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Buy This, Skip That: What You Really Need in Your College Dorm

Despite the huge market devoted to getting you to buy “essentials” for freshman year, pack lightly, say experts. Here's what you actually need.
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College is full of choices: What major should you choose? Is Greek life for you? What color comforter should you put on your bed?

That last one may not have quite as much influence on overall education, but it's one of many dorm decisions college-bound kids across the country are mulling as they prepare to head off to school. The average college student or family plans to spend $899 on back-to-college shopping, according to new findings from the National Retail Federation. Of that, $126 will go towards dorm or apartment furnishings.

One of the biggest college money-wasters? Buying supplies you don’t need. Despite the huge market devoted to getting you to spend big on “essentials” for freshman year, pack lightly, say experts.

Get more tips for college at The Freshman Year Experience on

“Gather information from roommates and the school before you buy,” said Lisa Heffernan, mom of two grads and one college student and co-founder of the parenting blog Grown and Flown. “Buy less rather than more. It is easy for parents to forget that the world has changed and their kids can order anything they need online delivered to their dorm with free shipping.”

Don’t be a slave to retailers’ checklists: The college may provide many of those items, like a desk chair and a lamp, said Heffernan. And unless you’re attending a college that’s located in the wilderness, you will have the opportunity to fill in some of the blanks once you’ve arrived.

RELATED: College Textbook Prices Have Risen 1,041 Percent Since 1977

Back rest pillow
Back rest pillowKohl'

And beware the dreaded duplicates. “There is no need for two of the same thing in your room,” said Dr. Kat Cohen, CEO and founder of IvyWise. “Touch base with your assigned roommate before school starts and ask whether they are bringing a large full-length mirror. It may not always be necessary for both of you to have one.”

Break the big-spending pattern with these tips from experts, students and parents who’ve been there.

Do: Trick out your bed

You’ll be surprised how much time you’ll spend there. “Going in, I took college beds for granted...but that was a mistake. Freshmen will quickly realize how important bed comfort is,” said Christina Butan, a rising Junior at SUNY Purchase. “A mattress pad and a back rest pillow seriously make a world of difference — you will be in heaven.”

Back rest pillow, $19.99 at

Don't: Buy a printer

News flash: Students these days turn their papers in online. And most schools have central printers, or business areas. Also, said Heffernan, “the desks are really small, so the printers go under the beds, and get dust bunnies, which are not good for printers. So you’ve just spent $200 on something they’ll literally never use and won’t work when they get back home again.”

Don't: Go bonkers with school supplies

“I spent $400 in the school supply aisle. I bought markers. I had a ruler in my bag. I bought a different notebook for each class. I wound up using one,” said Amy Wheeler, a 2014 Wright State University grad. “And I only needed the $90 calculator for one math class I took.”

Food storage set
Food storage

“They never, ever did,” says mom of two recent college grads Beth Greenwald, from New York City. Ditto under-bed storage and bed risers: Until you arrive, you won’t know how that bed is configured.

RELATED: Parents: Ready to Feel Old? Here's How College Is Different Now

Do: Bring food storage containers

“Tupperware came in

Sewing kit

handy to sneak food out of the dining hall,” says Hamilton College rising sophomore Hallie Waletzko.

Kelsey Nixon Essentials storage set, $24.95 at

Do: Pack a sewing kit

“The struggle to survive often brings out skills and ingenuity we never knew we had,” Cohen said. “College kids can become master chefs with the most random ingredients and almost anything can be fixed with tape and basic school supplies. One thing that’s often looked over in the packing process is a simple sewing kit. Replace lost buttons and mend torn comforters with a little needle and thread. This saves you from having to replace ripped items, and it’s a good skill to hone.”

Real Simple sewing kit, $9.99 at

Bath towels

It’s a must, said Joey Brenneman, mom of a college sophomore who dust-busted her way through a ladybug infestation. Cute, but no thanks.

Dirt Devil Scorpion cordless hand vac, $22.63 at

Do: Bring extra towels

“There are few things in this world more distressing and inconvenient than going to shower and realizing you have nothing to dry yourself off with,” Cohen said. “Towels are another basic item that can get overlooked in the moving madness. Make sure they’re packed neatly in the car, and even throw in a few extras for posterity. You never know when they might come in handy.”

Bath towels, $4.19-$11.39 at

Don't: Bring something that may be restricted

“Mini fridges, microwaves, coffee makers, electric tea kettles, toasters and candles are often restricted,” Cohen said. “Each school shares a list of dorm-restricted items prior to students arriving on-campus. Take a look at what is on that list, as you don’t want to bring items that are just going to be taken away or result in a fine for you if campus security comes by.”

RELATED: Making the Grade: Princeton Review Releases Best Colleges Guide

Messenger bag

Who knows where the power outlets will be located in your dorm, and who wants to crouch in a corner because your roommate’s using the outlet near the bed? A surge protector will give you plenty of power options, and, said Heffernan, one that has a USB port, too, will be a multitasking star.

Belkin outlet surge protector, $38.99 at

Do: Wear a messenger bag

A backpack may have cut it in high school, but you’ll be doing a lot more walking, and your shoulders may pay the price. Wheeler learned in a movement class that the neck pain her fellow students were griping about came from their backpacks. So everyone opted for a messenger bag, which distributed the weight better (and looked more grown-up, to boot).

Mossimo Men’s messenger bag, $19.99 at