College life can be expensive, and we’re not just referring to dorm costs, tuition, meal plans, or books. The average college student plans to spend $942.17 this year on back-to-school shopping, according to the National Retail Federation, and this doesn’t include purchases throughout their next two semesters.

While there are plenty of ways to cut costs with sales, using what you have, and sharing with a dorm roommate, the very best way to save money is to stick to the college essentials and not overspend on things you won’t need.

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Since the average dorm room measures just 12 x 19 feet, the freshman who shares a room will have a little over 112 square feet to fill. Save money — and space — with this just-the-essentials packing list for your college dorm lifestyle.

Electronics and Appliances

Most college students will spend the most money in this category this fall, averaging $229 on purchases to stay connected.

While most students will bring their own gear, college can be a good time to upgrade older electronics.

You’ll also need accessories. The college essentials include:

  • Cellphone and charging accessories
  • Laptop
  • Microwave
  • Mini fridge
  • One-cup coffee maker
  • Surge protector
  • Power strip
  • Extension cord
  • Headphones
  • Cords and adapters
  • Portable speakers
  • Small printer with ink and paper (although most schools provide these)

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Linens and Bedding

Your bed is one place you’ll spend a good amount of time. You’ll study, watch movies, and sleep on it. Make sure it’s cozy with these must-haves:

  • Mattress cover
  • Foam topper
  • Twin XL sheet set with pillowcases
  • Two pillows
  • Comforter or duvet with cover
  • Extra blanket

Clothing and Accessories

College isn’t necessarily a reason to redo your wardrobe, but if you’re the type to refresh your wardrobe each fall, anyway, now’s a good time to buy.

The average student spends $153 on back-to-school clothes and $83 on shoes, but you might also want to budget for some team gear for your new school, even if you don’t buy it right away. Most students spend around $53 on collegiate-branded gear. College essentials for your wardrobe include:

  • Seasonal clothing appropriate for one semester
  • Two or three pairs of shoes
  • Rainboots or snow boots, if appropriate
  • Winter coat, jacket, or raincoat
  • Umbrella
  • Scarf, hat, earmuffs
  • Beach towel, swimwear
  • One formal or dress outfit with shoes and accessories

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Dorm Furnishings

You may choose to wait until you get to school to do college shopping for this category, or at least check in with your future roommate to ensure that you don’t end up with two futons.

While the expected average per student is $109, you can save even more money by buying used.

You can also take advantage of couponing sites.

Most colleges have electronic bulletin boards for finding furniture and décor that other students decided not to keep around. Remember that most rooms come standard with bed frames (or a loft upon request), dresser or built-in cabinets, and a desk. You won’t have room for formal furniture, so keep this category light.

Things you might want to bring include:

  • Clock or alarm clock separate from your phone
  • Bulletin or dry erase board
  • Push pins, magnets, and whiteboard markers
  • Dorm-approved adhesives for your décor
  • Posters, wall art, photos
  • Desk lamp or reading light that you can use without waking your roommate
  • Potted plants (succulents, etc.)

Cleaning and Laundry Supplies

Most dorms have a supply closet in the common area with a broom or dustpan, but a small broom, Swiffer, and handheld vacuum can be very useful. Don’t forget these dorm room essentials:

  • Small trashcan with liners
  • Disinfecting wipes
  • Deodorizing spray (most dorms don’t allow scented candles)
  • Quarters for the laundry machines
  • Laundry basket or bag
  • Detergent, fabric softener, and dryer sheets
  • Bleach pen
  • Lint brush
  • Sewing kit
  • Paper towels
  • Dish soap
  • Dish sponges or cloths

You or your roommate should also bring an iron and a portable ironing mat to place on your bed or desk.


Food is something you should be able to buy after you get settled into your dorm. Stick to buying extra snacks and foods only after you’ve figured out how to maximize your meal plan.

That said, the average college student will spend $102 on food for his or her first trip to college.

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This might include special snacks, especially if you have a restricted diet.

You may also consider a water filtration pitcher if you don’t want to drink the tap water. And don’t forget ways to eat, including:

  • Forks, spoons, and knives
  • Two each of microwavable plates and bowls
  • Coffee mug
  • Water bottle
  • Can opener
  • Reusable food storage containers

Personal Care

College isn’t any different from home in that you’ll bring whatever essentials you already use. The average student will spend $78 on personal care items. Make sure to bring:

  • Bathrobe or other post-shower clothing
  • Shampoo, conditioner, and hair styling products
  • Blow dryer, curling iron, flat iron, brush
  • Shower caddy to hold your personal care items
  • Face wash, makeup, and other beauty products
  • Skin care
  • Hygiene items
  • Shaving kit

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First Aid

If you’ve been raiding the parents’ medicine cabinet whenever you needed a Tylenol or Band-Aid, going to college can be a real eye-opener. Your resident adviser will usually have first aid items on hand, but you don’t want to have to track them down for every little thing. Keep these on hand:

  • Pain reliever (acetaminophen, ibuprofen)
  • Band-Aids, wound wash, and antibiotic ointment
  • Stomach meds (such as antidiarrheal, antacid, and the pink stuff)
  • Tweezers
  • Instant ice pack
  • Thermometer
  • Vitamins
  • Allergy meds
  • Cold medicine
  • Eye drops

School Supplies

College kids can buy notebooks, too, although waiting until you get to college may be a good idea — especially for your first year. Unless you know exactly what materials you’ll be getting, it might be easier to figure out how to arrange and store all of your important documents and notes after you’ve started the class.

Many textbooks, for example, come in hardback, loose-leaf, and eBook versions. As the last two choices are the cheapest, it can be easiest to put your loose-leaf book, papers, and notebooks into one giant binder or organizer.

Buy all school supplies — whether in advance or when you get there — at a discount retailer or big box store, and not the school bookstore.

It’s the gas station of retail, and you will overpay. Students spend around $69 on school supplies, and the college essentials to consider include:

  • Single subject notebooks
  • Pens
  • Gel highlighters
  • Sticky notes
  • Paper clips or binder clips
  • Three-ring binders for your loose-leaf items
  • Stapler and staples
  • Three-hole punch
  • Backpack or messenger bag that fits your laptop
  • Envelopes
  • Stamps

Important Documents

Since you can’t rely on your parents to handle most business or medical-related matters while you’re in college (and once you reach legal age), keep these items on hand in a safe place in your dorm room. You may consider a small under-the-bed storage safe with a key.

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Other College Essentials

If you ride a bike while in school, make sure you bring everything you need to ride safely and to secure and maintain your bike. You may also consider these extras:

  • Earplugs and sleep mask
  • Flashlight
  • Safety device (legal in your state and on your campus) — may include pepper spray, safety whistle, or stun gun
  • Toolkit and duct tape

Inevitably, most students get to school and realize they missed something. No one can truly understand what a first semester away from home will feel like, and certain creature comforts may be necessary beyond this list.

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One small box of nice-to-have items — such as books, photos, movies, trinkets, or other items — make your dorm a home. Don’t deprive yourself of a few of these things, as they will be worth the room they take up. You can always change your mind and bring home unnecessary items on your first visit home.