Cutting School Book Costs

I’ve mentioned that my son attends a parochial high school. That means that right about this time every summer, we receive a list of his classes and directions to visit the school’s on-line book store. I love books, but it is always with a bit of trepidation that I make my preliminary on-line visit to the store in order to assess his books for the coming year. Even though I worked for many years in educational publishing, I still do not really understand why school books cost so much.

Fortunately, as compared to when I was in college and bought everything new at the college book store, I am now older and wiser. After checking on the cost of my son’s books at his school book store, I compiled a list of the required books (more than 30) and began comparison shopping on-line. As a general rule, my son is not the only student who apparently does not need to open a book in order to read it because there I found a huge number of “like new” text books at extraordinarily discounted prices, especially when I shopped among the used book sellers at Amazon. Indeed, I found one text that was close to $100 (new) at my son’s school store but paid only $20 (plus $3.99 shipping) by purchasing from an Amazon seller. Now that all of the numbers have been added up, I have determined that by avoiding the school book store, I was able to pay less than $300 for books that the school store was selling for more than $800.

There are a lot of ways that you can cut down on the costs of high school and college books. Whether you are buying books for yourself or your children, you should consider all of them, including the following:

Buy Used

As I have already explained, there are tremendous deals on used textbooks. Explore on-line outlets and the used book store at your school if you have one. Student unions at many colleges also host used book sales and book swaps.

Befriend Last Year’s Students

If you know that you are taking a class that one of your friends has already taken, ask to borrow the book before he or she sells it. Even if your friend insists on selling his book, go with him or her to the used book store and buy the book at the price quoted by the book store. The used book store associated with my son’s school usually buys back books for about 15% of the price at which they will resell it. You might even be able to trade one of your books for the book you need, if you happen to be taking a class that your friend will be taking after you.


This is a more difficult cost saving measure to manage because if you want to team up with classmates in order to cut your costs, you need to make sure that your classmates are responsible. A classmate who will lose your co-purchased book will ultimately cost you money. Also, if you are both going to need to cram for a final exam on the same night, the money you save by sharing the book will be far outweighed by the cost of the bad grades that one or both of you are likely to achieve when the book is not available for cramming. In classes that are graded on papers or final exams that draw from multiple sources, however, or if you are simply not one to study from your text, sharing may be a good option.

Buy a Different Edition of the Required Book

Rarely does the edition of the book make much difference to a student or to a teacher. This is especially true when purchasing literature. Whether you are buying a 1977 edition of Huckleberry Finn by one publisher or a 2009 edition by a different publisher, it is still Huckleberry Finn. Of course, books in rapidly evolving subjects (computer science, for example) or translations of works originally published in other languages may require purchase of the teacher’s designated edition but otherwise, I would err on the side of common sense and buy the best priced book that you think will actually get you through the class.

Rent a Book

I have never actually rented a book but that is probably because such options were not available to me when I was in school. I am not about to start now because my son has demonstrated a remarkable tendency to lose books. Nevertheless, for the responsible among you, sites such as will rent you text books for the semester or the year and can save you as much as 75% off of the regular price of a text book.

Don’t Buy Everything You Are Supposed to Buy

There are some books that you may need from day 1 of your class. Others you may or may not need at any point in time. My son is told to purchase a dictionary almost every year. We already have dictionaries at home and he is not willing to add a dictionary to his back pack so he just relies on the school library or on-line sources when he needs a dictionary. The same is true for many of his literary requirements. A few weeks before he is ready to start the segment of a class that requires Huckleberry Finn, for example, we will borrow it from the library or request it from the library. Since we are allowed to renew the book for up to 9 weeks, he will be done with it before he has to return it. In a pinch, we could always buy the book if the library does not have a copy but we can leave that determination until a few days before he needs the book.

How will you save on text books this year? What do you think of the costs of your high school or college books?

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10 Responses to Cutting School Book Costs

  1. Sarah says:

    I have been a college stufent for 3 years now and I have found that the best website to purchase books is It seaches which online source has the best deal for the book you are looking for. I used to be paranoid about purchasing the right book, so to alleviate any anxiety I visit my bookstore to find the books I need and then write down there ISBN’s. I LOVE this site!

  2. Ann says:

    I am soooo glad those days of textbooks are gone for me! 🙂

    However, I do enjoy buying reference books for sculptures — animals, marine life, fantasy research — and have become a strong believer in used books. Have managed to acquire some fabulous reference books for soooo much less by buying used… and a number of them are ex-library books. LOL

  3. t says:

    I use (book search engine) and evreward (cashback). I spent a ton of money on books while working on my degrees. I didn’t really do this but…. If you befriend people who are going to sell their books to the book store you can save a ton of money buying from them because typically the bookstore doesn’t pay much. I recall buying an English Literature book for around $85 dollars the book store only wanted to give me $4 (their resale was ~75).

  4. spicoli says:

    I always buy used. I will go to a class on the last day of the semester and buy books from the outgoing students. They are happy to get cash in hand and there is always someone who will sell a book cheaply!

  5. persephone says:

    My children have relied on all of the paperback classics in our home library — many were books that my husband and I purchased when we were in college, but The Great Gatsby is the Great Gatsby, even if the pages are yellowed with age!

  6. Jason H says:

    Some might question the ethics of this, but when you are paying your way through college it helped me.

    If a prof required a rather small book I would calculate the cost (at 10-cents a page) of copying the entire book at the library versus the cost of the book. If it was cheaper I would buy a used copy of the book, devote an hour or 2 to copying the book, then return it to the bookstore for a full refund.

    I wouldn’t do this with a new book, since the author actually gets a cut of that sale, but since the bookstore was just pocketing the value of the used book I didn’t have a problem with it.

    Additionally, when I was teaching at the university I encouraged my students to go to their class first to make sure they really needed the book before they bought it (sadly for them they always needed mine).

  7. David G. Mitchell says:

    Jason — What you suggest presents more than an ethical issue. It is a copyright violation and carries stiff penalties. Books should never be photocopied!

  8. Jay Gatsby says:

    Consider whether the books your child/teenager/college student needs are on (The Gutenberg Project). It may not be the same “edition” or from the same publisher, but I highly doubt that Shakespeare has changed all that much in 450 years.

    As for textbooks, some publishers offer a lower price if you order an electronic version. They save printing and distribution costs, while your child can simply print when needed.

  9. Chris K says:

    I always either talked to the professor beforehand or waited until after the first day of class to buy the books. 50-75% of the time, they would outright say that we only needed one of the three “required” books. Plus, with scheduling, you can probably score a “used” copy because people tend to drop a lot in the first few days.

  10. eleaza says:

    I agree with spicoli. I do buy used books every end of the semester. They

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