Outfit a Dorm Room for Cheap With These 33 Essentials
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.
See our tips for space management, including how to set up a work or study area in a shared room.
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.
Score some sweet secondhand clothing for back to school with our tips for thrift shopping like a professional.
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.
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.
- Padded mattress protector
- Twin XL sheets
- Duvet cover
- Comforter insert
- Quality pillows
- Extra blanket
- Storage containers
- Collapsible shelving
- Shower caddy
- Bath towels
- Shower shoes
- Laundry basket
- String lights
- Adhesive hooks
- Double-sided tape
- Power strip
- Adjustable lamp
- Noise-canceling headphones
- Charging station
- Ethernet cable
- Power bank
- Trash can
- Cleaning supplies
- Electric kettle
- Dish set
- Food storage
- First aid kit
- Stainless steel travel mug
- Dry-erase board
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.