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US studies: Save money when buying textbooks
Matthew Schneeberger
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August 31, 2007

Whenever Shifali meets a student headed to the US, she gives the bright-eyed fresher a stern warning:

"You have no idea how expensive it is! You must save money however and wherever you can. And the number one hidden cost that you hardly plan for? Your books! They're outrageously overpriced; and if you're not careful, it could cost you around $400 per term (Rs 16,000)."

Most international students are aware of the tremendous costs involved with studying abroad -- tuition fees, travel, lodging and living expenses are all crammed into a single budget.

But the hefty price tags attached to University-sold textbooks are often overlooked. Until you've received your schedule, it's impossible to know what books you'll need. Each course and each professor require different amounts of reading.

On average, however, you can expect two or three books for your introductory classes and upwards of six for higher-level courses. Even between books, the costs vary. For example, a small paper-back for your English literature class may only set you back $13 (Rs 520) while a physics textbook might cost $150 (Rs 4500).

Of course, you'll only pay these exorbitant prices if you buy the books new and from your university's bookstore.

A little creativity and patience will reward you with drastically reduced textbook expenses. Let's take a look.

Book grants

The easiest way to avoid the problem is to receive a book grant from your university. Oftentimes, schools give them to international students as part of a financial aid or scholarship package.

The grants are worth approximately $400 (Rs 16,000) per term and can only be used in the university bookstore. If you can find your books through an alternate avenue, the money can be used at the bookstore to buy clothes and gifts for friends and family.

If you have just arrived at your foreign university, inquire about a book grant with your international student advisor.

Used books

The most popular method for skirting book fees is to buy them used. Your university bookstore will likely have used copies, but they'll still be overpriced. If it's only for a book or two, you'll be fine with this option. If, however, you need to purchase several books for each of your classes, avoid the bookstore at all costs.

Instead, find used books through different methods: on your campus and on the Internet. These two options work on a simple business principle � cut out the middleman.

Students sell their books back to the bookstore after final examinations. The bookstore happily re-shelves them and sells them again, with a high mark-up rate.

Students have responded by organising on campus and making the transactions student to student. When you get to university, ask an older friend or classmate what the procedure is for finding used books on campus. They'll come from a variety of places -- fraternity brothers, fellow majors and people you hardly know.

Also, use the Internet. On social networking applications like, post what you need and how much you are willing to dish out. If you've effectively networked, you'll most likely get a few offers. And check to see if your university has a designated web site for book exchange, most of the larger universities do.

Finally, there are hundreds of sites online that sell used books. has established a reputation as a great provider of rare copies at bargain rates. Search around with purpose and persistence and you'll likely be rewarded with big savings.

Other options

If you try the above methods and still cannot locate the copy you need, you must look at alternate options. For supplemental books that you'll only need for a few weeks, head to the university library. They often have several copies of all assigned texts, so approach the librarian and ask for assistance.

Once you've located your book, check it out and photocopy what's relevant to your course. That way, you'll still have the necessary material at the end of the term for your final examinations.

This option is not advisable for books that you'll require throughout the term. It can be a hassle relying on the library, as sometimes the book may be checked out; this can be quite a problem if your paper is due in two days!

Another great way to save is to pool resources and share a copy with a friend or friends. If one or more of your acquaintances is in the same class as you, divide the costs and keep a communal copy. Again, photocopy the relevant material, which will allow all of you access to the material full-time for a fraction of the cost.

Selling your books

One way to recoup some of your expenses is to sell your books at the end of the term. Of course, if you enjoyed it or think it will be useful in the future, add it to your library.

But you'll end up selling most of your books. So then, how should you do it?

Again, the trick is to avoid the university bookstore. They'll fleece you; oftentimes students recover only 5% of what they initially paid.

Instead, use online applications and on-campus networking to yield a significantly higher return. Rather than 5%, you're likely to fetch 50%.

A final thought 

Before you make any transaction, make sure the book is the same edition as the one you've been assigned. Publishers release new editions of the same textbooks year after year, barely changing the material. They change the page numbers and tweak the chapter layout, but the content is essentially the same.

In some cases, you may fine using an old edition, but be sure to ask your professor.

You'll be surprised; most professors sympathise with impoverished college students and will allow you to use an outdated copy. This isn't always true though, so verify it with each of them.

Remember, think outside the box and you'll be rewarded. Don't overpay for textbooks.  

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