It’s finally time to send your first child off to college. The stores are starting to bombard you with tons of off-to-college sales, and you find yourself getting sidetracked and sucked in by all of the offers. You can’t help thinking that your best bet is to buy her everything she might possibly need: a microwave for late-night snacks, a set of cubes to store her books, a mini-fridge to keep healthy snacks.
Don’t do it.
Instead, use some of these techniques to start your college student on the budget-conscious track:
Bring what you already have. Before you buy cheaply made items marketed as dorm-friendly, see what extra things you have at home that might work in the dorm. Chances are you have an extra skillet in the cabinet, for example, or a comfy fleece throw that was never used. When I went off to college (let’s just say several decades ago), I never thought about bringing households goods. At the last minute, I bought two sets of sheets, matching towels and an orange and brown Indian print bedspread (which may clue you in that this was the 1970s).
Decorate as you go. Take along a couple of favorite knick-knacks and photos to help fight homesickness and personalize your dorm space. Sure, all of those funky throw pillows, bean bag chairs and wall art pieces look cool in the stores, but it makes more sense to see how much space you’ll actually have to work with before you waste money. Dorm rooms are small. Freshmen typically arrive with way too much stuff and end up taking a lot of it home, where it takes up space in YOUR house. Instead of embarking on a shopping trip, hand your collegian a Target or Walmart gift card or $100 in cash and tell her to equip her room a few weeks into the semester, when she knows what she really needs.
Don’t rush to equip a kitchen. Some will find they need a small refrigerator. Some will need a microwave, and some would rather go on the college meal plan. A non-cooking student will not suddenly become a foodie once he is in a college dorm room – he’ll probably still call out for pizza. Not everyone will need the same things, and they won’t really know which ones until they settle in. So why waste money on the wrong things?
My dorm had a kitchen and I didn’t have a meal plan, so a few weeks into the semester, I realized I would need some kitchen equipment. I went to Kmart and bought a few forks, plates and pans. With a full-size kitchen across the hall, I didn’t need a mini-refrigerator. But because I liked to bake for my dorm mates, I did need an electric mixer. More than 30 years later, I’m still using that purchase.
Collaborate with your roommate. Before you run out to buy a flat-screen TV, computer printer or floor lamp, get in touch with your future dorm mate to see which bigger items can be shared and decide who’s bringing what.The Indian print bedspread was a wasted purchase. My roommate hated it, so we shopped together for matching comforters and curtains.
Stick to wardrobe basics. Think comfortable and seasonally appropriate clothes (you can always switch up for warmer/cooler wear when they visit home). Most college students don’t dress as if they’re trying out for a fashion show. A couple of good pairs of jeans and nice tops, and sweaters/sweatshirts that can be layered will do the trick. And, of course, some lounging-around-the-dorm clothes, too.
Focus on the essentials. Extra-long twin sheets are usually the best size for dorm mattresses. For communal shower rooms, flip-flops, a shower caddy for personal items and a bathrobe are musts. And a basic tool set and sewing kit can come in handy for quick repairs.
Look for deals and coupons. Once you’ve figured out what you have and what you need to buy, look for student discounts, collect coupons (Hint: Bed, Bath & Beyond will honor those 20% off ones even after they expire!) and cash in on the back-to-school sales and tax holidays. Groupon Student Program offers 25% extra off local deals for the first 6 months, and 15% off as long as you are a student.
Don’t forget thrift stores. Look for inexpensive funky plates and mugs that don’t look like every other student’s college gear. Encourage your student to go for comfort and not flair when it comes to clothing. Goodwill offers a 20% discount to students on Tuesdays. Call local thrift and reuse stores to find out if they have a student discount available.
Ask newly graduated students if they are getting rid of items. If your student has older friends who are leaving behind usable items, don’t be afraid to ask if you can take them off their hands instead of letting them go to the landfill. Barely-used microwaves, refrigerators, and dishware go into college dumpsters every year. Some colleges, like Emerson College, set up “swap shops” to rehome items that can be used by incoming students. Ask your friends if they have any hand-me-down items from their own college-age children.
We know that shopping for dorm decor with your son or daughter would be a lot of fun. But it’s time to let go of the apron strings. By letting your student buy her own household items once she arrives, you not only save money, you give your student a chance to flaunt her independence and learn how to shop on a budget.
What was your must-have item when you went off to college or sent your son or daughter — and what turned out to be a waste of money?
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