Thursday, August 26, 2010

How to Save Money at University - Books

Saving money while attending University is difficult to do - especially when tuition and living expenses are not getting any cheaper. By some miracle and a lot of hard work I have managed to complete my BA, MA and 3 years of my Ph.D without going one penny into debt. I think that's about to change if I continue my Ph.D since my funding is running out and financing this kind of a degree is a bit different than my previous two.

So, a few tips for those who are attending University for the first time this fall. I'm sure there are a few things in here that returning students will find useful as well. This post was getting extremely large so I'm breaking it down into several parts, the first being textbooks.

1. DO NOT buy your textbooks before the first day of class. Go to class, pick up a syllabus and figure out what books are absolutely necessary, what books will be on course reserve at the library and if the textbook has changed from last years offering of the same class. I made the mistake in second year of trying to get a jump on things and the huge line-ups at the bookstore by buying my textbooks early. The textbooks had completely changed between when the professor submitted their syllabus in August and when class started in September.

I also know professor's who have extra complimentary copies of textbooks from the printers and give them away in a lottery the first day of class - for a few of my students last term that was a $250 value just for showing up to pick up their syllabus. If the textbooks are the same as last year scope out bulletin boards on campus for people selling their used textbooks cheap.
Another tip is to ask your TA if they are selling their copies of the textbook from last year. I hate having copies of the same thing hanging around my house so I'll sell my books from last year when I get my new teaching copies. One of my friends keeps her copies and loans them out to students who are hard up.

2. Once you've figured out what books are absolutely necessary, check out the library and see if they're available on reserve, or in the stacks. I was extremely fortunate in that a lot of my textbooks were available on reserve for 2-4 hours at a time. While this requires some dedicated hours in the library to read and co-ordinating my schedule to accommodate this slight inconvenience it saved me hundreds of dollars every year. Chances are you'll be on campus with a couple of breaks in between classes anyways so this works well. The other ace up my sleeve was that my mother was a graduate student at another University. She could take out books by the semester for me and since they were from another institution it usually meant that the books weren't recalled too often. I realize this isn't an option for everyone, however if the books are in the stacks take them out and keep renewing them. If they get recalled, be ruthless - hold onto the book until the last possible day before accruing fines. As soon as you return the book, recall it back. It's not about being 'nice', it's about getting what you need to succeed in school.

3. If your books aren't on reserve and aren't cheaply available second hand consider pooling your money and finding a good friend in the same class to go in on a communal textbook. This comes with its own set of issues, but if you're in the same class, live close to each other or better yet are roommates I've seen this work out quite well. I've also seen the bad side of this when a friend of Mr. Intellectual's didn't break up with his then girlfriend until the day of the exam because they were sharing the textbook. Classy.

4. Another option is to borrow a friends copy of the textbook for an afternoon and photocopy the entire textbook. It might set you back $20-40 depending on how many pages the books is, if you can get two pages of the textbook per side and if you double-side your photocopying. Places like Staples or Business Depot will even spiral bind the whole thing for about $2.50 depending on how thick that sucker is. Be careful about where you do this. The last year I was in my previous Uni town the Staples got in trouble with the copyright people and wouldn't allow any photocopying of more than 10% of any book. They should have signs posted if this is something they're still monitoring. The irony is that the UPS store allowed me to photocopy an entire book and they were a half a block from the Staples. It shouldn't be a problem if you go to a copy center a little further from the University. One of my old room mates photographed large sections of his friend's textbooks with a good digital camera. I've also used my scanner to copy introductions and conclusions for books I need for my comprehensive exams. I've also scanned only the pages I was responsible for reading each week according to the syllabus. Get creative. The same goes for those horrifically overpriced course packs from the University print shop. I highly recommend sharing those, or borrowing one to photocopy since that's all they are in the first place - a spiral bound compilation of articles and what not that have been photocopied by the University.

5. Looking online can be your best bet for affordable books. See if your University has an online bulletin board for selling books, furniture or ride shares etc. These are easy places to find used books in good condition. Also check out kijiji or for your city for textbooks. Price compare between the bookstore and Amazon or Chapters/Indigo. My one caveat with Chapters/Indigo is that they are notorious for taking forever to ship textbooks. If it takes more than 3 weeks you are not saving any money because you will be 3 weeks behind in your readings for a semester that is only 12 weeks long. This is A LOT of reading to catch up on. Another really awesome online resource is It is THE best place to find rare, out of print and hard to find textbooks or any book in general. Just be careful of where they're coming from since it is worldwide and there will be shipping delays if you're getting your textbook out of Australia vs. continental North America. Also watch the shipping charges, the cheapest book available isn't necessarily so when you factor in shipping charges.

6. Don't wait too long to buy your books if you have to buy a textbook. Some of my students got burned this past year because they were going to buy the course pack in separate pieces by the semester. By Christmas the Campus bookstore had returned all the books they needed for the Winter term and they were stuck waiting weeks for the store to order in new copies for them. The same thing has happened to students who were waiting for their OSAP funding to come in before buying books, or waiting until after Thanksgiving. There is a small window of opportunity unfortunately and the bookstore will get rid of unsold copies fairly quickly to make room for new books or to save themselves money. The Campus Bookstore is also most likely to be the most expensive place to buy your textbooks. Look around and see if your school has a used bookstore, a co-op bookstore or if there is a used bookstore off campus run by some one other than your University.

7. Only get the required texts. Take a look at the recommended books, but if you don't think you're going to crack them or won't find them useful don't buy them. There is a reason they are 'recommended' instead of 'required'. That being said I have a couple of recommended textbooks that I still use today years later - these are mostly style guides and Kate Turabian's A Manual for Writers of Term Papers, Theses, and Dissertations.

8. If you have old books that you won't refer to anymore or don't want because the course was a stinker try selling them to come up with this years book money. I don't recommend selling them back to the bookstore. You will get an insulting fraction of the price for your textbook, even if it's in pristine condition with no underlining, highlighting or creased pages. Make up posters with tags to rip off that have your phone number and email address to sell those unwanted books. Plaster them in highly visible places - the library, the University Student Centre, major hallways of Dorms, and outside the bookstore. My favourite place to put up my ads to sell textbooks are right outside the classroom where the course I'm selling textbooks for meets. It's pretty easy to look up on the Registrar's website where and when the course is held. Just make sure your ads are up before the first class meets and be realistic on your prices. If your books are overpriced compared to your competition they won't move. Also be honest about their condition (some highlighting, underlining, new/unused condition etc). Include the course code, the author, title and edition of your books as well as your asking price. If you're willing to negotiate on price then say so. I usually neatly handwrite my ads using bright marker so they're legible but they also stand out from the piles of other textbook ads.

9. Look into getting a Library card for your University town's public library. Depending on what courses you are taking they will have some of those books available to borrow and most students won't even think about checking out a public library when they're in the bubble of the University. The same thing goes for when you're writing a paper and all the good books for your subject have been taken already - check out the public library.

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