Textbooks: When to Buy

The cost of textbooks is one of the major complaints for college students. And rightly so: some schools quote costs in excess of $300 per semester, depending on the classes and major. Textbooks can be a huge burden, so here’s my secret: don’t buy them. At least in many cases, with proper planning and informed decision-making. Just don’t buy them.

I spent an average of less than $50 per quarter on my books for college

My stack of library resources for my thesis. Plus two books that I own and carried with me all the way from Oregon to Ireland. Pictured here on the balcony of my apartment in Galway, overlooking the Corrib river.

My stack of library resources for my thesis. Plus two books that I own and carried with me all the way from Oregon to Ireland. Pictured here on the balcony of my apartment in Galway, overlooking the Corrib river.

I wish I had kept track, because I actually suspect that that number is much smaller. I used the library instead. I also shared books with other students. When I did purchase text books, I always went first to the local, independent bookstores first to see if I could find a copy there.

This method takes time. If you plan to do the reading and you want to do well in the class, this strategy can cost you a great deal of effort in scheduling and keeping track. But isn’t it worth it to know that the pile of books you brought home were a choice, rather than an inescapable fate?

*Note: This technique will not work for every major, or every class. But I challenge you to think critically about your purchases. Take the extra time to ask what is truly necessary. Plan ahead. Then, if you really need to make a purchase, buy smart, buy local, and feel proud to be investing in your education.

So here is is, the 6 steps to using the library for your course assignments

Step 1: The Syllabus

I know, it always comes back to the syllabus with me, doesn’t it? But here’s the thing: you almost never need all the books from Day One. Make yourself a timetable for when you need what books.

Step 2: Ask

The question should NEVER be “do I really have to read all of these books?” Instead, get the following pieces of information without offending your professor in that first week:

  • Are any of the textbooks available on reserve in the library?
  • Do I need to have the texts with me in class for discussion?
  • How important is it to have the exact edition listed on the syllabus? (For science and technology majors, this certainly matters. For social sciences and the humanities, probably less so)
  • I plan to mostly use the library for my text books this term. Are there any that I will need to have consistent access to for the whole semester, that you absolutely recommend that I purchase?

Often some of these questions will be answered in the syllabus. Sometimes the questions will be asked by others in the class. I usually reserve that last one for a quick moment after the class ends, so I don’t bother the whole class with my individual question.

Step 3: Sharing

If you know people in your class, you might consider sharing books. This works particularly well if they are roommates, neighbors, or close friends, AND if you are willing to take on the additional burden of sharing a required reading. ATTEMPT AT YOUR OWN RISK. However, if this works out, you’ve just cut your purchases in half.

Note: if attempting to share, you will also have to decide who owns what books in the end. Will you split the proceeds from selling your textbooks back? If you fall in love with a text, who keeps it at the end of your senior year?

An advanced “semi-sharing” tip would be to make friends with someone ahead of you in the same major if you can consistently borrow/buy their old books. This can solve lots of book problems really quickly.

Step 4: The Library

So here’s where the magic actually happens. Many classes will put books “on reserve,” which has varying rules and implications but the general rule is that you can only check those books out for a limited time, and sometimes you can’t take them out of the library. If this is the case and you’re willing to spend your time in the library reading (and eventually studying and/or writing final essays) then that’s that. No book purchases here.

If your books aren’t on reserve, here’s how to use your university library to work your budget magic:

  • Check out books 3-5 days before the first reading is due
  • Look into book loans from other university libraries in your system. This takes longer—give yourself a week or more
  • Pay attention to due dates
  • Ask librarians for help
  • Check to see if the text is available as a library ebook (if, that is, you are willing to study a full text that way)

For more advanced library users, here’s a fun bonus idea: check with your local library. Seriously. Get a library card in your college town and use it. Why not? They probably won’t have the latest in biochemical texts, but they almost certainly have a copy of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Plus a library card is a good way to become increasingly part of the community you live in.

Step 5: Purchase the books you absolutely need

I personally always check at my local, independent bookstore first. That’s just my bias—I love books and I love bookstores, and so when I make a purchase there I feel that it’s money well spent.

I try to buy used copies of books, but I draw the line if the previous owner’s markings in the book will distract me. Underlining doesn’t bother me, and highlighting it depends on the person. Occasionally you find a book that’s been marked up and annotated by someone you wish you could track down and befriend. But I never buy a damaged book. The savings aren’t worth what will be detracted from your comprehension and comfort while doing the assignments.

A last note on buying books: for the books assigned later in the term, I usually buy them that first week only if I find them in high-quality used copies. Otherwise I wait and see if other copies turn up.   

Step 6: Pay attention

Because you have chosen the more complicated route, you are taking on an additional need to pay attention to your syllabus and your reading assignments. Make sure you have the right materials on hand for each week, and for all upcoming written assignments/exams. If you have to make a middle-of-the-night trek to the library because you forgot you returned a required book for your final essay that’s due the next day… well there’s no one to blame but yourself (don’t blame me!) Take comfort in that stack of library books, and the damage saved to your bank account.

And, as a last-ditch, fail-proof method, you can always go back and get the book from your friendly campus bookstore.

PS I don’t recommend:

  • Buying books to photocopy and return. It’s wasteful, will take forever, violates copyright, and will be inconvenient.
  • Getting the wrong edition if your teacher tells you not to. If you need the brand-new copy, then you need it. Particularly in discussion courses, or majors when the material changes frequently, this is just something you can’t do and be a good member of the classroom.
  • Keep books past their due date. If you can avoid it, please never do this. Someone else might be waiting for your copy, or you’re just racking up the fines. Plan ahead, and try really hard not to let this slip.
  • Simply not doing the reading. You’re here to learn! Get the books somehow and do the reading!


So happy non-shopping, folks. Good luck with the start of the semester, and check back in with library success stories!

Do you have money-saving book tips to share? Start-of-term wisdom? Horror stories of roommate textbook arguments? Please leave a comment here!