Dorm survival guide — what to splurge on, what to skip
If you are headed to college this fall (or know someone who is), then you may also be headed to life in a dorm. Like many things, living in a dorm can be an expensive proposition, but it doesn't have to be. Sometimes you can avoid the expense completely — one good strategy for this is to live at home and attend an online college or local community college for your associate's degree.
However, not everyone is lucky enough to have a college close enough to home to make that a feasible choice. Additionally, not all parents are willing or able to house their adult children. And I think I will shock precisely none of you by saying that sometimes young adults are … stubborn. If the traditional college experience is important to them, they will find a way to make it happen.
If you or a loved one have opted for campus living, here are some tips and tricks to set up your new home — without spending a fortune.
Mini-fridge and microwave. Most dorms don't have a full kitchen, and eating out (even at campus locations that take your dining card) can be expensive. Having a fridge to store essentials and leftovers, as well as a microwave for reheating and basic cooking, can be a real money-saver. However, don't let the fact that these are must-haves lead you to think that you should buy new. Near college campuses, there's a huge market for these items in particular. Check dorm bulletin boards and Craigslist for deals on used appliances and other items. It may also pay you to wait until move-in day to see if your new roommate already has one or both of these items and is willing to share.
A mattress cover. With bedbugs crawling their way across America, it is important to take precautions. Not to mention everything else that strangers have done on your dorm mattress over the years. (Ugh. Pardon me while I have the heebies. OK, I'm back.) A mattress cover that will separate you from potential nasties is imperative. Buy this new, and buy the best one, not the cheapest one. Seriously, people.
A trunk and padlock. My first college roommate stole everything from potato chips to spare change. And even if your roommate is honest, that doesn't mean everyone he or she invites over will be. For that matter, the people you meet and invite back to study or hang after class may have klepto tendencies themselves!
Having a secure place to store your valuable items and paperwork is a must (see also: bike and laptop locks, strategies to prevent mobile phone theft, and passwords to your online savings accounts that aren't your dog's name). The trunk can also double as a dinner table (if you sit on the floor or a bean bag chair), or as seating for you or your guests.
A mattress topper, extra pillows, and a thick comforter or blankets. Dorm mattresses are notoriously lumpy, thin, and uncomfortable. While a mattress topper or foam pad isn't an absolute requirement, it may make your life better. This is especially the case if you are a light sleeper. Similarly, not only can extra pillows help you rest easy, they can provide additional seating for guests. And since you may not have control over the thermostat, it could very well be FREEZING at night. The more blankets the better, sez me.
Cheap decor. Dorm rooms can feel cold and clinical, so some artwork may seem like just the thing to brighten up the place. However, there are a few reasons not to go overboard. First, anything super nice is at risk of being stolen. Second, putting holes in the walls is a quick way to kiss your security deposit goodbye. Third, your tastes are probably going to evolve over the course of your college years. Some cheap posters tacked to the wall with putty and some cork boards and/or white boards hung with 3M strips featuring photos and to-do lists are enough to get you by.
A coffee maker. I don't drink coffee, but I know a LOT of people that can't live without it. With late-night study sessions and early morning classes to contend with, you may be one of them. Obviously, you don't need to buy a machine that's new or fancy; but if there is a feature that's an absolute must-have, be honest with yourself. There will probably be 50+ all-night coffee shops on campus, so it's better to give yourself the tools up front to make what you crave than to find yourself carrying latte debt on your credit card. It's the personal finance cliche — don't be that girl/guy.
An alarm clock. In this world of cell phones, an alarm clock is arguably a waste of space. Even a super basic cell phone probably has an alarm feature. Ditto stereo systems, which take up valuable space and are inconsiderate to roommates and neighbors in any case. Charge your phone on the bedside table so your “alarm clock” is right there, and buy earphones to listen to MP3s while you study.
A television. You'll be super busy anyway, and even a small TV takes up a lot of space, something that will likely be at a premium. If having something on in the background helps you concentrate (I know lots of people like this), you can watch Netflix on your laptop — again, with noise-canceling headphones so that neither you nor your roommate disturb one another. You can probably even stay on your parents' Netflix account and set up your own profile to match your streaming preferences. Most student unions and many dorms have lounges where you can watch TV anyway.
A car. You are living on campus, so you don't need a car to get to class or your part-time job. On-campus parking is generally expensive, as is insurance for young adults. Skip this expense. There are lots of options for getting where you need to go. Most campuses have free shuttles. You can also buy a bike — and some campuses have bike-sharing programs, so buying a (used) bicycle might not even be necessary. There's also the city bus systems, companies like Lyft and Uber, and good old-fashioned bumming a ride.
This isn't an exhaustive list because everyone's needs/wants will be different. That's fine! Just keep in mind that space will be at a premium; you will probably be sharing your room with at least one other person; and the less student loan debt you take out during your undergraduate years, the better off you'll be!
What are your recommendations for dorm living? How did you decide what to bring and did you make the right choices?