Outfit a Dorm Room for Cheap With These 33 Essentials

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Setting up a college dorm room on a shoestring budget can be a serious challenge. You’ve just scraped together the money for tuition and here comes a long, expensive list of must-have supplies.

Before you run out and blow your budget on all the fixings for a fashionable dorm room, here are a few things to consider about what your student actually needs and which dorm room essentials you should skip.

How Much Does It Cost to Buy Dorm Room Essentials?

In 2021, the National Retail Federation says college students and their families spent an average of $1,200 on back-to-class electronics and other supplies. That budget seems to have ballooned well past the essentials and probably includes items like new laptops and furniture.

Instead of running up more debt to send a student to college, figure out what your family can afford and cut corners with the following tips on outfitting dorm rooms on a budget.

7 Tips for Outfitting a Dorm Room on a Budget

These tips will help college students live their best campus life in a comfortable, cozy space that feels like home.

1. Use What You Already Have

From extra bath towels to spare dishes, it’s likely half the stuff on that college packing list is sitting in your cupboards. Assess what you have before deciding what to put on a dorm room shopping list.

2. Adjust Your Expectations

Have you seen a dorm room in real life? It’s such a small space, especially since students share it with someone else. So downsize expectations and focus on making the most of that tiny footprint.

3. Find Out What’s Prohibited

The dorm lists what’s allowed and what’s banned. Most dorm rooms prohibit cooking equipment that poses a fire hazard, which the National Fire Protection Association says is responsible for up to 87% of fires in on-campus housing.

4. Shop (and Pack) Seasonally

You don’t have to pack winter coats or shop for umbrellas yet. Students can’t cram all the school supplies they need into a limited space, so leave what isn’t needed for the season at home and have it sent along later.

5. Think Multipurpose

Every bit of real estate in a cramped college dorm room must earn its keep, so lean into multipurpose items that pull double duty. A great example is buying a lamp that also serves as a charging station.

6. Scout Out Secondhand Finds

College life is all about that secondhand or retro vibe, so don’t hesitate to shop the thrift store for old dishes or vintage curtains.

7. Wait and See

It’s tempting, but don’t buy everything before move-in day. Wait to cross some things off your dorm room essentials list until you’ve seen the room layout and understand the space you’re working with.

Ready, set, shop. See our recommendations on where to go for cheap dorm room decor and supplies from Dormify to Big Lots.

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33 Dorm Room Essentials Every Student Needs

Grab these dorm room must-haves with the confidence that you’re striking the perfect balance between budget, space and all the comforts of home.

  1. Padded mattress protector
  2. Twin XL sheets
  3. Duvet cover
  4. Comforter insert
  5. Quality pillows
  6. Extra blanket
  7. Storage containers
  8. Collapsible shelving
  9. Shower caddy
  10. Bath towels
  11. Shower shoes
  12. Laundry basket
  13. Hangers
  14. String lights
  15. Adhesive hooks
  16. Double-sided tape
  17. Curtains
  18. Power strip
  19. Adjustable lamp
  20. Noise-canceling headphones
  21. Charging station
  22. Ethernet cable
  23. Power bank
  24. Trash can
  25. Cleaning supplies
  26. Electric kettle
  27. Silverware
  28. Dish set
  29. Food storage
  30. First aid kit
  31. Stainless steel travel mug
  32. Dry-erase board
  33. Multitool

Dorm Bedding Essentials

1. Padded Mattress Protector

The dorm mattress may have seen better days, so give the bed cover with a protector that doubles as a mattress pad. Expensive memory foam mattress pads aren’t necessary, but avoid the cheap, noisy plastic and buy bed protectors that are machine washable.

2. Twin XL Sheets

Most dorm beds come in one size: twin. To accommodate a plush mattress pad or mattress topper, purchase twin XL bedsheets. Since students tend to put off doing laundry, pack two sets of bedsheets in multiple colors just in case.

3. Duvet Cover

When it comes to a comfortable bed, there are several reasons to opt for a duvet cover with an insert instead of a standard comforter. Duvet covers are washable, and when the weather turns warmer, ditch the insert and use the cover as a bedspread.

