy is in transit— awesome). Online you may also have to sort through less desirable previous editions and international versions (illegal!) of your texts, so come prepared with the aforementioned ISBN to avoid confusion.

Some of my favorite sites are (not an exhaustive list):

  • BIGWORDS (aggregator!)
  • BookFinder (aggregator!)
  • Chegg
  • Amazon
  • com

One of my favorite games after all this is to compare the ultimate price you paid to the highest prices you saw. If done well, it’s one sure-fire way to feel good about some cost savings in the non-negotiable and expensive universe that is college!