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Insider tips on shopping for college

Literally shopping for college

Shayna Dix
May 09, 2017

Time to go college shopping. This is not a drill!

If you’re anything like my roommate, you’ve done the research, you know what you need, and you’ve got an inventory the length of Jafar’s list of decrees. 


If you’re like me, though, maybe you’ve thought about buying a new toothbrush, and even that seems like too much in the midst of all the other things you have to worry about as a high school senior.

Don’t worry. No matter who you are, here are some tips for what to buy and how to save money on those must-have items.

For your classes

You’ve most likely already heard about buying used textbooks, but what about the other supplies you’ll need? Professors sometimes send out emails about what you will use in their class. If not, check your university's online portal to see if the syllabus is posted — that should also have information about any necessary supplies. Make sure you figure out what you’ll need for your classes before you go shopping and spend $100 on a scientific calculator you’ll only use once.

Pro tip: Buy only two binders for your classes rather than a binder for every one. If you use dividers and label your classes, using one binder for M-W-F classes and one for T-TR classes, you will be much less likely to forget the right binder or assignment.

When buying books, make sure you check the price in your school’s bookstore before going to Amazon or another online book marketplace. That way, if the prices aren't all that different, you can save yourself the shipping fee. (Note: Renting books is good for ones you’ll never use again, but I tend to lean toward buying my books so that if I love them or want them for reference in my future career I have them. You can always sell unwanted books to underclassmen using your college’s Facebook page or sell them online, like on Amazon.)

For your room

The time-tested method of saving money while college shopping is figuring out what your roommate is bringing so you don’t double up. Splitting the shopping list will save money and space in your new dorm.

Take the time to decide what is a necessity and what is a luxury. A mini fridge takes up a lot of space, and if you have a meal plan, you might not use it often. But if you don’t have a meal plan for every meal, it’s going to be the best way to store food so you don’t have to put your faith in the users of the community fridge.

A general rule I follow when shopping for my dorm room is to ask myself if I want to splurge or find a cheaper option. My roommate is a master bargain shopper, which frees up money for her one splurge: makeup. Knowing what is worth spending a large chunk of your nest egg on and what could be replaced with a thrift store option is an important college shopping skill. It’s also helpful to know what kind of room you have (suite, double, single, with or without bathroom) to see if you need things like hand soap, toilet paper or cleaning supplies.

You can find some cheap decoration and storage options at Walmart (the dreaded low-quality, low-price store). I’m a big proponent of Walmart because you can get nearly everything you might need at a really reasonable price. And the things you buy aren’t meant to last a long time. You will be moving every couple of semesters, so when that set of plastic drawers gets a huge crack in the side, at least you spent $5 on it at Walmart instead of $20 at Target.

Pro tip: To make sure you’re getting all of the things you need for your room and none of the things you aren't allowed to bring, read the necessities list from your school. 

Circling back to splurging: It’s helpful to realize early on that you might be spending a lot of time in your room, so it needs to be a place you find comfortable. When you’re up until 1 a.m. studying or up until 3 a.m. Netflixing, you’ll want to have the right pillows-to-blankets ratio and a reading lamp within reach. If it's worth it to you, it’s all right to splurge when it comes to comfort. 

Couch for residence hall

For more inspiration 

If you’re looking for a couple more resources for what to buy and how to decorate, check out these vlogs:

Dorm Essentials 

DIY Decorations

So whether you finished your shopping list months ago or you’re just now starting, I hope these tips will save you money to spend on what’s really important…your caffeine addiction.

Good luck!


is majoring in Elementary Education at UNC, working toward her licensure to teach in a third-grade classroom. In the meantime, she is studying leadership in the President’s Leadership Program and working with the Bear Hug Club and the Ambassadors for Student Leadership Club. She’s forgotten the meaning of "free time."