4. Comforter Insert

A dorm bed is a college student’s refuge, so make it feel cozy year-round. A thicker down comforter or synthetic insert will keep things warm even if the roommate likes the air conditioning cranked.

5. Quality Pillows

There’s nothing more essential for busy brains than getting a good night’s sleep, so don’t skimp on the pillows. Adding a few throw pillows is also a cheap way to give a different room feel without taking up extra space.

6. Extra Blanket

An extra blanket isn’t going to get tossed on the bed. It’s going to end up as a picnic blanket on the quad or as a makeshift tent for late-night study sessions. Grab a durable, versatile option like a Turkish towel that’s designed for indoor and outdoor use.

Losing sleep over the price of bedsheets? Curl up with our recommendations to get the best sheets for cheap.

Dorm Storage Essentials

7. Storage Containers

Most dorms don’t have enough shelf space for extra clothes and linens, so storage containers are critical supplies. Buy soft-sided underbed storage containers that can be stowed when not in use or stashed on top of a wardrobe.

8. Collapsible Shelving

If you don’t have enough space, over-the-door shelving can be a lifesaver to keep things organized. Look for collapsible options and use them to store food, kitchen supplies and random odds and ends.

Check out our organization and storage hacks that won’t take up too much space in your room or your budget.

Dorm Bathroom Essentials

9. Shower Caddy

Unlike home, anything left in the communal bathroom will get snatched. While the mesh shower caddy may seem appealing, buy the cheaper plastic shower caddy that can be hosed down when it develops soap scum problems.

10. Bath Towels

Every college student brings a bathrobe only to end up footing it down the hall in a towel wrap most of the time. Buy oversized bath towels and don’t forget the hand towels and washcloths — they’re easy to wash (and cheaper) than mesh loofah sponges.

11. Shower Shoes

Welcome to the communal shower, where you share not just the hot water supply but also any lingering foot fungus. As awkward as it feels, shower shoes or flip-flops are a freshman-year essential.

Students need spa days, too. Here are cheap ways to create a dorm spa complete with DIY beauty products.

Dorm Closet Essentials

12. Laundry Basket

If the laundry basket isn’t pulling double duty as a hamper, you’re doing it wrong. Look for hampers that have laundry bag inserts so clothes can be schlepped down the stairs to the laundry room with minimal effort.

13. Hangers

It’s the quintessential college move dilemma. Where do you put all those clothes? Closet space comes at a premium in dorm rooms, so use space-saving hangers that can support the full weight of a fashionable wardrobe.

Did you know there’s a right way and a wrong way to wash clothes? Make sure college students check out this grown-up guide to saving money on laundry.

Dorm Decor Essentials

14. String Lights

Those little LED fairy lights that come on wire that molds around any surface are invaluable as college room decor. They also double as mood lighting, but be careful to get ones that plug in or recharge to avoid needing a stash of batteries.

 15. Adhesive Hooks

When every inch matters, turning the side of a desk or cabinet into storage space is as easy as slapping up an adhesive hook or two. These can also work wonders for mounting unconventional decor items.

16. Double-Sided Tape

Many dorms specifically prohibit nailing into walls, which makes hanging pictures and other items nearly impossible. Enter double-sided tape or adhesive strips, which should hold up even on cement walls.

 17. Curtains

College can be particularly tricky for a light sleeper, so learning to nap is a crucial skill. Even a flat sheet will do as makeshift curtains or splurge on keeping the daylight at bay with blackout shades.

Dorm Electronic and Tech Essentials

18. Power Strip

So many devices, so few outlets. Every college student needs a power strip, but buy one that also has at least two USB charging ports for all those wireless and rechargeable devices.

19. Adjustable Lamp

In truth, a desk lamp is not just a lamp for your desk. It’s probably also a bedside table lamp and everything in between. Choose adjustable heads and dimmable light settings so burning the midnight oil doesn’t cause friction with the roommate.

20. Noise-Canceling Headphones

Hopefully, you’re taking notes because if there is one thing a college student can’t survive the school year without, it’s noise-canceling headphones. Splurge on a decent, durable pair with zero regrets.

21. Charging Station

Charging stations combine all those tangled cords and chargers into one compact space. Choose either wired or wireless depending on the devices, and look for stations that throw in some extras like a speaker to play music.

