Dorm Shopping Tips For The College-Bound (And Their Parents)

Equipping that first dorm room is an expensive rite of passage.



I cried the day my first-born, David, graduated from high school.

I cried even harder the day he showed me the Bed Bath & Beyond college-packing list.

 How times have changed! When I went off to Binghamton University, I furnished my dorm room with basically the same stuff I’d brought to sleep-away camp: a pillow, a comforter, two sheet sets, and a handful of towels in varying sizes. My one luxury was a sturdy, 12-inch, black-and-white TV that my parents had given me as a high-school graduation present—and when my roommate showed up with a cube refrigerator and a pink shag rug she’d found in her grandparents’ attic, we were the envy of Delaware Hall.

Today, retailers like Bed Bath & Beyond, Target, and The Container Store begin their annual transformation into Dorms-R-Us almost from the moment acceptance letters go out. As we began our shopping expedition, I reminded myself to be sensible and prudent. Colleges supply dressers, closets, beds, and desks—so how much more could a freshman need? But something changes in your brain once you step on the sales floor the summer before your kid takes off. The stuff is all so darned clever, it’s impossible to resist.

I ask you: What mother would force her daughter to use a standard-issue desk chair, when she could be sitting pretty in a foldable, turquoise number with microfiber cushioning? Or maybe she’d prefer that nifty bungee chair, with a pink steel frame and flower-shaped cord design? As for me, it was hard to make the case that David should stack his snacks in a closet, when he could put them in a navy faux-suede storage cube that doubled as an ottoman. After all, he was leaving home, and I was going to miss him. Wouldn’t I be happier knowing he had something soft on which to rest his feet, as he fondly remembered his dear old mom? 

The laundry aisle was awash, so to speak, with a multitude of laundry containers, ranging from pop-up, nesting, and compartmentalized versions to backpack, shoulder-strap, and rolling styles. Yes, I’d been perfectly fine using an old pillowcase when I was his age, but I nevertheless invited him to choose. Anything that could make him more likely to do his laundry would clearly be money well spent, I thought.

And speaking of money, I should add that dorm-room merchandise is ingeniously priced, right at that sweet spot where it’s easy to say, “Sure!” It’s true that a plain plastic wastebasket is $5 or less, and some colleges even supply them for free; but when the one that looks like a basketball net is a mere $11, how can you not go ahead and buy it? And considering that I was planning to spend about $20 for a regular cotton sheet set, was $40 so bad for a super-soft jersey knit? Hey, we’re all just parents, and we want our kids to be happy. Then we get to the register only to find that we’re maxing out three credit cards and digging in pockets for pennies.

As I drove home that night with my mile-long receipt, I tried to convince myself that David’s furnishings would last through senior year. By spending more now, I’d spend way less down the road. But things didn’t quite work that way. As it turns out, college kids are hard on their belongings. When my husband and I arrived for Parents Weekend in October, the faux-suede storage ottoman I bought was badly misshapen after he decided to use it as a stepstool. And a blue folding club chair he had asked me to buy? Seems he opened it too energetically one day, and after that it refused to open fully again—meaning he could never use it to sit down, unless he wanted the steel tubing jamming into his neck.

That’s the moment I decided that when David’s younger sisters went to college, I would shop online, where the stuff wouldn’t be so enticing. Then I could stick to the basics.

Although if either of them would like a sturdy 12-inch TV, I bet there’s one in my attic they can use.