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The best ways to save on college textbooks

Shortly before heading off to college, Fabiola Castillo learned a valuable lesson from her older brother: Surf the web for good deals on textbooks. That advice has paid off, saving her time and money.

"I look up book titles online and try to find the cheapest ones," says Castillo, a freshman at Moraine Valley Community College in Palos Hills, Illinois. "I've bought two books for humanities on eBay. Some biology books are about $100 each. Science books are way expensive, but on eBay you can buy them for about half the cost."

The average college student spends about $600 a year on books and other course materials, according to the National Association of College Stores. One textbook can easily cost $200, or more. So, the truth is, the total amount students spend on textbooks can be a shock to the wallet.

To help rein in costs, follow these six steps:

1. Use a price-comparison tool

Online textbook marketplaces like and make finding savings a breeze by feeding into other textbook sellers' sites for a wider selection. Desmond Henry, a Certified Financial Planner in Topeka, Kansas and graduate student at Kansas State University, is partial to CampusBooks, which he calls "the golden ticket for textbooks online." The website combs through hundreds of listings and filters them into categories such as new, used, ebooks, rentals and international. It also searches local library inventories for free textbooks.

When the price-comparison results pop up, click on the "Buy or Rent" link under the book cover's image. It can project whether you will get more value out of buying or renting textbooks, including the estimated buyback price.

2. Browse for books on your smartphone

Install a free mobile textbook app to find cheap prices on the go. For instance, BookBandit compares prices of online merchants to present the lowest prices available. Search by title, author or ISBN. To get the best return on your resale investment, include extras like notes and study guides. The app also acts as a go-between for students at the same college to buy and sell textbooks. Barnes & Noble College and CampusBooks also have apps that can track down textbook bargains.

3. Look for coupons and promotional codes online

Major aggregators such as RetailMeNot and are handy for textbook coupons and free shipping codes. Some sellers offer free ebook access while you're waiting for the print textbook to ship.

4. Beware of older and alternative editions

Sometimes it makes sense to buy an older book edition if you can compare it with a newer version and find there is little difference. However, a cheaper alternative edition, such as an international book, might not match the practice exercises of a US version.

"I would just use caution because the international book might have different questions," Henry said. "It's one thing to try to save a few bucks, but you may end up having to turn around and buy the American version if you get the wrong book."

5. Check access codes

Digital access codes have emerged as the new cost on campus. The passwords, which can only be used once, allow you to access online course materials. Check to see whether your online seller or campus store sells used books with access codes that have not been activated.

Also, find out if your instructor will allow you to opt out of material that can only be obtained through an access code. Keep in mind that for used or rented textbooks, merchants typically do not guarantee supplemental material like access codes, CDs, DVDs or lab manuals.

6. Share and share alike

Consider sharing a book with your roommate or another classmate and splitting the cost. "Some of my friends are taking the same classes," Castillo says, adding: "So we share books."

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