Do you really need to bring that to college? How to save going back to school

On Labor Day weekend in the unloading area for large freshman dormitories, cars and SUV's will disgorge skyscrapers of "stuff:" Bed-in-a-bags, still in plastic, floor lamps, microwaves and cube refrigerators in factory-sealed boxes stacked on top of 24-packs of Poland Spring water. There will be computer laptops in leather carrying cases and more than a few flat screen television sets, miles of tee-shirts and jeans on matching hangers, huge suitcases, plastic bins and bags.

What was noteworthy - at least to this mother and son blogging team for WalletPop -- is how much was, as they say on eBay, mint in box.

In an economy where parents continue to see job losses and sharp declines in their assets, where students are graduating college (or worse, not graduating) with an average loan debt approaching $25,000 (not including credit card debt), we might wonder how much of what will be moved into dorms and student apartments in September is worth its price? How much will be left behind when students move out next spring? A lot.
Everyone wants their college freshman to have a good start. We want our kids to have what they need, not to feel shabby during these vulnerable first days away from home. But if you're hitting credit cards to keep up with the Jones (who happen to be broke), you're taking the wrong path. How well your son or daughter adjusts to college life will have very little to do with whether she has a new bed-in-a-bag or a stack of thick new bath towels.

So - as a mother and son who've done this trip before - we've come up with some Rules for College Shopping and a handful of Best Buys for College students.

First, the rules:
  1. Shop your house, closets and basement (and maybe even your rich sister's) first.
  2. If it works, don't replace it.
  3. Shop yard sales and thrift shops.
  4. Watch the retail store sales - especially Staples and Walmart, both of which have excellent back to school sales.
  5. Unless your college is in rural Alaska -- and you can see Russia from the dorms -- don't buy more food and school supplies than you need for the first few weeks of college.


Mostly, this is a done deal by now. Students know whether they are living in the dorm or off-campus and with whom. What's left? Coordinate purchases so that you don't duplicate. You don't need two microwaves, two irons or individual spray bottles of WIndex. For off-campus living, consider planning at least a few nights a week where one person cooks for the house. If everything you need to know you learned in Kindergarten, bring back the job wheel.

It isn't too soon to start thinking about how you can beat housing costs next year. Nursing students can often find free room and board with a senior citizen and other students may be able to find live-in arrangements in exchange for childcare or handyman hours.

Zac says

For my money, living on campus is one of the biggest rip-offs that students will encounter during their college years -- so if your child is attending a college where he has the option of living off-campus, that's likely to be a good option. By sharing expenses with several friends, he'll be able to have more living space at a lower cost. But the biggest savings from living off-campus come from not being subjected to the outrageously overpriced cafeteria food that is stinking up dining halls around the country and making students and their families broke in the process. If your child is living off-campus with friends, invest $10.17 in a copy of The Healthy College Cookbook.

For students who do want to live on campus, working as an RA is the classic way to get free housing in exchange for a few hours of light work each week -- sitting in the office, helping people with packages, telling kids not to smoke crack in the elevator, etc. But with the cost of college rising and parents finding themselves more strapped for cash than ever, the competition for these jobs is intense, with many more applicants than openings.

2. FOOD:

If your student has an unlimited meal plan on campus then he will probably still need a refrigerator although (unless you have an extra one) maybe not a microwave. With more limited plans, keeping basic breakfast foods, light meals and snacks in the room can save serious money. It isn't unusual for students living away from home for the first time to put on weight. Stocking healthy foods can make a difference. Nutrisystem foods don't require refrigeration and can be purchased on eBay.

Zac says:

The best way to save money on food in a dorm is to make sure that you have microwaveable, reusable bowls, plates, and cups -- all of which can be found at Wal-Mart. You shouldn't have to spend more than about $8 equipping a dorm room with dinnerware.

What food belongs in a dorm room? A good rule is not to buy anything that comes in individually wrapped servings. These are a complete rip-off! For healthy eating on a budget, researchers at the University of Washington recently compiled a list of foods that pack the most nutritional punch at the lowest cost. Some foods from the list that should be staples of a dorm room or off-campus residence: beans, yogurt, cheese, bananas, and apples.

When it comes to food, there's very little to be gained from doing much shopping in advance -- unless he's going to school in a city like New York where food costs are notoriously inflated. It's better to get settled into the dorm and then figure out what food is needed.


Virtually every student should have a computer (and I think a printer - but Zac disagrees) but unless their major - or special needs - makes it necessary, the computer doesn't have to be state-of-the-art , a designer color or even a laptop. Your old computer will likely do just fine and if you don't have one, consider purchasing a refurbished computer from one of the power sellers on eBay that specialize and guarantee these computers which can be purchased loaded with software for half of what you pay for a new computer.

Don't forget an alarm clock.

BEST BUY: Although the computer manufacturers will disagree - generic printer ink purchased in multi-packs on eBay.

Zac says:

I know a lot of people who've brought printers to college, and I know very few people who use them. They take up a lot of space and are always breaking. In my experience, it's much easier to do all your printing at the library, since you'll probably find yourself there once a day anyway.

