10 Dorm-Room Decorating Ideas Even Broke College Students Can Afford

Two college students sit together in their dorm room.
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Moving into the dorms for the first time is one of the very best parts of the slow slide into #adulting.

For many of us, it’s the first time we ever live away from home for an extended period of time.

Best of all: You get to decorate.

Yeah, you’re pretty much stuck with whatever furniture the school provides, and it’d probably frown upon your idea to lacquer the walls with chalkboard paint…

But you still have a ton of leeway to create the brand-new home of your burgeoning adult dreams.

Just one problem: If you’re in college, you’re probably pretty strapped for cash.

As you might have noticed, tuition is expensive. And you also need to eat sometimes. And your professors would really, really prefer you have at least one or two textbooks.

Well, no one said adulting was going to be easy.

Dorm Room Decorations That Won’t Break the Bank

Fortunately, if you get a little crafty and creative, there are tons of ways to set up a Pinterest-perfect dorm room on a dime.

And no, pizza-box furniture isn’t one of them.

But if you play your cards right, your DIY decorations will even make your space more usable and efficient — which will help you stay productive and get the most out of your college investment.

Here are some of our favorite budget dorm decor ideas to help you save your cash without sacrificing style.

1. Ditch Expensive, Clunky Frames for This Sticky Solution

If your college experience is anything like mine was, it’s going to be filled with lots and lots (and lots) of posters, magazine clippings and other wall-bound visuals. If your nose has to be in a book all day, it helps to have something beautiful to glance up at.

But framing it all can be daunting, both time- and wallet-wise. Store-bought frames can cost at least $10 apiece, and have a tendency to fall apart.

Design Sponge’s Maxwell Tielman came up with an amazing solution so simple I can’t believe I didn’t think of it first: Use colorful, durable tape instead of frames to display your favorite wall art.

This idea is brilliant for a couple of reasons. First of all, it’s obviously way cheaper: You can get a whole roll of Tielman’s suggested washi tape for just $4. And I’d imagine it translates to a lot of ersatz frames.

It’s also way more customizable! You can use two or three colors of tape to create the perfect frame, or experiment with non-traditional shapes. It’s way cooler than plain, black borders… so much so I might use this for some pieces in my own, late-20s, unavoidably-totally-adult apartment.

Psst — make sure the tape you use doesn’t leave behind glue or grease marks on the walls. Your school might not be very happy about that, and also might charge you for it.

2. Walk Softly, Spendthrift

Putting your bare feet down on cold tile or linoleum is no one’s idea of a good morning.

But rugs are crazy expensive. Even at a place like Target, you could easily spend $50 or more. And, depending where you go, sometimes a lot more.


If you’ve got some time and spare T-shirts on your hands, you can create your own shaggy area rug like Daniela at Frugal Ain’t Cheap. Bonus: It looks like this project is DIY-friendly, even if your crafting skills are at a minimum.

Just grab a cheap rug mat, cut your tees into strips and start tying them in. Happy feet, here you come!

3. Get Your Cords in Formation

Nothing disturbs my zen — and productivity — more than a messy workspace littered with eight billion cords going in different directions.

So we adore All You’s DIY charging station/cord organizer.

It uses a $13 ribbon box you can purchase from the Container Store… but you could make this almost as easily with a shoebox and an X-Acto knife!

Just cover it with fun paper or fabric, and label the box to keep everything nice and neat.

Then, couple it with the easiest and cheapest desktop cable organization system we’ve ever seen — binder clips. (Thanks, LifeHacker!)

Much better than dealing with your jacked-up power strip and constant tangle of wires, am I right?

4. Seriously Up Your Bathroom Game… with Magnets

If you share a bathroom with two (or three, or four) other people, you probably know how completely gross it can get to have so many bodies trying to make themselves presentable in one tiny space.

Brittany at Darkroom and Dearly came up with a great solution: She attached all her requisite bathroom junk to a magnetic knife rack.

The “$9” one she suggests is now $13 at IKEA, but they’re available way cheaper at restaurant supply stores.

You can also up your game and invest in a magnetic whiteboard. It’ll be a little bit more costly, but it offers way more storage space.

Cover it in fun, printed paper or thin fabric and super-glue magnets to the back of your makeup compacts to create a beautiful place to store all your get-ready needs.

5. Embiggen Your Closet Instantly with Soda Tabs

Decorations will be the last thing on your priority list if your space becomes overrun with clothing — and trust me, in a tiny dorm room, it can happen.

