The most expensive item on the back-to-school shopping list for high school students is usually a backpack or scientific calculator. That all changes when they go to college.
In addition to textbooks and notebooks, incoming freshmen need bedding, storage containers and a whole host of other things to not only furnish a dorm room, but make it feel like home.
"It's important for first-time college students to spend some time decorating their dorm rooms because for the better part of the next four years, it's going to serve as their study area, entertainment area, bedroom and possibly even a dining area," says Carly Fauth, head of marketing for Money Crashers, a personal finance website.
Still, students should keep costs in mind, she says, and outfitting your home away from home can be expensive. While most dorms come with the basics – a bed, mattress, desk and chair, mirror and trash can – students need to supply the rest.
[Discover 10 ways to save on college costs.]
Minifridges – a necessity in many college dorms rooms – start at close to $65 at big box stores such as Target and Walmart. A microwave to cook frozen meals or reheat leftovers from the dining hall will run students roughly $45. Sheets, pillows and a comforter can easily add up to another $75. And those are just the essentials.
All told, college students will spend an average of $836 on clothing, electronics and dorm furnishings, according to an annual survey by the National Retail Federation. This year, a larger chunk of that will be spent at home furnishing and decor stores, the report notes.
It is possible for students and parents to save on back-to-college dorm spending if they deploy some common-sense strategies and heed some savvy shopping advice, experts say. Below are five tips to help incoming freshmen outfit their living space on a shoestring budget.
1. Check with the university: Many colleges have restrictions on what students can and cannot bring to the residence hall. While some schools allow small electronics such as microwaves, toasters and coffee pots, others deem them fire hazards and bar them from students' rooms.
Some colleges also allow students to rent common dorm appliances or check out items such as irons and ironing boards, which may be more affordable than purchasing your own.
University rules also dictate whether or not students can hang pictures on walls or affix items to their school-issued bed. Students who break the rules could be charged damage fees at the end of the semester.
Obtaining a list of the school's dorm decorating do's and don'ts can eliminate these headaches, experts say.
2. Team up with your roommate: Chances are you and your soon-to-be dormmates have similar shopping lists. Avoid doubling up – and wasting money – by touching base beforehand to figure out what you each can bring.
If you are living with your best friend from high school, the two of you can hash out who will bring the area rug and who will handle the gaming console. If your new roommate is a randomly assigned stranger, dorm furnishings are a good reason to break the ice via email or Facebook.
[Learn how to get off to a good start with your roommate.]
3. Tap friends and family: There is no shame in bringing hand-me-downs to college, so students should talk to aunts, uncles, cousins – even neighbors – about items they need for their dorm room. The odds are good that one of them has a minifridge they have been trying to give away since their own child went to college, says Bonnie Joy Dewkett, a professional organizer.
"Everyone has things they aren't using," Dewkett says. "What may be an extra set of plates and clutter for an aunt, may be a saving grace for the college student."
First-time students can turn to family and friends for more than a used microwave or rug, though. Those who have been to college recently – or have children who have – can offer advice about what to purchase, she says.
4. Scour Craigslist: The online classifieds site can turn up cheap or even free treasures, says Fauth of Money Crashers.
A quick scan of free items for the Champaign-Urbana area, home to the University of Illinois, turned up recent listings for free futon frames, toasters, microwaves and televisions.
Freecycle is another website students should check for furniture that is low or no cost, Fauth says, emphasizing that students want to skimp on furniture.
"In all likelihood it's going to get pretty beat up over the next four years, so it's just not necessary to drop a wad of cash on it," she says.
5. Use shopping apps: Some things, such as sheets and mattress pads, students are better off getting new. Discount stores such as T.J. Maxx and Marshalls are perfect for these items, says savings blogger Kendal Perez, a self-professed shopaholic and bargain hunter.
But between coupons, clearance and back-to-school sales it is good to shop around to ensure you are getting the best deal. Instead of spending hours scouring department stores and websites such as Overstock.com to try and score the best deal, tech-savvy students can download mobile shopping apps such as Amazon Price Check, which allows users to scan the barcode of an item to see if it's available for less via the online retailer.
Priceblink can help student and parents shopping online, too. The browser add-on automatically pulls up prices from multiple merchants when shoppers are, say, checking out a bedding set on Macy's website.
Coupons can also offer a deeper discount, Perez says. Instead of clipping 20 percent off squares from ads in the Sunday paper, she suggests students use apps such as Coupon Sherpa to maximize their savings.
Trying to fund your education? Get tips and more in the U.S. News Paying for College center.