From overpriced textbooks to last-minute lab fees, there are plenty of unexpected costs that can put a serious strain on a college student’s budget.
To manage these unavoidable expenses, it’s important to cut back in areas where there’s some wiggle room. Many college students spend more than they have to on dorm room accessories and furniture, so that’s a good place to look for savings.
College-related back-to-school spending represents a huge market. It’s expected to hit a record $54 billion this year, with $5.9 billion of that spent on dorm and apartment furnishings, according to the National Retail Federation.
While you probably can’t avoid buying sheets and a shower caddy, there are ways to make sure that you don’t overspend when outfitting a dorm. Follow these seven steps:
1. Get the specs for both the room and the dorm.
Find out the dimensions and layout of your dorm room ahead of time, and whether the furniture can be reconfigured. Use that information to decide whether you want or need to bring any furniture from home and to make sure that any new purchases will fit in the space that you have. Some dorm room “must haves” don’t work in every dorm. Bed risers, for example, which can provide much-needed space underneath a bed, won’t work on bunk beds.
You’ll also want to find out what type of amenities the dorm and your floor offer. You probably want at least a small refrigerator in your room, but you may not need other appliances like a microwave or a printer if there are community machines available for your use.
Find out whether there are any restrictions on things like having a coffee pot or other small appliances in your room. If so, you can cross those items off your list now.
2. Work with your roommate(s).
If you haven’t already, connect with your future roommate on social media. “Make plans for your dorm room together,” says Rebecca Lehmann, a spokeswoman for BradsDeals.com. “That way you can agree on a scheme and a budget, split the costs, and avoid impulse buys. It may also help you avoid some hard feelings when you move in if your tastes clash. You’ll be getting the relationship off to a good start.”
A decade ago, you might have planned on purchasing a TV, but today you should probably decide together whether you need one at all. If you usually stream your favorite shows on your laptop, you can probably skip the expense of a television — and the cable package to go with it — all together.
3. Focus on the essentials — at least at first.
While it’s easy to fall down a rabbit hole of dorm room décor, there really are only a few items that you absolutely need to have in your room, and many of them are likely around your home already. Most students, for example, can scrounge up a set of towels and an old lamp.
If you can hold off on making purchases until a few weeks after school starts, you’ll likely find much better deals. “If you can wait until closer to Labor Day, when summer clearance sales collide with back-to-school clearance, the prices on those items are just going to get better,” says Brent Shelton, an online shopping expert and author of the monthly “when to shop” newsletter for FatWallet.com.
4. Go basic.
Items without a lot of embellishments typically cost less, and they may prove more versatile throughout your college career. “Try to keep things neutral and fairly basic,” says Kendal Perez, savings expert at the discount website CouponSherpa.com. “If you get too trendy with those items, in a year or two, you might want to replace them.”
5. Do it yourself.
No matter how focused you are on your budget, you probably still want to inject some personality into your room. If you’ve got a creative streak, you can probably convert some photographs and household items into eye-catching accessories. “Being creative is really important,” says Marilyn Anderson, author of How to Live Like a Millionaire When You’re a Million Short. “You can make a room look great with very little money.”
Need some inspiration? Search Pinterest for DIY dorm rooms, for more ideas than you’ll ever be able to use.
6. Be a smart shopper.
Keep an eye out for back-to-school sales and coupons so you can pick up items on your list at a discount. Sign up to follow retailers like Bed Bath and Beyond or Ikea on social networks to stay up to date on upcoming sale promotions and exclusive offers. When shopping at other stores, ask whether they offer a student discount.
While you’re in a store, use an app like RedLaser or Amazon Price Check to make sure you’re getting the lowest possible price on the item. If you find it advertised elsewhere for less, ask the retailer if they’ll match that price, saving you the trip to their competitor.
If you’re buying things online, make sure to factor shopping costs into your purchases. College students can join Amazon Student, a free six-month subscription to Amazon Prime. You can also buy items online at Bed Bath and Beyond and have them shipped to you whenever school starts, which can be extremely helpful for students traveling long distances to campus.
7. Think pre-owned.
Dorm room living is temporary, and people moving on to apartments or homes often no longer need the furniture and other decorations that used in their dorm. “Before you even start looking on retail sites for new items, look for second-hand items to see what kind of deals you can find,” says Michelle Hutchison, money experts at Finder.com.
Keep an eye out on school message boards or social media to find deals on slightly used items like furniture, accessories and even electronics. Local thrift stores are also a great place to pick up potential items at a discount.