If you need double the storage capacity in your closet, you can get it: Just take Living Better Daily’s advice and use soda tabs to stack hangers!

A word to the wise, however: Make sure your closet rod can handle double the weight. You don’t want to deal with picking your whole wardrobe up off the floor between classes.

6. Bought the Ugly Plastic Bins? Make Them More Livable with Printed Paper

Listen, we get it.

Dorm rooms are small, and you need extra storage space — but don’t blow the budget you do have on a dresser. Even a cheapie from Walmart will run you more than $50.

That’s why those simple plastic drawers are basically dorm room tradition. They’re just more cost-effective… but also pretty ugly, if we’re being honest.

So we love Uptown Girl’s great idea to line them with fun, printed paper. Bonus? It keeps all your goods from being on proud display.

I mean, your underwear collection is awesome, but do you really want to show it off to everyone on your floor?

7. Get Chic Throw Pillows Without Throwing Lots of Cash Around

Considering they’re not even very comfortable, it’s pretty crazy what people will pay for throw pillows.

That said, nothing lends a better sense of completion and intentionality to a room’s decor. There’s just something about extraneous bedding that’s so sophisticated.

So instead of plunking down $20 or more on each cute pillow, head to Goodwill and grab some cheap ugly ones.

Then, re-upholster them with your favorite fabric, or maybe an old T-shirt! You don’t even need to know how to sew — Silver Pencil’s Brandi shows you how to get it done with a good old glue gun instead.

8. Give Your Grades a Fighting Chance with This Easy File Organizing System

It’s really easy to let a pallet’s worth of papers pile up on your desk. Before you know it, you’ve misplaced something important — and your professor’s probably not going to accept “Sorry, I lost it” as an excuse.

Get ahead of the paper-crazies with Say Shea’s cheap and brilliant office file rack. She used easel stands she found at the dollar store and cheap (but pretty!) file folders — voila, everything exactly where you need it.

You can even add cheap metal pencil cups to keep writing utensils and other class-specific equipment handy; just secure them with binder clips.

9. Put Laundry in Its Place — and Make it Pretty

It feels pretty crappy to spend money on a hamper, I think.

After all, it’s just a place to put dirty clothes. That’s all it does — and it’s not hard to find them priced in the $40 range.

No, thank you.

Mandi at Making Nice in the Midwest has a great DIY idea that only requires an embroidery hoop (so cheap!), an old pillowcase and a hot glue gun (which you’ve probably realized by this point in the post is an amazingly worthwhile investment).

If you don’t want to drill into your dorm’s closet door, just use one of those removable wall hooks. Your hamper will double as a cute bag to bring down to the laundry room!

10. Amp Up Movie Night — With a Shoebox

Looking to save some cash by staying in for the feature film?

It doesn’t have to be a bummer. In fact, it might even be more fun than the alternative: As many free refills on snacks and soda as you want, and your own comfy furniture!

Netflix and chill on a whole ‘nother level with Photojojo’s $1 DIY photo/video projector. If you’ve got a shoebox on hand, all you need to buy is a $1 magnifying glass at Dollar Tree.

Just make sure you’re using your WiFi connection, or have some sort of special deal on streaming through your cell provider! For the amount you might pay in data overages, you might as well have just gone to the movies instead — extra popcorn included.

Even if you’re not watching a movie, you could set up a photo slideshow on your phone to display as an easy and funky wall decoration during a dorm room get-together.

You could even project your homework to study from the big screen. Not as fun, but definitely smart.

How to Make College Affordable: Get Creative

These are just a few of the amazing ideas the internet’s gathered to make your dorm room cute, cozy and optimized for productivity.

So do some Googling — any time you’re thinking of paying for a dorm decoration, you’ll probably find a way to DIY it much more cheaply.

Meanwhile, The Penny Hoarder’s got you covered with tons of other ways to save — and earn! — money in college.

Flexible work is a great way to offset college costs: Here are 13 online jobs for college students that pay more than $15 per hour. It’ll be way easier to make time for your side gig now that you’re so well organized.

Who knows? Maybe you’ll do really well, like this guy — his blog helped him pay off all of his student loans before graduation day.

Happy studies!

Your Turn: What budget dorm-room decor ideas do you have?

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Jamie Cattanach is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. Her writing has also been featured at The Write Life, Word Riot and elsewhere. Find @JamieCattanach on Twitter to wave hello.