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.

Must-Haves

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.

Good-to-Haves

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.

Don't Bother

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?

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Matt
Matt
5 years ago

Before buying a microwave or coffee maker, make sure they’re allowed. Both were deemed fire hazards in my dorm.

Jim
Jim
5 years ago
Reply to  Matt

Good point. In my dorm, we could bring our own fridge, but if we wanted a microwave we had to rent a fridge/microwave combo from the dorm.

Lis
Lis
5 years ago
Reply to  Jim

Each floor of every hall had a communal ‘kitchen’ which had a full size fridge, a microwave, and a sink (no stove or oven – probably a good thing!). We weren’t allowed microwaves and could only have a very very small fridge. Definitely check what your college allows! (We also weren’t allowed coffee makers but my RA never minded. I, erm, may have been my RA, but who’s asking details?) Also, if your school offers its own little catalogue of things you can buy for your room (sheets, comforter, mattress pad, etc), SHOP AROUND! We fell for it and it… Read more »

Jim
Jim
5 years ago

Another thing to consider that got a lot of use in my dorm room was a folding camping chair. Our room came with two desk chairs, but having a third (more comfortable) chair that we could easily stow away was nice.

Cherie
Cherie
5 years ago
Reply to  Jim

Great suggestion Jim! And something that can be put away if necessary – adding it to the list!

Beks
Beks
5 years ago

If you must have a car on campus, be wary of those who try to use you as a taxi. There was a girl in my dorm who told EVERYONE I would drive them on their errands, and then I became the bad guy when I said no (I worked my part time job across town, so I needed my car, as the buses stopped running at 9).

KWL
KWL
5 years ago

I mostly made the right choices in what to bring. I did live in a furnished on-campus apartment though, so aside from furniture, I had to bring a lot more than the normal dorm dweller such as kitchen stuff. If you purchased locker shelves while in high school and your room is limited on space, bring them with you! I had very limited floor space in my room, little surface area on the dressers and desk, and no provided shelving. Those shelves came in handy for holding my books and other school needs on top of without taking up a… Read more »

Tonya
Tonya
5 years ago

I disagree with the TV thing. My kids both felt a TV was very necessary. They watched DVDs with their roommates, followed their favorite TV shows, or played video games. The dorms provided free cable if you provided the TV.

Things I found my kids’ roommates hadn’t thought to bring: Garbage cans, wall clocks (not essential but really nice), and bath mats.

Chelsea @ Broke Girl Gets Rich
Chelsea @ Broke Girl Gets Rich
5 years ago
Reply to  Tonya

I splurged on a TV in my senior year. I didn’t use it for cable, but I found 1-2 hour movies were an incredible way to unwind after a stressful week.

Beth
Beth
5 years ago
Reply to  Tonya

If I was going to school now, I would buy something that did double duty as a TV and external monitor for my laptop. In my program, extra screen space would have been a big help!

cherie
cherie
5 years ago
Reply to  Beth

that’s a great suggestion Beth!

Chelsea @ Broke Girl Gets Rich
Chelsea @ Broke Girl Gets Rich
5 years ago

One of the absolute best things I bought when I was college-age (and that I still have) is an electric kettle. It helped aid with the limited cooking available in dorms, and I still use it (for tea) on a daily basis.

Another thing worth looking into is the cost of on-campus vs. off-campus living. At my university, it was actually a bit cheaper to stay “off-campus” in an apartment complex that was directly behind one of the main buildings and still walking distance to absolutely everything… plus we had more space and our own private bedrooms.

lmoot
lmoot
5 years ago

I barely remember my dormroom. Granted I was only there for 6 wks before moving into an apartment, but nobody really docorated as we were never there except to sleep and shower. We studied on campus (or at coffee shops, library, or the park). It came with a microwave and minifridge. I think all my parents and I shopped for were bedsheets b/c they were a different size from my bed at home. And a robe because it was a communal bathroom/ shower for the floor, which was down the hall. And a messageboard. When I moved to the apartment… Read more »

lmoot
lmoot
5 years ago
Reply to  lmoot

Oh, I remember now. They also got me organizational stuff like hangers, clear plastic drawers, and paper organizer and folders. The desk organizer stuff was a godsend because I had lots of books and papers, and it would have been easy to lose stuff or bring the wrong things to the wrong class.

Laura
Laura
5 years ago

Thanks for this article – timely and useful. Although DS is not the first of the family to go to college, none of us have ever lived in a dorm. Thankfully that includes DS who wants his own bedroom at home over sharing a room (and his stuff) with a stranger, but this list is still good to have. I wouldn’t have thought of the locked trunk.

Matt
Matt
5 years ago

Even though a fridge and microwave is a must, my one sons univ. rent them and even though it is cheaper to buy it is still better than hauling and storing in the summer time.

As for an alarm clock cell phone batteries die… dont rely on just a cell phone when an imprtant exam is happening.

A TV even a small one may be a good diversion for some mindless brain fill… your brain will be taxed enough so you might need a release…

Kate
Kate
5 years ago

I just picked up my son who finished up his freshman year at a major state U. He was one of the last ones to check out of his dorm and we were amazed at all the furniture an appliances just left there for the taking. We snagged quite a few items and wished we’d had a truck to grab a sofa for apartment living next year.

May-August is a great time to go curb shopping as students move out and move on.

Beth
Beth
5 years ago

Good list! I think going away to college/university is like other life events — it can be as expensive as you let it be. If you avoid non-necessities and find inexpensive ways to get what you need, you’re ahead of the game.

cherie
cherie
5 years ago

Oh I just had an awful thought. CLOTHES. My kids are in uniforms – they need so much less! Criminey we’ll be shopping all next summer [shudder]

Jane
Jane
5 years ago

FYI a mattress cover won’t protect you if bed bugs are already there.

The locking trunk is a really good idea. Although I wonder about my child’s ability to remember to put things in there and keep it locked at all times.

Kelli B
Kelli B
5 years ago

Good tips on what you can take and what you can leave when it comes to college dorm living. Another place you may be able to save money is on meals. If you are living in more of an apartment style dorm or off campus in a residence that has a kitchen, you should skip the meal plans. Yes, they’re super convenient but they can come with a hefty price tag. Instead, cook at your home! Here are 25 cheap and easy meals for college students that can save you money: http://www.freebiefindingmom.com/25-cheap-easy-meals-college-students/

Superbien
Superbien
5 years ago

I wish craigslist had been a thing when I was in school. Dorm supplies add up! One trick is to find out when moving day is at your local colleges and pick up dorm appliances for free – many leaving students literally just leave them on the curb. Or check out Salvation Army right after move-out. Other area of expense: containers, shelving, hygiene systems (shower shoes, toiletries containers and totes, birth control, primping appliances). It makes a lot of sense to get the bare minimum in advance and then allocate a set amount for Walmart after move-in. However, I know… Read more »

Superbien
Superbien
5 years ago

Off campus (or home) housing can be a lot cheaper, but I think that’s offset by the friendships you can make freshman year. Most people I knew stayed in touch, if not had as their ordinary social group, their freshman dorm buddies. After freshman year though, go for cheap.

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