How to Save Time And Money Shopping for College (2023)

Look at your kid, your actual real kid. What is important to them? Does feeling “at home” impact their happiness? Are they a terrible sleeper who needs a comfortable bed? Are they indifferent to lots of clothing so the dresser provided is adequate? Are they bringing expensive musical equipment that will need to be protected?

Shopping for college can feel like a generic experience with long lists of “must-haves,” but you are only sending off one teen you know so well, so make sure this college shopping journey is just about them.

dorm room
You can help your teen create a cute and complete dorm room without breaking the bank.

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College Shopping

How to Save Time and Money

1. Shop when your teen is interested.

All you need to do is look around a big box store on any summer afternoon to know this is not always true. Eye-rolling teens and stressed-out moms abound. The whole process is a lot easier when your kid is on board. Think good night’s sleep, well-fed teen, friends otherwise occupied.

2. Okay, you say your (let me guess) son has no interest in ever shopping for their dorm necessities?

Yep, been there. Here are a few tactics: I gave you life; you give me an hour of your summer to get you set. Fair trade? I used this one to significant effect.

Grab a snack; we are shopping online. Finally, there are always threats or bribes.

3. Don’t think about your first year.

While the dorms may look the same, the world has changed beyond recognition, and I had to keep telling myself, “They have the internet.” Concentrate on buying your freshmen the items they need knowing that you can pick up extras on move-in day or order them online once they have a better idea of dorm living.

4. Shop where you can get everything you need.

There is no reason to make this a summer-long project. Find one store where you can check off most, if not all, of your list and complete the task.

Check out the college dorm sections on the Target website for some of the best one-stop selections. Also, The Container Store has a new collaboration with trend-setting site, Dormify which means you can find almost everything you need at The Container Store site, too.

Grown and Flown has a curated shop on Amazon, too.

5. Buy quality.

I have three kids and, for me, 12 years in the dorms; you better believe we did hand-me-downs. You can pass down items used for only a year or two if this is your eldest. If this is one of your younger kids, quality items will make it into their first apartments. Junk won’t make it through the first semester.

6. Shop where there are discounts.

This is a competitive category, and lots of stores want your business.

Target Circle membership can help with perks and savings.

The average family spends more than $1,500 outfitting their teen for college, and many spend more. Do the math.

The Container Store also offers discounts of up to 25% on their high-quality, durable merch in the College Shop. (See below.)

7. If the college has sent you a checklist, look it over carefully.

It is unlikely that your teen needs every item on their list, and you may already have some of the things they need at home. Answer these 50 questions, and then use the college’s list as a jumping-off point to create your list tailored to your kid.

8. Explore your student’s college website and residential life section to glean information about what the school allows, prohibits, and provides. 

If you know what dorm your student is living in, drill down to see if there is a floor plan showing the furniture provided and the lofted bed height. This under-bed real estate will be your student’s most important space to maximize. Find the list of prohibited items at your teen’s college to avoid costly mistakes.

9. Shop where you are comfortable.

This is a BIG undertaking, the mother of all back-to-school shopping trips; go where you will get the help you need. That is a plus if you can shop at brick-and-mortar retailers with sales associates knowledgeable about dorm merchandise.

Explore any options for virtual styling and online support for online shopping to enhance your shopping. Remember to take note of return policies and keep all receipts.

10. Shop where the store will ship for FREE.

If you travel any distance or don’t have a large SUV or minivan, shipping is inevitable. Let someone else pay for it.

Target offers a Pick Up Service — This is perfect for items always in stock that you can pick up once you are on campus.

Amazon Prime Student — this might be the best time for your student to move off your Prime account and onto their own. They will get unlimited FREE two-day shipping and exclusive deals for students.

Pottery Barn Teen also offers a way to shop there and pick up at stores in their family of companies, including Pottery Barn, West Elm, or William-Sonoma.

11. Shop where your teen likes to go.

You need help if you have their buy-in, and here is how to get it if there are snacks or something they want to shop for — other than sheets and towels — factor in that time for the outing.

