You can always save money on textbooks by buying online, going ebook, or renting what you need. But there are riskier ways to save a buck that just may yield even greater payoff, such as getting the international or earlier edition of the text, or avoiding the purchase altogether.

You already know that the textbook system is a scam. Publishers often crank out new editions without making substantial changes. Schools follow standard procedure over saving students money. And sometimes a class hardly uses the textbook at all.

If getting that perfect A is what you’re aiming for, it’s safer to play by the rules and buy your the required edition. However, if you just need to pass, are taking the class for fun, or are really that stripped for cash, consider the alternatives. And keep in mind that none of these alternatives come without some risk involved.

The Risky Route to Obtaining Your Textbooks

Before you invest time or money in any alternative to buying straight from the school bookstore, you need to know:

  • The ISBN of the required book
  • If the book comes with any CDs or DVDs — and if you’ll need them for class
  • If the book comes with any online access codes — and if you’ll need them for class (and if you may be able to purchase them separately from the text)
  • Roughly how much you need the text and/or supplementary materials to succeed in the class — so check up on your instructor early on, find out how they run the class, and talk to past students about how important the textbook was in their experience

Once you’re familiar with each of these, you can weigh the costs and benefits of each of the alternatives listed below. Determine what route to take given your own academic goals and what it takes to reach them.

Get the International Edition

What students in the U.S. don’t realize is that other countries manufacture textbooks much cheaper than the U.S. This means is that you can buy essentially the same book for less.

The international version will be different in that it:

  • Will likely be softcover
  • May be printed in black and white in instead of color
  • May have different cover art
  • May have the title page in another language
  • Will have a different ISBN

For some texts, you can find the international version with the same content as the U.S. version — those are the books you can use with no risk. But you won’t know that the content is the same until you can compare it with the officially required version (at your school bookstore). So be sure the return policy covers you in case you find that the content doesn’t match up as you need it to. And if the product description doesn’t ensure the exact same content, don’t hesitate to ask the seller about it directly.

Risks involved with getting the international edition:

  • You may end up with slightly different content, and have to return it. Which means shelling out more cash to get the official version.
  • It may be harder to sell after the course, if buyers aren’t aware that they can use an international copy with no problems. So make sure to advertise this in any listings.

Get an Older Edition

Sometimes you don’t need the exact edition for a particular class, because:

  • You’re taking a course on a topic you’re already familiar with, and just need to the book to refresh on topics
  • The course is particularly easy and/or the instructor will provide most of the materials through supplements such as lecture slides and handouts
  • The course doesn’t rely so much on the actual text, but refers to it in a more conceptual way

In these cases, it’s a good idea to search for older, as in earlier editions, of the text. So if your class requires the 7th edition, you may be fine with the 6th or even the 5th edition. With each older edition, prices drop significantly.

Risks involved with getting an older version:

  • Review questions, activities, or other sections required for assignments can be slightly different or shuffled around. So you might need to reference the current edition from a classmate or compare the tables of contents online in order to locate certain sections.
  • You might find out you do need the current edition halfway through the class. So be sure to ask your instructor what specific coursework requires the text (or refer to the syllabus) to be prepared.

Don’t Actually Buy the Book

Another option is to avoid buying the book altogether. You can do so by:

  • Using a textbook exchange service at your school — swapping one of your old books with another student for the one you need
  • Borrowing from a friend, or even sharing a copy with another classmate (you might end up buying half of the book)
  • Photocopying or scanning only the sections you’ll actually need for the class — based on the syllabus and/or what you instructor says you’ll need
  • Using a school, city, or county library copy, even if it’s a reference book and you have to visit the library to do your reading
  • Completing your reading and book assignments in a couple of sittings at your local bookstore, which actually puts you ahead of schedule

Risks involved when avoiding the purchase:

  • Depending on the situation, you may not have as much time with the text to absorb the material at your own pace, which could compromise grades. So plan wisely and stay updated on the class schedule.

Have a Backup Plan in Place

Anytime you choose one of these risky ways to obtain your school textbook, have a backup plan in place. Be ready to buy the officially required version in a tight spot, if the course changes midway, or something else renders your method impractical or insufficient for meeting your academic goals. This is the ultimate risk of obtaining your text in nontraditional ways: you risk having to buy from the school bookstore — and on top of your first purchase if that’s the case.

It’s up to you what risks you take, as well as how much money you save.