22. Ethernet Cable

Why would you need a wired computer connection when you can jump on Wi-Fi and go? But during high-volume times or in certain areas of the residence hall, the signal might be abysmal. Get a long ethernet cable just in case.

23. Power Bank

The struggle to keep devices charged is real, especially for college students. Having an indestructible backup power bank to toss in the backpack will prevent a lot of academic angst.

Get our recommendations for what to add to a college student tech wish list, from charging stations to AirTags.

Dorm Cleaning Essentials

24. Trash Can

Wastebaskets are usually just baskets for trash, but in a pinch they can double as bedside tables, laundry baskets and storage bins. Buy one that’s versatile and will stand the test of time.

25. Cleaning Supplies

It sounds like a pipe dream, but at some point someone will want to wipe stuff down in the dorm room. Make sure supplies are on hand to do the dirty work, like microfiber cloths, sanitizing wipes and multipurpose cleaning spray.

Do NOT buy cleaning supplies for several bucks a bottle when you can make your own. Here are our recipes for easy, cheap homemade cleaners.

Dorm Kitchen Essentials

26. Electric Kettle

Instead of buying a bunch of appliances, opt for an electric kettle that can boil water for coffee, ramen, hot cocoa, tea and more. Just be sure it has an auto shutoff safety feature.

27. Silverware

Students don’t always have time to duck into the dining hall. Having a silverware set on hand helps as many takeout options try to eliminate single-use plastics and straws for environmental reasons.

28. Dish Set

A set of bowls and plates is critical to grabbing a quick bite to eat before class. Cheap dish sets are not always microwave-safe, so double-check before buying something like bamboo.

29. Food Storage

That leftover pizza can be wrapped in foil or stuffed into a zip-close bag, but other leftovers aren’t so easy to stow. Having a few storage containers on hand will also help curb food waste.

Other Dorm Room Essentials

30. First Aid Kit

Accidents happen. A comprehensive first aid kit should cover the gamut from bandages and gauze to cold medications and latex gloves. And don’t forget about a pair of tweezers for picking out splinters and more.

31. Stainless Steel Travel Mug

The advantage of a more expensive stainless steel mug is that it keeps drinks hot and cold and can double as a water bottle. And these days they come in just about every color, from dark blue to fuschia.

32. Dry-Erase Board

A dorm standby, the dry-erase board is more than a study tool. It’s for leaving messages on the door or notes for the roommate. Get a slightly larger one that has a corkboard as well for pinning up notices and reminders.

33. Multitool

Part can opener and part screwdriver, the multitool is 100% necessary. And contrary to popular belief, they don’t have to cost a small fortune. Lesser-known brands offer perfectly acceptable multitools for under $50.

Skip These 6 Expensive Dorm Room Staples

You’ve probably heard some dorm room essentials like a coffee maker and a mini-fridge should be on your list. Here’s why it’s worth reconsidering that advice.

1. Mini-Fridge

Most dorms allow students to have only one mini-fridge per room. And while these large appliances are undoubtedly nice to have, there’s usually a full-size refrigerator available to use nearby.

2. Microwave

Having a microwave at your fingertips is convenient, but it takes up more real estate than it’s worth. Many dorms have a communal kitchen with a full-size microwave that’s a short walk down the hall.

3. Coffee Maker

Getting an electric kettle means you can make anything that requires boiling water, including coffee. Instead of a big coffee maker, buy a French press or a low-profile pour-over.

4. Alarm Clock

That smartphone attached to your hand 24/7 has an alarm clock and you should use it. If more severe intervention is required to get up for class, there are apps like Alarmy and I Can’t Wake Up that will give a personalized wake-up call.

5. Handheld Vacuum

Props for wanting to keep the dorm room clean, but that handheld vacuum will make it out of the closet exactly once before the holidays. Residence halls have vacuum cleaners available or one can be borrowed briefly.

6. TV

Computer monitors. Smartphones. Laptops. College students are surrounded by screens, and all of them can stream content from TV to movies. For a full-size viewing experience, most dorms have communal living rooms with TVs.

Kaz Weida is a senior staff writer at The Penny Hoarder covering saving money and budgeting. As a journalist for the last decade, she has written about a wide array of topics, including finance, health, politics, education and technology.