Dorm Shopping on a Budget: 25 Tips to Help You Save BIG TIME

Because outfitting a dorm room can be expensive if you don't cut a FEW corners

by Nancy Reynolds

This Post: Dorm Shopping on a Budget: 25 Tips to Help You Save BIG TIME

Written By: Marybeth Bock

If you’re sending a kid off to college this fall, chances are your head is spinning thinking about everything they need for their dorm AND how much money it’s going to cost.

It’s hard not to get overwhelmed when planning and budgeting for a new college student. Everything is so darn pricey! You’re already in sticker shock by the high cost of tuition, fees, housing, books, and travel expenses and THEN you and your soon-to-be college student start seeing Pinterest-perfect dorm rooms complete with color-coordinated bedding, rugs, window treatments, and wall décor. 

According to the National Retail Federation, back-to-college spending topped $1300 per family in the U.S. in 2023, which nearly doubled since 2019. And, those are general numbers – families of first-year college students typically spend more

Whether you have a student who wants to “go all out” or one who only cares about getting the bare minimum, there are lots of clever ways to save money when you’re shopping for dorm stuff. Here are 25 helpful dorm shopping on a budget tips to help you save BIG TIME

Before you read our budget-saving tips, Download our FREE Dorm Checklist! Heads up… we tried to include everything your student might need OR want. Just pick and choose what they need. Don’t feel like you have to buy everything!


Dorm Shopping on a Budget: 25 Tips to Help You Save BIG TIME

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1. Shop At Home First

Do you really need to buy new bedding and wall decor? Maybe not. Your student may love their comforter and pillows and might want to bring pictures and items they already have on their walls. The same goes for towels and storage items. Don’t buy new just because it’s on a list of suggested items!

2. Shop For Secondhand Stuff

Check out thrift stores, garage sales, online marketplaces, and consignment shops for gently used dorm room items like furniture, bedding, and decor. (My daughter and I picked up a “like new” futon for her dorm for a fraction of what we would have paid retail.) There’s no need to buy everything new. 

3. Look For Sales

Keep an eye out for sales, promotions, and student discounts from retailers that specialize in dorm room essentials. Sign up for email newsletters, download apps, or follow stores on social media to stay informed about upcoming special offers.

4. Be Sure to Compare Prices

Take time to compare prices and shop around at different stores – both online and in-person – to find the best deals. Look for stores that offer price matching or price adjustment policies to ensure you get the lowest price possible.

HINT: If you find something online you like (dorm bedding or pillows, for instance), simply right-click the image and hit “Search Images with Google” to see similar items from various retailers. It’s a GREAT way to shop smart online!

5. Dive Into DIY Projects

Get creative and consider DIY solutions for decor, organization, and storage. Repurpose items you already own or make your own decorations and storage solutions using inexpensive materials like cardboard, fabric, and craft supplies.

Check out these easy DIY headboards and HGTV’s DIY wall art ideas OR these 100 Cheap n’ Easy DIY Dorm Decor Ideas.

6. Rent Or Borrow

If your student wants a larger item like a mini-fridge, microwave, or vacuum cleaner for their dorm room, consider renting or borrowing these items instead of buying them outright. Some schools offer rental programs or lending libraries where students can borrow these items for a small fee or deposit. Also, be sure roommates talk before buying or renting so they don’t end up with multiples of certain items and they can split costs on shared items.

7. Look For MultiPurpose Items

Things like storage ottomans are great for both storing things that aren’t constantly used and for seating. The same goes for a futon that can be used as a sofa and as a bed for visiting friends. 

8. Know What’s Not Allowed

Does your kid feel like they just can’t live without a toaster oven, hot plate, or a coffee maker in their dorm room? Double-check what IS and ISN’T allowed in their dorm room. Some items are a definite “no-no.” A lot of colleges have communal dorm kitchens stocked with basic cooking appliances and utensils, too, so there may be some things they don’t have to buy.

 NOTE: Room sizes and configurations vary. Bed and closet sizes vary. Provided and allowed furniture pieces vary. Make sure you read all the information provided by the college’s housing office. Also, consider joining the college’s parents’ page so you can ask specific questions and stay in the know.

9. Shop with Discounted Gift Cards

If you’re not familiar with discounted gift cards, there are sites that sell gift cards at a discount off of their face value. Look at sites like Card Cookie and Raise. When you combine a store sale and a discounted gift card, you can save considerably!

10. Tap Into Student Discounts

Make the most of your student’s college ID card and save money at a lot of big-name companies, including Amazon, Apple, Dell, Goodwill, Microsoft, Sam’s Club, and Sony. Check into this list of college student discounts

11. Look for Inclusive Sets

Inclusive deals, like Bed-in-a-Bag comforter sets, are generally good buys and cheaper than buying items individually. Also, they’re easier to pack and ensure your student doesn’t forget any key items. Look around for inclusive sets for items like bedding, towels, toiletries, and closet organizers.

