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Love it or leave it: Your dorm room essentials guide

Here’s what you must have and what to leave at home when you move to your college dorm room – plus, some useful tips to save money along the way


It’ll be barely larger than a walk-in closet and you’ll be sharing it with a total stranger, so you’ll need to pick wisely what to bring to your college dorm room, what to leave behind – and how to pay with the right plastic in order to score some sweet savings. But don’t sweat it! We’re here to help.

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If you’re packing for college, this is one instance where less really is more.

Lux or not, the average dorm room seems barely larger than the average walk-in closet. Not to mention you’ll likely be sharing that precious square footage with a total stranger. Leave the sports trophies and stuffed animal collections at home. Ditto the plug-in air fresheners and scented candles.

Instead, streamline.

To make it easier, a few college professors share their tips on items that will help you ace your college experience, as well as a couple of things you probably want to leave at home.

For parents who are footing the bill (and looking to save a few dollars or earn a few miles), we’ve also thrown in a few suggestions on which cards might offer the best deals on back-to-school and dorm-room gear.

See related: Best cards for back-to-school shopping

Dorm room must-haves

1. A budget

If you want your money to last through the end of the month, a budget is your best friend.

With “food, entertainment, partying, spring break trips – students, if they’re not careful, can spend as much on things other than tuition as they do on tuition,” says Augie Grant, journalism professor and director of the University Center for Teaching Excellence at the University of South Carolina.

For parents, it’s also a good way to set realistic expectations and limits. “The number one must-have for a freshman is a budget,” says Grant. “They’ll graduate with less debt. It teaches [them] financial responsibility, and does as much to prepare them for the world as anything else they’ll learn.”

2. Books for class work

“This comes up a lot, especially in law school,” says James Hawkins, law professor, University of Houston Law Center. The same students who will spend $1,500 on tuition for a course won’t spend the $50 to purchase an extra book for the class. And that’s a waste of $1,500.

Hawkins’s advice: “Spend what it takes to do well in class.” And that includes a few bucks for a tutor, if you find you need some extra help.

3. A checking account

College is life 101. And that means paying bills and managing money will become a factor at some point.

Ideally, parents should help students set up a checking account before they leave and help them learn how to use it, Hawkins advises. That includes any money transfer services, learning which actions incur fees and understanding the consequences (monetarily and credit-wise) of bounced checks.

4. A laptop

“Every college requires a laptop these days,” says Eric Eisenstein, professor of marketing and statistics, at the Fox School of Business at Temple University. “But think very carefully about the trade-off between portability and cost.”

While many students will opt for the cheapest alternative they can find, this can be a mistake, he says. “Very few people on campus are interested in carrying around an eight-pound monster. It becomes an impediment.”

Likewise, a cheap light notebook with limited word processing and net-surfing might not be able to do everything you need, he says. Look for the machine that’s the happy medium in your price range. Need a price break? Consider last year’s model and refurbished machines, he says.

5. Cloud backup storage

If your laptop breaks or is stolen, your classwork is gone. Take a few minutes to set up a cloud-based backup system – and use it regularly. Further, it won’t take up any space in your dorm room.

“We’ve had people lose dissertations because a hard drive crashed,” says Eisenstein. And another student lost tons of data after accidentally running a USB drive through the washer/dryer, he recalls.

Best of all, many well-known cloud storage services will allocate “insane amounts of storage space if you register with a dot-edu email address,” says Eisenstein.

6. A time management app

“High school is really regimented, but college is a completely different game,” says Eisenstein. A good calendar and time management app can help students stay on top of classwork and deadlines.

Best of all, plenty of the apps are available for free. Eisenstein’s favorite: Google Calendar.

7. Ear plugs or noise canceling headphones

“In a dorm room, a good pair of noise-canceling headphones, for me, would be essentials,” says Eisenstein.

If you’re cutting costs, “a decent pair of foam earplugs cost nothing,” he says.

8. An alarm clock

Yes, your phone (or tablet or laptop), probably has a clock app. And you can test it to see just how effective it is.

If you’re a heavy sleeper, sometimes the volume isn’t quite loud enough to do the job. Or you may want something that doesn’t have to be charged. Or something that can be situated at a distance, which forces you to get up to shut off the alarm, says Hawkins.

What to leave at home

1. A car

“There’s so much going on on campus,” says Grant. But you’ll miss it if you’re always going off campus.

Plus, if you’re not using a car, you don’t have to worry about paying for gas – or parking, which is at a premium at many campuses. And you don’t get hassled for free rides or borrowing privileges, either.

With some campuses, however, a car could be necessary. And, if you live off campus, “that’s a different story,” says Grant.

2. TVs and video games

These days, students are watching TV on phones and tablets, says Grant.

But why waste your college years sitting in front of a screen? “I have literally seen students spending 15 hours a week playing video games because they can,” says Eisenstein.

And with mobile devices, “forgetting” to pack the gaming system or TV won’t necessary stop the behavior.

Bottom line: If a student is spending hours a day playing video games or watching TV, “it’s hard to do well in class,” says Hawkins.

They also won’t end up making the lifelong friends that are a big part of the college experience, he adds.

3. A printer

Printers are heavy and many are quite large – especially for a space-starved dorm room. And those ink cartridges can be pricey, too.

In many colleges, “printers are available all over campus,” says Grant.

But if you’re still worried, call the campus and find out if there are free or inexpensive printing options available on campus.

4. The giant economy size of anything

Yes, that means those gallon jugs of soap and the giant, family size 24-pack of toilet paper.

It’s tempting to stock up to have enough mouthwash, soap, toothpaste, and toilet paper to last the term. But the challenge in a dorm room is square footage. “And dorms are not known for storage space,” says Grant. “Instead, only bring enough toiletries for the first month.”

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