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  As you walk around the corner you see the sign:  (fill in the blank) University Bookstore.  It’s filled with freshmans, sophomores, juniors and seniors, all searching for the books that match their professors’ names.  The store is usually a two-color pattern: purple and white, green and gold, take your pick.  These colors represent the fine University you’ve been pulling out student loans to attend.

            The colors also represent the University that, in today’s hard economy, is struggling to pay quality teachers and retain top notch sports teams.  What does this mean for you, the student?  This means that as much as possible you will assist the University in dealing with its financial hardships, with or without your knowledge.  I’ll give you an example.  I walked in my bookstore looking for a mechanical pencil.  Ignoring the price tag (that was a bad idea) I just grabbed the pencil and went to pay.  ‘This can’t be more than a few dollars,’ was my thinking. 

 “Six dollars and fifty-two cents is your total.”  A sullen woman behind the counter announced.   

            I looked down at what I had purchased—ONE mechanical pencil with an extra eraser!  That isn’t worth more than four dollars at a corner store (about two at Wal-Mart, but that’s a discussion for a different article).  Having wasted time in line and with class fast approaching, I took the price hike and bought the pencil.  I never bought so much as an eraser from there again.

            The University bookstore houses more than spare paper and erasers though.  Its main storage is books.  Avoiding the purchase of books is a totally different scenario—especially if you receive financial aid. 

I attend a University in the Midwest.  There, a full time student takes between four and five classes.  On average, I spend $400-$550 on books per semester.  This takes a good chunk out of student loans (the Pell and other grants go directly to the ever-increasing tuition).  Loans and scholarship jobs are what many students use to make it through the semester. 

During my freshman and sophomore years I had to endure the high cost of books at the bookstore. If you receive any sort of financial aid, you are not allowed access to it until the first day of classes.  The problem with that is, unless you have a few hundred extra dollars lying around, you cannot purchase books cheaper and earlier.  It is embarrassing to begin class without the required books and for the high achieving student, it is grossly irresponsible.  Many teachers assign homework the first day.  

So what do most students do?  First, they go to the refund check line and receive their loan/grant money, and then they go the University Bookstore and give them a large chunk.  I followed my usual instincts this semester—first loan check line, followed by the bookstore—but something happened that saved me hundred’s of dollars this semester.

We’ll call her Shantell.  I stood trying to figure out why my Contemporary American Lit. Professor decided to assign thirteen books this semester when I saw Shantell sitting on the floor with a pencil and a piece of notebook paper.  She was looking at the back of a book and writing the some numbers and a price.  When she saw me looking at her, she said “The books here are way too expensive.  I’m getting mine online.” 

“But classes start today?  You won’t get books online for at least a week.” I told her.

“Yea, but professors know we’re poor.  All you have to do is tell them you bought your book online and they’ll understand.  Make sure you write down the ISBN number so you get the right edition and stuff.”  Then, like a money-saving angel, she stood and walked out of the library—with no book—but a piece of paper in her hand.

I stood there a little dumfounded for a moment or two.  Then I took out my own piece of paper, found the ISBN number located on the back of the book I had in my hand and wrote it and the price on the paper.  I did this for all twenty-two of the books I had to purchase this semester. 

Initially, an overwhelming feeling of guilt came over me.  Here I was writing down information for the books I needed (which can usually only be found in the bookstore) and then I planned to leave, without purchasing anything, and go online to look for a cheaper price.  I saw a few other people counting ISBN numbers and shaking their heads at the prices also.

So, the list in my hand, I sat in front of the computer trying to figure out which of the many textbook online stores I should give my money to.  After searching a few and comparing the prices (I usually saved a good amount at most of them), I came across http://www.cheapesttextbooks.com.  This website is excellent because it has compiled sixteen of the most-used bookstores—Amazon, Alibris, and Textbookx to name a few—into one database.  The best way to search in this site is by ISBN but title, keyword and author searches are also available.  

Not only does this vast search engine offer price quotes (that are usually half the price the bookstores sell them for) but they also tell you the cost of shipping.  This is a great feature because it allows you to compare price and shipping cost.  You need a decent shipping cost so the overall price is less than that of the bookstore.

In all but a few cases where teachers started with brand new books, I was able to buy my books at such a reduced cost I couldn’t actually believe it.  There are a few things you should watch out for though, in order to make this experience successful:

1.  Make sure the book you purchase matches the ISBN number you wrote down (and check that number twice when you write it down).

2.  Make sure when you write down the ISBN number, you also note the edition, if it has one.  Many teachers favor certain editions and if you don’t buy that one you end up wasting money.  It’s really best to write as many details about the book as possible; ISBN, author, title, edition, publisher and year of publication

3. Use expedited shipping whenever possible.  It may cost you a few extra dollars (this usually doesn’t exceed four dollars).  Most people will use media mail to send you books.  This saves the sender money, but it also adds to your wait time.  Expedited shipping is worth the small amount of extra money. 

4. Save all correspondence emails until your book arrives.  These emails can go in a special folder or whatever works best for you.  The emails contain important information you may need in case a book never arrives, is the wrong book (I have never had a book sent to me that was the wrong book) or the company you go through—such as half.com or amazon.com—asks you to leave seller feedback.  This is a nice thing to do because if your experience was good, other students can benefit from your comments.  If the experience was bad, you can help struggling students like you avoid any mistakes.

With my usual prices for books running at $400-$550 a semester, I purchased all my books online this semester for $289!  That’s over $250 saved, and I felt those savings.  Instead of sitting in class frustrated until my books arrived, I asked my professors if I could copy just enough of their books for any assignments that were required the first week.  The books were usually shipped fast, and I didn’t really suffer through the process. 

I plan to always look for any online savings that I can find.  I know most bookstores do their best to have used books available, but these are usually gone by the time us financial-aiders get to the bookstore.  In a few cases, the bookstore prices were comparable, and a few books were also exactly the same online.  But for the large books—chemistry, stat, history, biology—online prices tend to be MUCH cheaper.  In the end, the University Bookstore will continue to flourish, both from those who have no problem spending $500 a semester on books and those who don’t want to go through the trouble of using the internet as a savings spot.  I assure you, it took me less than an hour to buy all of my books online and besides a little comparing of prices and numbers, I didn’t grow any grey hair.  Happy hunting!