Feb 05 2008

How to (frugally) get ready for college: Advice for seniors


This post was written with the frugal high school college-bound senior (and her parents) in mind. Just five years ago, I was wrapping up my high school days and preparing to go off to a large state school. I tried hard to prepare for it, but there are a few things I would do differently if I had the chance.

If I was a high school senior preparing to start college in the fall, here’s what I’d be doing right about now:

Get a part-time job

If you don’t have a job, consider getting one. Try a grocery store, drug store (hello, employee discount and advance notice on deals!), big box store, or second-hand store.

Look for a place that will treat you well, give you reasonable hours, an employee discount you could use for furnishing your dorm, and of course, a paycheck. You won’t likely make a lot of money, but that’s OK. If you start now and increase your hours during the summer, you’ll have a few thousand socked away before classes start in the fall.

That money will go a long way, whether you’re using it for tuition, or if you want to buy high-ticket items.

Further, a student who has contributed financially to his or her education will be more invested in it. Honest and for true.

Consider taking a course or two this summer

If I enrolled at my university the summer before I did, I would have locked in at a lower tuition rate for my entire collegiate career. Doh! That could have saved me thousands over the course of it all. Tuition goes up, that’s a fact, little darlins. Make a call to the bursar’s office and see if you can get the scoop.

If that’s not a viable option, look into taking a class at a community college in your hometown over the summer. Be sure the course credits will transfer (otherwise, you’re throwing money away!). Classes in math or a foreign language are great to consider–you’ll need them for a variety of degrees and major programs, plus they’ll be way cheaper there.

Start collecting stuff you’ll need for the dorms now

Start talking to your future roommate about things you’ll need for the dorm room. If you don’t know him or her yet, I’d still put together a list of things to start collecting.


While it is possible to go through college without having your own computer, I wouldn’t recommend it unless you can’t afford it (or think you’ll be more on-task in a computer lab). I bought a custom-built desktop and LCD monitor (that’s the only kind of monitor you should have, these days. Space will be at a premium on your desk!), and printer/scanner/copier combo. Now, those electronics are going on five years old and sare still going strong. I’m glad I spent the bucks on those things. Some people prefer laptops, which can save on space and be convenient. Get what works for you.


You’ll probably want to have a TV in your room. If you already have one you can take, great! Otherwise, look into borrowing one or start scouring second-hand stores.


No dorm room is complete without a mini-fridge or a microwave. Some dorms have units available for renting. Look into this as a possibility (less items for you to have to move!) and, the price might be reasonable. Another option I really want you to do:

If you live anywhere near a college campus, starting April, start looking for students trying to get rid of their dorm furniture. You’ll find amazing deals on perfectly good refrigerators, microwaves, TVs, futons, bookshelves, lamps–you name it. If at all possible, get your minifridge used. You probably won’t want to keep it after you graduate, anyway. Search craigslist, or watch for fliers and check the campus newspaper (including the online version).


If your school makes you get a meal plan (these are so overpriced, but in many cases, unavoidable), then you might also have access to a "convenience store" that sells toiletry items with your meal plan. You can get laundry detergent, paper towels, cleaners, toothpaste, and assorted food items at those places. It might be worthwhile for you to use part of your meal plan to get those things, unless you’ll be reimbursed for unspent meal points at the end of the semester.

If you haven’t yet discovered the joys of shopping drugstore deals, start right now. Collect a small stash of your favorite shampoos, razors, toothpastes/brushes, etc. If you have surplus items, you could probably sell them to people on your floor if they’re in a pinch (worth a shot!). Also, you might be able to use your Extra Care Bucks or store gift cards to buy office supplies, organizers, laundry baskets, or other little things.


As with most school years, you might be starting the year off with new clothes. Take an inventory of what you have and decide what you’ll need (The standard uniform of hoodie sweatshirts, jeans, t-shirts, underwear, and socks. Oh, and shower shoes. Definitely shower shoes). You can get interesting hoodies at thrift stores, or try seeking out your discount collegiate apparel store. There was a store near my alma mater that had everything priced at $19.99 or less. For a nice, thick sweatshirt, that’s not a bad deal. Keep your eyes out for sales on underwear and socks, and stock up. You won’t be in the mood to do laundry much during the semester.


Finally, you’ll need special bedding. Most dorm beds are extra-long twins. Bizarre, but true. Find out of this is what you’re working with. Keep your eyes out for sheets and a mattress pad on sale. Don’t buy extra-long blankets. Use blankets you have–they’ll be fine. A $20 or less set of sheets will be just fine. I like jersey sheets–soft and cozy, but affordable. You’ll use them for a year or less, so don’t spend a lot here.

Final thoughts on dorm furnishings

Make a list of everything you think you’ll need, and start shopping for those items now. You’ll have time to shop for deals, rather than say "I need to get everything on this list at Target TODAY." And, you’ll actually need less than you think.

Your dorm room will be tiny. And, you’ll collect stuff over the years.  I moved into my dorm room with a pick-up truck and a car. I moved out of my last collegiate apartment on a semi (good grief). I didn’t fill it up though–it was the moving company who brought the big rig. But that’s beside my point. Take much less than you think you’ll need. If you need something, you’ll probably be able to borrow it or buy it there.

