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Dorm room shopping marks a crucial step in your soon-to-be college freshman’s life.

As you embark on this adventure together, keep the following tips in mind to make the most of your experience.

1. Make a detailed list before you shop.

Most schools will provide a packing list of suggested items for incoming students. Pay careful attention to what’s on the list as the details can really matter. Many dormitory mattresses, for instance, are slightly longer than a traditional twin size and thus, require “twin XL” sheets which are five or so inches longer. Using the school’s list as the foundation for your child’s broader list is a good place to start.

2. Get a sense of the room layout.

Some schools are willing to provide dormitory floor plans or a general description of room layout once students are assigned to particular residence halls. Having the room dimensions and/or a sense of how furniture is (or can be) positioned can help your student anticipate how much space there will be and what options there will be for storage. Before you or your child invests in an ottoman, bean bag chair, rolling laundry cart, or something else that could take up significant floor space, do what you can to make certain it’s going to fit.

3. Set a budget.

Once your child has their list prepared, set a budget and agree to stick to it. Also, make sure it’s abundantly clear from the outset who is paying for what and where those funds are coming from. For instance, while withdrawals from 529 plans can be used to cover many eligible post-secondary educational expenses including tuition, room and board (when attending at least half-time), and required books, these funds cannot be used for dorm room décor.

4. Shop wisely.

Keep your eyes wide open for coupons and summer sales. Also, see if any of the larger items (like under-the-bed storage units) can be ordered locally or online and picked up near your child’s school on college move-in day so that you won’t have to include them with everything else you will be transporting for the school year ahead. And keep in mind, the cost of dorm room design can add up. Many retailers have devised clever and somewhat extravagant ways for students to transform their dorm rooms. If your budget doesn’t allow it, don’t fall into the trap of buying items you can’t afford.

5. Know the no’s.

Review the school’s residence handbook so that you and your child understand which items are non-compliant. For safety and other reasons, many schools have prohibitions on items like hotplates, heating and cooling devices, certain types of window treatments, wall hooks, and so on. And some schools require you to rent or purchase refrigeration options from a school-approved vendor.  If you’re not sure whether an item would be allowed, be sure to ask in advance. You’ll help your student avoid the stress that can accompany violations of school policy.

6. Check in with the roommate.

If your child knows who their roommate(s) will be, they may want to check in to see what they’re planning to bring – with a focus on what could be shared. For instance, roommates won’t need multiple mini vacuums, irons, or ironing boards, and if the school allows refrigerators to be rented, perhaps they’ll want to discuss splitting the cost.

7. Keep your receipts.

Hang onto those receipts and make note of return policies. Whether it’s the bed risers that don’t fit, or the throw rug that clashes with the one your child’s roommate brought, you’ll want to know that you or your child can get your money back from the retailers from which your purchases were made.

8. Make space for the emotions.

While many hope that dorm room shopping will be a blissful experience of further bonding before the upcoming separation, your time together can be packed with a variety of emotions from excitement to frustration to sadness, and everything in between. After all, it’s a tangible reminder of one chapter ending and another about to begin, and big feelings can surface when transitions are about to occur. And keep in mind, your opinions are sure to differ – and that’s okay. You may notice your child’s evolving personal style and independent identity shining through as they insist on deciding on their own which items to bring to their new home.

9. Build in some flexibility.

Remember that shopping doesn’t have to be accomplished all in one outing or day, and in fact, shopping a little at a time can be helpful and more fun. And if one or more items are overlooked or not able to be found, you can always shop locally or order online once at school. A day or two without a shower caddy may lead to an interesting bathroom conversation and a new friendship being formed.

10. Start with the end in mind.

While it may seem impossible to imagine freshman year coming to an end when it hasn’t yet begun, keep in mind it eventually will. And with the end of freshman year, every single item that was purchased and brought into your child’s dorm room will need a home for the summer. Those items will be coming home with you unless you obtain storage near your child’s college or university. This is yet another reason to avoid the over-shopping pitfall.


Patricia A. Roberts is a motivational speaker, writer, and veteran of the college savings industry. She has led college savings initiatives at premier financial services organizations like Merrill Lynch and AllianceBernstein, and has authored Route 529: A Parent’s Guide to Saving for College and Career Training with 529 Plans. In her current role as COO at Gift of College, she promotes 529 plans as a financial wellness benefit in the workplace.