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How to Get Cheap Textbooks: 2021 Guide

Three steps to help you get cheap textbooks, plus some unconventional ways to get textbooks at an ultra-low cost – or even free.

1. Know which books you (actually) need

Start by listing all required textbooks for your courses, and do it as early as possible. If you know which books you need in advance, you can buy when prices are low after a semester ends. You can also avoid last-minute express shipping fees and get combined shipping and higher order total discounts.

“I start looking for textbooks as soon as the previous semester is over to see if I need to plan to pay bookstore price or if there will be a cheaper option.”
– Mackenzie, chemistry major, Maryville College

You can typically find the books you need on course syllabi, but they’re usually not available until a few weeks before classes begin. Get a head start by contacting your professors directly and searching for book lists on your school’s website or student portal.

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Another strategy is to wait until classes begin to make sure you need every book listed on your syllabi.

“(Wait) until the first week of class to find out if you need the textbook or not, or just the access code. Usually on the syllabus they tell you if the material is ‘required’ or ‘recommended.’ If you don’t want to wait until after classes start, you can try emailing the profs beforehand.”
– Redditor tastybokchoy

2. Know what works

Textbooks come in several different formats (international, bundled with access code, standalone, loose-leaf). Some are cheaper than others, so you should determine which formats are acceptable for each course. That way, you can save money with the cheapest acceptable formats.

Syllabi and online book lists might not list acceptable formats, but you can contact your instructor to find out which are permissible. Even if formats are listed, it’s a good idea to ask your professor if they will accept low-cost alternatives. Many are empathetic to student financial struggles and will allow cheaper options that satisfy course requirements.

“Professors do take this into account. A professor of mine just last semester made sure to tell us to get an edition of a book that is about three years old so that we could get it for like $15 instead of $80+.”
– Redditor SanguineStudent

Some classes require access codes to software and learning platforms, but textbooks don’t always come bundled with valid access codes. Ask your instructors whether access codes are required before you buy. If they’re not, you can opt for cheaper editions. If they are, you might be able to save money by purchasing unbundled access codes separately.

“Sometimes you can just buy the codes at the online book website for a cheaper price. Mine was almost $200 USD for a new physical book with access code, and the website had it for $135 USD for the access code with eBook.”
– Redditor Newkittyontheblock

3. Know where low textbook prices are hiding

Using a price comparison service (like ours) to find your textbooks saves the trouble of opening 20 different tabs trying to remember which stores have the books you need. Instead, a single search shows you which stores have which books available in new, used, rental and online editions.

See our textbook price comparison service in action for Campbell Biology 11th. It typically costs $278 to buy new, $209 used and $67 to rent. We found a new edition for $125, used for $86 and a rental for $18.

We also automatically tabulate coupons and shipping fees so you can quickly find the cheapest options for all the books you need.

“I do my best to avoid buying directly from the bookstore unless I absolutely have to. Usually, books I find on the websites are at least half the cost of what they would be from the bookstore. It’s cheaper and still pretty easy to get ahold of the books on time when I use a website not affiliated with my school.”
– Mackenzie

Join our cash back program, and you can even get up to 10% cash back on qualifying purchases and rentals from participating stores. Use the funds toward next semester’s textbooks or anything else you’d like.

“Check textbook price comparison sites first. When I studied abroad, I ordered everything I needed for a history class, a theater class, an English class and a writing class for around $40.”
– Olivia Hathaway, biochemistry major, University of Virginia

More ways to get cheap textbooks

These unconventional options can yield steep discounts and even help you find free textbooks for your courses.

Visit your school’s library

Your school’s library likely has the textbooks you need available to check out for free. Availability might be limited, so be sure to reserve copies early and note return dates to avoid potential late fees.

“Go to your library. When I studied, all but a few textbooks were sitting on the shelf, vastly underused. Never paid for a textbook during my degree, and probably used upwards of 50 separate books over the years.”
– Redditor kunstlich

Be sure to check out online options as well.

“Most universities give you access to an online library. Check if the textbook is on there. Normally, only one person can view a book online at a time; however, most people don’t take advantage of this.”
– Redditor PurpleFanto

Share with classmates

Pool your resources with classmates and go in together to cut textbook costs. You’ll need to work out a sharing schedule, but you’ll also share the financial burden and lessen your overall expenses.

“If you have a friend in the class, share the textbook and split the cost, then sell it and split the money after the semester is over. Make sure to discuss how long each person gets to keep the book.”
– Amanda P., clinical laboratory science major, East Central University.

Search social media

Try Facebook Marketplace and other social media sites to see if former students are selling their old textbooks for cheap.

“Students should definitely also search for Facebook pages and groups associated with their university. Sometimes there are student-run groups for exchanging or buying/selling textbooks.”
– Olivia Hathaway

Mackenzie suggests all schools adopt a social media book exchange program.

“Whether they use Facebook or Instagram, it’s been really helpful to get the books that I need from students who have already used them. It’s even better, too, since I can just meet them somewhere on campus and we can quickly swap books or payment.”
– Mackenzie

Seek low-cost and free textbook alternatives

Skip required textbooks altogether and opt for alternatives like the University of Minnesota’s Open Textbook Library and OpenStax, which offers free digital textbooks and low-cost print editions. It’s a good idea to check with your professor first to see if these alternatives cover the required material.

Buy low-cost alternative editions

You could realize significant savings with alternatives like loose-leaf, international and older editions, which often cover most of the material found in the latest editions.

Some professors even loan textbooks to students.

“I have several ‘desk editions’ that I would be willing to loan a student if he or she seemed really desperate. But I don’t advertise that because I don’t want them scooped up by less scrupulous students. So, it doesn’t hurt to ask.”
– Redditor badwhiskey63, a university instructor

Consult EOP/EOPS

Educational Opportunity Programs and Extended Opportunity Programs and Services exist to help disadvantaged and low-income students succeed. They can help you access low-cost textbooks.

“Reach out to EOP/EOPS (for community college). They give book waivers to purchase books from your student store.”
– Redditor rabberditscabbern

Find free textbook PDFs

Some sites search for free PDF textbooks, though you might struggle to find digital copies of the books you need. Be careful if you go this route: unauthorized textbook publishing, even in PDF format, can be illegal.

“The best method us freshmen were told by the juniors and seniors is, if possible, just download the PDF for free online on sites like b-ok.org and Library Genesis. Is it a bit unethical? Sure, but so is having to pay a bunch of money for a textbook that we may or may not have to use.”
– Anonymous computer science major, Cleveland State University

Looking for a fast and easy way to save on textbooks? Instantly compare prices from top bookstores, automatically find coupons, get free shipping and earn cash back with our free service at DirectTextbook.com. Start your search