After I spilled an entire pot of boiling water on my laptop last year, I bought a refurbished Dell from an eBay power seller, and had it within three days at a total cost of around $300. Unless your student is studying computer animation, I really don't see any reason to spend more money than that on a laptop for school. Any good sales associate will disagree with me, but that's the max. I bought my laptop from CSR Technologies. Check their listings here if you're still in the market for a laptop. The service was fantastic and the prices were great.


If you play a musical instrument or practice any other art or craft, bring it to college. Things that center you, let you be alone and content, belong in a college dorm.

As for electronic games, the question isn't whether to buy new ones but whether you have enough self-discipline to bring the ones you already have to college.

Zac says:

Retailers that advertise video games as part of their back to school sales should be ashamed of themselves. Video games in college? Shut up! The danger with video games isn't just that they'll interfere with studying. It's that they'll cramp your social life and make you miss out on so many of the wonderful outside of the classroom experiences that make college special. I know quite a few people -- including my own brother -- who graduated from college and regretted the amount of time that they spent playing video games while they were there. Please, please, please: If you can possibly talk your kids out of bringing video games to college, they'll thank you later.

And when it comes to a television, you do not need anything fancy. Dorm rooms are too small to sit far away enough from the television for a large screen to be healthy for your eyes. If you have a small extra television at home, that should do just fine.

One of the great things about college is all the free entertainment that is available. This is especially true if your student is attending a large public university: concerts, plays, museum openings, etc. Just stay away from the Society for Creative Anachronism -- those people are weird.

On the other hand, no student should head off to college without the tools for safe sex. Wal-Mart offers Trojan's Pleasure Pack -- 36 multi-colored, multi-styled condoms perfect for those college years of self-discovery and experimentation. It's a great alternative to STDs and unwanted pregnancies, and it'll also save your kid from forking over $1.49 per condom at the on-campus convenience store when the moment strikes.


Unless your circumstances are unusual, 95% of the time, college students wear jeans, tees, sneakers, sweatshirts and dorm pants. You do not need 12 pairs of jeans or 22 shirts. If last year's winter jacket can make it through Christmas, make it do. January sales will mean more jacket for less money. If high end jeans in multiple dyes are a priority, shop thrift stores in upscale towns. New underwear - sure.

Shaving costs can add up. Beware razors that require expensive blades. Can you do with electric? If so, the Norelco All in One electric is $15 at Walmart.

Shampoo and Conditioner - Suave will often do. Try the Dollar Store.

Be prepared for the common cold, cramps, headaches, paper cuts and the like. It's expensive and inconvenient not to have a bandaid, cough drops or aspirin handy when you need them. You can put your own kit together or -we think that the Johnson and Johnson First Aid Kit ($8.00 at Walmart) is a good deal.

Zac says:

Many college towns have a store called Plato's closet -- which "buys and sells gently used clothing for children, teen and twenty-something boys and girls." This store is awesome! You can get Abercrombie t-shirts for $10 and Diesel jeans for less than a pair of Aeropostale jeans would cost you at the mall (not that I'm knocking on Aeropostale -- OK, yes I am). Check to see if there's one in your area. If not you can always try thrift shops but -- and my mom's going to kill me for saying this -- it's my experience that very few traditional thrift shops have the kind of clothing that most college students would be interested in. If your student's looking to cultivate a hipster, Andy Warhol-type look, go for it.


Your school logo is great but if you buy all your notebooks at the college store, you'll spend ten times more than you need to. Just buy one or two at the school and head to Staples during the back to school sale to get the rest for less than 25 cents each. Watch the Staples flyers. Loss leaders - $1 each - this week include: 5 pack/Bic Velocity pens; 6 pack/Sharpie Accent Highlighters, 2 pack/Bic white out and plastic staplers. Spiral notebooks, loose leaf binders and paper will be on sale in the next few weeks. 70-page spiral 1-subject notebooks are 15 cents at Walmart this week.

Zac says:

OK, can we discuss the whole "I want a notebook with my school's logo on it!" thing for a second? You're on a college campus where everyone goes to that school -- and presumably understands that you go there too, because otherwise why would you be there? So why waste money on a notebook with the school logo? I don't get it at all. I had this argument with someone once and her reply was "Well maybe you'd want people to see what school you go to when you're riding on a bus. If you want people who ride with you on the bus to see what school you go to, I think you need therapy.