12. Test-drive the linens.

Our teens could not have cared less about thread count, but they could quickly feel the differences in how sheets felt to the touch. When you buy at a store with a broad selection, spend some time with the sheet fabric samples before deciding.

Unless you’re shipping directly from the store, wash the linens before you pack them so they are soft and free of any excess dye if you choose dark colors.

One essential tip is to pack them in move-in bags. Lightweight and highly durable, they can fold up after your teen moves into the dorm for the trip home or store out-of-season clothing.

13. Consider multiple pillows.

It seems so simple, but teens tell us they sit on their beds reading in a way they never did at home (no family room couch to lounge on in the dorm) and a big square or a bed rest pillow to prop against the wall turns their bed into a comfortable spot to study. Sure, studying in the library is a better idea, but making their room feel more like home is a great idea too.

bed rest pillow

14. A couple of categories of items get tricky, and a bed topper is one of them.

There is a wide range of toppers at different prices, and ViscoSoft has award-winning mattress toppers that would work very well on a dorm bed. They are super comfortable, easy to clean, durable, and provide an ick-safe barrier between your teens and the really old dorm mattress that’s typically offered.

Viscoso mattress topper

15. Find out your teen’s laundry situation before committing to a laundry hamper or bag.

Are the machines in their dorms or across the quad? My kids love laundry baskets that slide under their beds and out of the way. Others find a traditional bag suits them better. The options are endless.

16. Get them set up with their pharmacy.

Don’t buy premade first aid kits; they are generic and ignore your kid’s needs. Buy a small plastic box and, with your teen, gather together the items they will want at school. It is a great chance to discuss what medications to use when and what symptoms require a visit to the health center. Most freshmen get sick; some get sick often. This will happen at 2 am and they, and you, will be glad you prepared.

target first aid bag

17. Extra toiletries are not a bad idea.

Many first-year students don’t have a car, and a local drug store may not be within walking distance. If they have some under-bed storage anyway, extra shampoo, soap, body wash, deodorant, and razor blades will not go amiss. Sure, they can order these things online, but they will do that after the last drop.

18. Shop where they have special events.

Find out if your local store has any special college events — there are sometimes extra promotions that you will want to take advantage of.

19. Go easy on the cleaning supplies.

We would love to think they used them, and a few do, but many never open them or forget they even exist. #dormlife

20. Make sure your teen coordinates with roommates and suitemates.

My son showed up at a suite with three coffee makers because the suitemates did not communicate beforehand. A few quick emails will save everyone time, money, and broken carafes on the dorm room floor.

21. Spend some time thinking about electronics.

It’s easy to focus on sheets and towels, things we know well. Electronics are some of the most significant expenses, and it is an ever-changing market.

In addition to a laptop and phone, we recommend these tech essentials for their dorm room:

Anker phone charging cable
  • Wireless noise-canceling headphones are handy for watching shows or listening to music in the room without bothering their roommate. This one is recommended and much better priced than some others.
anker headphones
  • Small external battery charger to boost their phones when they are on the go. This is one of THE best safety devices since your teen will always want a charged phone to contact someone in an emergency.
Anker charger

12 Essentials All College Students Need for Their Dorm

When it's time to take your teen shopping for college supplies, it's important that you use these college hacks and tips to save time and money and make it an enjoyable experience for you and your teen. #college #collegetips #collegehacks #hacks #collegetricks #collegelife #collegedorm #dorm #dormlife #collegeprep

About Lisa Endlich Heffernan

Lisa (Endlich) Heffernan is the co-founder of Grown and Flown, the #1 site for parents of teens, college students and young adults, reaching millions of parents every month. Lisa is a New York Times bestselling author.
She started the Grown and Flown Parents Facebook Group and is co-author of Grown and Flown: How to Support Your Teen, Stay Close as a Family, and Raise Independent Adults (Flatiron Books) now in paperback.

Read more posts by Lisa

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