12. Investigate Price Matching Opportunities

Ask if your local retailer will match Amazon pricing, as more businesses are doing that now. Here are some stores that have done Amazon price matching: Bed, Bath and Beyond, Home Depot, JC Penney, Joann Fabric, Nordstrom, and Target. 

13. Shop Summer Sales Events

Your student may be itching to start shopping as soon as they make their college decision but remember many retailers have great sales on holidays such as July 4th. It can pay off big time to wait for those deals. 

14. Make an Amazon Wishlist

By creating an Amazon wishlist, not only will your son or daughter get alerts when those items go on sale, but they can share the list so family and friends can purchase items for graduation or birthday gifts.

Remember, too, that your student doesn’t need everything the day they move into their dorm. They can move in with the essentials and purchase additional items from Amazon as needed.  When in doubt, wait it out.

15. Check Online College Resale Marketplaces

Many colleges have online marketplaces where current and graduating students sell used items like small appliances and furniture. Do some research to join groups now and create a seller’s profile so you can see items people are selling. 

16. Use Cashback Apps for Online Shopping

Shop smart by utilizing Cashback apps when shopping for dorm items. According to this article from CNBC, three of the five best apps to use are Ibotta, Honey, and Rakuten.

17. Skip Buying a Printer

Most college dorms and/or libraries have printers for students to use, so before you buy a new one or pack up the one your student uses at home, double-check what the printing situation is like at their college. They may not need to bring it!

18. Don’t Fall for “Essential Dorm Items” Advertising

Some stores will advertise “must-haves” for dorm rooms but don’t get sucked into it. Choose what you need wisely. I can’t tell you how much stuff college freshmen buy for their dorms that they never use. Get advice from other college students and do your research. Remember, dorm rooms are small. Focus on purchasing only what you need.

19. Go Cheap on Comforters, Pillows and Rugs

Take it from a seasoned college mom, comforters, pillows, and throw rugs will get pretty grimy (okay, downright gross) with drink spills, pen marks, make-up stains, and dirt from kids’ shoes. And, since college students don’t take the time to wash or get these items dry-cleaned, they’ll more than likely get tossed out at the end of their first year. Don’t waste money on high-end stuff. 

20. Check Out Dollar Stores and Target Dollar Section

Yes, you really can find useful items for their dorm at your local dollar store. Search for items like shower caddies, foldable laundry bags, reusable hooks, picture frames, shower curtains, cleaning wipes, storage bins, reusable plates and cups, first aid supplies, shower shoes, and under-bed storage bags.

21. Get Creative with Washi Tape

Have fun and save money decorating picture frames, storage bins, lamps, mirrors, and even furniture with washi tape. It comes in every color and pattern imaginable and doesn’t leave behind any residue when you peel it off. Get inspired with these fun ideas!

22. Use Inexpensive Faux Plants and String Lights as Decor

Just a few plants and/or strands of string lights can totally change the vibe of a dorm room and can be found for cheap at craft and dollar stores or Target and Walmart. And, when your student uses a coupon, they can really get a great deal. Check out affordable string lights on Amazon here! 

23. Cheap Wall Art is Everywhere

No need to spend a ton of money to cover up those blank walls when you can use posters, photos, maps, flags, and tapestries to personalize the dorm space. Use museum putty to keep these items up on the walls. It’s removable, reusable, and non-toxic.

24. Don’t Buy Expensive or Bulky Luggage

Most dorms are SMALL and don’t have space to store big pieces of luggage. Instead, invest in flexible but sturdy bags like the popular IKEA storage bags with zippers. These bags can be folded up small when empty and the straps make it so the bags can be worn “backpack style” during travel. 

25. Buy Portable/Clip-On Pieces

Don’t waste money on things like stationary floor lamps or large fans. Both items are helpful to have in a dorm room but they take up a lot of space. Clip-on reading lights and portable fans can move from a desk to a bed so that they are positioned just right and they don’t take up space.

With these helpful tips, you really can save big bucks when outfitting your child’s dorm room and help them create a comfortable and functional living space without breaking the bank.

Marybeth Bock, MPH, is a Mom to two young adults and one delightful hound dog. She has logged time as a military spouse, childbirth educator, college instructor, and freelance writer. She lives in Arizona and thoroughly enjoys research and writing – as long as iced coffee is involved. Her work can be found on numerous websites and in two books. Follow her on Facebook and Instagram.


If you enjoyed reading, “Dorm Shopping on a Budget: 25 Tips to Help You Save BIG TIME ” you might also enjoy reading these posts!

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