On to a more important topic: textbooks. For students attending moderately-priced colleges, textbooks can easily tack on an addition 10% to 20% of the cost of attendance -- so minimizing this expense is extremely important. Here are a few tips:
  • Don't buy your textbooks before the first day of class. For compulsive overachievers who like to be prepared this can be hard to do, but I've learned the hard way: While course websites may tell you what books you need, some professors will inform students that they don't actually need one of the books on the list on the first day of class. So it pays to be patient and make sure you actually need all the books before you order them.
  • Ask if having an old edition of the book will work. The syllabus will always list the latest edition but in many classes -- especially those where the book isn't central to the curriculum -- an old edition will work just fine. One semester, I bought old editions of all my textbooks -- paying anywhere from a penny to a dollar plus shipping instead of $50 each. Using old books didn't end up being a problem. This strategy isn't for the faint of heart, and it may lead to the occasional night at the library using the copy that's on reserve because your book is missing a certain assignment.
  • Consider renting books. Websites like allow you to order your books online, pay a rental fee, and then return them at the end of the semester. The problem is that because so many textbooks become obsolete after a few years, the rental rates are surprisingly high. Whether it's actually cheaper than buying books used and then selling them at the end of the semester is debatable -- and if you like to highlight while you read, renting books won't work for you.
  • Never, ever, ever buy your textbooks new. This is common-sense but it's worth repeating. Buying textbooks new is the equivalent of waking up every morning during the semester and flushing a few dollars down the toilet. Instead, use sites like and and simply buy the cheapest used copy you can find. If you're hard up for cash, do not sell your books back to the bookstore at the end of the semester. Instead, list them on yourself and sell them directly to another student -- keep the bookstore's mark-up for yourself!

BEDDING: If you have a comforter or blankets (and you probably do!), you can spruce it up with new sheets and throw pillows. A BEST BUY Twin and Twin Extra Long sheet sets in assorted bright colors, part of Walmart's Mainstays Line at $7.50/set. Soft throw pillows are available in similar colors for $6.00.

LIGHTING: Walmart's Mainstays line includes Combo Floor Lamps for $10.00.

For cleaning supplies, start at any Dollar Store.

Bring laundry detergent but if you live in the dorm, you'll be unhappy with the 128 ounce bottle unless you are planning to pull your laundry. A purchase that will let you pull things into, out of and around the dorm is the Expanding Folding Crate with wheels, which right now is $23.99 at Staples. It should go on sale.

Dorm living means SMALL SPACE. Small space with many belongings means clutter and dorm rooms are notoriously messy. The solution is bring less and organize what you bring. Walmart has Sterilite 18-gallon totes as well as 3-piece latch box sets on sale for $3.50 this week.

Zac says:

When I lived in the dorms, I prided myself on having a neat, clean environment, and I also wanted it to have a little bit of style. Picking up a few moderately-priced throw pillows at Target or Pier 1 Imports can really help pull a room together. And for art, please, please, please do not buy posters at the mall or the school store. You will end up with the same posters as everyone else! If I walk into a dorm and see one more Abbey Road poster, I'm going to burn it. Instead, check out the clearance section at, and watch for all the special sales and free shipping deals. Vintage art deco-style travel posters look really cool in a dorm room.


Now coming back to college campuses and - for at least part of the year at BEST BUY: Bicycle and helmet.

See whether your college has the Zip-car program.

Zac says:

For freshman who are living on-campus, a car is not necessary or even desirable. For older students living off-campus, it may be worth having -- especially if it allows the student to work at a higher-paying off-campus job on nights and weekends. But if your student is heading off to college for the first time, leave the car at home.


There are fewer and fewer land lines and most students today rely on cell phones. It is ABSOLUTELY CRITICAL that your student's cell phone plan has:

1. Family Talk - or a similar version - unlimited calls between student and family and if there's an out of town girlfriend or boyfriend, anyone who the student will be calling frequently - that covers that number.

2. Buy a plan with more minutes than you think your student will need at least for the first few months of college. Paying for overtime can be a financial disaster. If you find that you're racking up rollover minutes, then you can downgrade the plan.

3. Unlimited text messages if your student is heavy-handed.

Zac says:

Make your kid pay his own darn cell phone bill, that's what I say. And see if you can talk him into paying yours too. He owes you big time!


Zac says:

I would rather see a student work hard during the summer and spring breaks so that he can save money to help pay for college and avoid student loans. For all the talk about how spring break trips and "service learning" can change student's lives, there are plenty of experiences to be had and lives to be changed right in your hometown. Help an underprivileged child learn to read at the local library, volunteer at a soup kitchen, spend time with senior citizens -- and still leave time to work for pay so that you can pay the aforementioned cell phone bill of your parents.

Conclusion by Zac

Heading off to college is an exciting time -- and you don't need all new everything to make it enjoyable. A lot of young people pride themselves on being environmentally friendly. Well it doesn't get any more green than reusing stuff you already have.As your child heads off to college with his friends, there will be tremendous pressure to keep up with the Joneses. But remember: The Joneses are drowning in debt, their car is a lease, and the fancy new laptop requires monthly payments at 18% interest.

Why do parents want their kids to go to college and why do kids want to go to college? In most cases, they're motivated by a desire for a financially secure future, intellectual curiosity, and a desire to develop strong values. Going into debt to finance peer pressure-driven consumption could not be less in line with any of those lofty ambitions.

A new survey suggests that back-to-school spending will fall 7.7% this year so if you're feeling strapped for cash, know that you're not alone. And whether your child has a great time and a great education will be determined by the content of his character, not the size of his television.
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