Be nice to your family

They’re really going to miss you! Be nice to your parents and siblings and spend time with them. You may not live with them ever again once you move out. Don’t worry about spending tons of time with your high school friends. Sorry to say it, but most high school friendships fizzle after graduation. Your family is yours for life :)

Posted under Uncategorized | 8 Comments »

8 Responses to “How to (frugally) get ready for college: Advice for seniors”

  1. Thoughts from a 18-months-out-of-college girl:
    – I didn’t have a TV the three years I lived in the dorms, and it was delightful. Check out the school’s dorm-culture before planning on bringing this. There were maybe 3 TVs on our dorm floor. The culture was more geared toward hanging out, visiting & building relationships, and watching TV in common areas rather closed up in rooms.

    – We weren’t allowed to have microwaves, and there was a limit on how big a mini-fridge could be. Again, check with the housing department before making the purchase.

    -I’ll echo what you said about dorm rooms being tiny. Mine was 10’x12′, and had 2 beds, 2 dressers, and 4 bookshelves (luckily, all stackable) and 2 closets. The rule of thumb was that freshmen typically bring twice what they need. You don’t need all the stuff you want to bring- and you DEFINITELY don’t need all the stuff Target & Bed Bath & Beyond is trying to sell you. Seriously.

    Kacie- My sister is at IU, and I went to Taylor, so I know the dorm experiences are very different. That’s why I suggest for students to do their research about the campus culture & rules. (My BIL is a senior in high school this year, so I’m getting to hear about the off-to-college experience all over again!)

  2. Thanks for the great comments, Joanna!

    I didn’t realize some dorms don’t allow microwaves. I guess that would save on space–but I cooked so much with mine!
    I hated dorm food, ugh.

    Bottom line, it’s great to check with your school to see what the deal is. You can ask those questions during tours, or flag down an upperclassmen.

  3. My dorm allowed microwaves, which was great for popcorn, snacks, etc. But I’ve heard some schools don’t like those. So check first.

    Second-hand shops can actually be kind of popular with college students.

    Shower shoes are a must! I used a cheap pair of flip-flops, something like $3. Worked just fine.

  4. My young cousin is at IL/Chicago. Her first dorm was all IKEA so she could store all her must-have crap. She and her roommate really went over the top. [Ok, so her Mom IS a decorator!!!] This year it’s an apartment-style dorm. Mom took one look and accessorized the barebones U supplied funriture from IKEA again wtih pillows, etc. Some people [I remember SEVERAL at IU] will go to ridiculous links to stand out. You do NOT need to do this!! If you need to buy bed risers for more storage space you’ve simply brought WAY TOO MUCH with you!!!!! Remember, do you really want to wash your huge wardrobe in the dorm coin operated washers? Stuff has been known to “walk away” you know! And, toilitries? I’ve no idea what girls use today to cart their crap to the shower, but if you need a wheelie to do it get a grip!! lol….It’s college–not a spa!! I couldn’t believe all the stuff my young cousin thought was a “necessity!!!” All of that will go for YEARS after Mom quits buying it, so do her a favor at cut back NOW!!! [Even WITH the great CVS deals!!]

  5. Jersey sheets are great because (generally) they fit regular and extra-long twin beds. Make do with blankets/bedspreads from home.

    The “extra long” variety are usually more pricey and poorly constructed.

    Think realistically about the comforts you use at home and don’t overbuy–if you have a wash and wear wardrobe you can probably borrow an iron for those rare times you’ll need one, for example. I threw away the stuff I didn’t end up using at the end of the semester because it wouldn’t fit in my car to take home!

    Oh, and extension chords! Buy extension chords.

    Things like Christmas lights are huge with college students–cheap decorations and the actually work for low-lighting.

  6. In addition to extension cords, I highly recommend bringing lots of surge protectors, lamps, and a Brita water filters.

  7. I got a lot of use out of my eye mask (for sleeping) and I probably would have used earplugs a lot too if I had bought them. Lots of dorm walls are really really thin!

    I’m not sure about most schools, but at Smith we could put up curtains. It’s amazing how much cozier a room feels when it has bright curtains up!

  8. I would highly recommend getting a laptop if you can. I had a roommate who went to bed early, and so I was always heading to the library or to the lounge to work on homework.

    I went to the same college as the first commenter (Joanna), and we weren’t allowed microwaves or toasters in our rooms. The dorm provided both in the kitchen, though. A good thing to get is a hot pot – I used mine so much. I also agree with Joanna about the TV. I found I hardly ever had time for TV, and when I did watch it, it was in a group setting that was a fun time of bonding.

    Pretty much, freshmen always bring too much. My parents actually took me shopping the day after I moved in. I was able to get a better feel for what I needed then. Our rooms were so incredibly small… it was much better to have less than more. Check with your potential roommate about what she/he might have and what you might be able to share (TV, fridge, phone, etc).

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Hey! I'm Kacie, wife and mother of 3. I write about my family's finance: how we save money, improve our spending, and plan for the future.

I hope I can inspire and encourage you to improve your situation. See disclosure.

I'm adopting a much slower-paced posting schedule, and treating this as a hobby blog now.

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