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Heading off the college? Here are tips to decorating your dorm room for cheap

Published Sep. 3, 2012

When Hannah Dolin leaves for college, she will set up her dorm room carefully.

"How it looks represents me," she said.

Though Hannah, a 17-year-old senior at Anclote High School, won't be off for another year, her New Port Richey family has already started thinking about move-in day. Hannah's mother, Anita, said she won't mind splurging on decorations for her daughter's new room. But saving money is important to the Dolins, too.

Many families are facing the rising costs of tuition, books, housing and meal plans. But what goes inside a college freshman's new room doesn't have to be expensive. Here are some tips for outfitting a dorm room on the cheap:

Check rules first

Make sure to check the dorm's rules. Some don't allow certain appliances, like toaster ovens and hot plates, or types of lighting, like halogen lamps and lava lamps. Others might ban microwaves of a certain size or capacity. Also check what comes with the dorm. Some provide bulletin boards, mirrors and trash cans, so no need to buy those things.

Don't forget to have a conversation with the person you'll be living with for the next year.

"The biggest thing is, talk to your roommate, because you don't need to buy everything yourself," said David Kloiber, assistant director for assignments with USF's Department of Housing and Residential Education. "Your roommate might already be bringing it."

Bed and bath

While basic items like bedding and towels are essential, they don't have to be new or pricey. You won't be able to use the Twin XL sheets outside of a dorm, so borrow from someone who has already been there, done that.

Borrow other linens from the closet at home, or check discount websites like Amazon and eBay and back-to-school sales at stores like Target and Bed, Bath & Beyond.

Beware of the checklists those stores give freshmen.

"You probably need like 10 things of the 200," said Alyxandra Brady, a 19-year-old junior at USF.

The plastic shower caddies they sell with separate spaces for shampoo and body wash might seem useful now, but you probably already have a bucket or another container that will do the job and outlast dorm life.

And you don't need to buy special shower shoes; old flip flops will do.


One rule of thumb is to wait and see before you bring in storage bins and organizers. You can ship things or grab winter clothes from home during breaks, so pack light. Obviously, the less you bring, the more space you'll have. Then once you unpack, you might find you don't have as much stuff or you don't need as much room as you thought.

At the same time, visible clutter will make a small room look tiny. Keep things organized and hidden. If the closet doesn't have a door, hang a shower curtain in its place. For keeping clothes off the floor, a laundry bag will take up much less room than a hamper.

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Big box stores will tempt you with the newest dorm decor. If you want to save, though, bring well-loved items from home. The dorm might look like a jail cell at first, but with a little creativity and a DIY project or two — think cutouts from magazines and hand-painted storage — the room will reflect where you came from and who you are.

Instead of keeping favorite photos locked up in your computer, print some out and stick them to the wall. A blown-up photo could become a personalized poster. Bulletin boards are handy for photos as well as to-do lists, fliers and mementos you find throughout the year.

Don't assume you can nail things to the walls. The standard adhesives at most dorms are sticky tack and tape. With those, though, you can still secure a tapestry or colorful cloth above the window for curtains. While you're at it, you could tack some fabric onto the wall and maybe pin things to it.

Garage sales and thrift stores can be great place to find cheap decorations. And before studying, or partying, starts to take up all your time, they're a good way to get to know the neighborhood better. It's like treasure hunting!


If you have a meal plan and eat at the dining hall, then appliances like a mini-fridge and microwave may not be necessary. Assess your habits, and talk to your roommate. See if you can share fridges or microwaves with other people on your wing or in your suite.

Remember to shop Craigslist for these items because older students will be trying to get rid of perfectly good appliances.

Don't go without

•A laptop. Try to find a computer that won't need to be replaced after the latest, greatest model comes out next year. Look for student discounts and mail in those rebates.

•A desk lamp. "Lighting is very important," said Michael O'Donnell, a 20-year-old USF junior. The fluorescent lights in a dorm room can be harsh. He said your own lamp will help create a better "study atmosphere."

You don't need

• A television. You could share one with a roommate, but how often will either of you really watch it? Some dorms will let you hook the TV cable to your computer, so you can watch that way. You'll more likely stream your favorite shows and movies online.

• A printer. While having one at your desk is convenient, your campus should have easy access to free printing. More and more professors are going paperless anyway. If you have one already and don't mind it taking up space, bring it. But don't buy a new one.

•An iron. College kids wear wrinkly clothes. For that one day you have a job interview, you can de-wrinkle clothes by steaming them while you take a shower.

• Disposables. Grab some silverware and a couple bowls, plates and cups from home, a thrift store or a garage sale. Forgo buying endless rolls of paper towels and bring some old dishrags or T-shirts for cleaning. And don't forget that handy reusable water bottle. Going green will save you money in the long term.


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