Setting Up Your New Freshman: How to Decorate Your Dorm Room for Less

There are very few rites of passage bigger than the day a grown child moves out of the house and onto the college campus. 

This is the child’s first major step toward adulthood and independence, and it can be an exciting time for both parents and children.

What is not so exciting is the expense of setting up new living quarters.

Whether college students live in the dorm or in an apartment, getting settled can cost a pretty penny.  However, there are ways to curb those costs.

12+ Money Saving Tips to Furnish Your Dorm Room for Less

How to decorate your dorm room for less

You Don’t Need Brand New Furnishings

Moving into your own place is exciting.  You and your child may have visions of a stylish apartment that could be featured in a decorating magazine.

But stop right there.

Take a deep breath and realize that this is a starter apartment.

In just four short years, your child will graduate and move to another apartment, perhaps hundreds of miles away.  She might get married and have to get rid of items as she merges two households.

Plus, let’s be real here, college students are tough on furniture.

Food and drinks will be spilled, friends will be rough with the furniture.  Now is not the time to buy brand new items.  There will be plenty of time for that in the years to come.

1. Check Out Craigslist

Craigslist can be an excellent place to find used furniture.  From tables to couches, to bed frames, most furniture listed there is very affordable.  Remember, with Craigslist you’re expected to haggle, so you could get items even more cheaply than they are listed.

2. Don’t Forget Garage Sales

Don’t forget garage sales, too.  When I left for grad school, I bought a $3 blender at a garage sale.  It’s still working today!  I also found a nice table that would seat 6 for $50.

There’s no reason to spend a fortune furnishing your apartment.

3. Put Out the Word

If you have a large circle of family or friends, put out the word that you’re looking to furnish your apartment.  Chances are, someone you know wants to get rid of some of their furniture.  They may sell it to you cheaply or even give it to you for free.

If You Prefer To Buy Some Items New

Some people are squeamish about buying used couches or mattresses, and with good reason.

These items could harbor any number of pests like cockroaches, lice, or bed bugs.  Money Talk News warns, “A used mattress can come with a lot of extras you don’t want – dead skin cells, bacteria, hair, and every other gross thing you can imagine.  It might also have bed bugs.”

The chance of getting pests from used items is not that great, but for some, the concern is great enough that they don’t want to buy these items used.

4. Try IKEA

If you must buy new, try a place like IKEA.  IKEA is a great place to buy new furniture on a budget.

When my husband and I were furnishing our first apartment fourteen years ago, we bought two IKEA bookshelves.  Those bookshelves have made it through two different moves (one of them halfway across the country), and they’re still doing fine.  I know some people say IKEA furniture won’t last long, but that hasn’t been our experience.

5. Wait for Sales

Most college students move in sometime in August.  If you want to buy new furniture, try waiting a few weeks until the furniture stores run sales, usually for Labor Day.  You’ll save more money at a big sale then you would if you bought the furniture as soon as you needed it.

Real Simple also suggests waiting until February to buy furniture:  “New furniture designs debut in spring, so retailers are clearing out old styles to make room,” which could save you “thirty to 60% off retail.”

Don’t forget to negotiate for a lower price at the furniture store.  At the very least, you should be able to negotiate free delivery.

6. Buying the Accessories

Of course, buying furniture is only part of setting up a new place.  You’ll also need things like sheets, towels, pots and pans, silverware, garbage cans, etc.  All of these items can add up and be another large expense after furnishing your new place.

7. Buying Kitchenware

The quality of pots and pans that you need depend on how much cooking you plan to do.  If you plan to mostly eat out and eat pizza, you won’t need fancy pots and pans.  You can likely find what you need at thrift stores or garage sales.

If you love to cook (and cooking at home is a great way to save some cash), don’t buy new right away.  Wait until the Black Friday sales in November.  Many of the Black Friday sales are online and start several days before Black Friday.  Last year, my husband and I bought a new T-Fal pots and pans set for less than $50 by shopping the Black Friday sale and turning in a rebate form.

8. Garbage Cans

Surprisingly, lowly garbage cans can be expensive.  If you have a janitorial supply company near you, you may want to shop there.  The containers are sturdy and often cost less than other retail stores.  Of course, for the price, you’ll end up with durable, functional products rather than decorative ones, but you will save money.

Other Ways to Save

Besides using the strategies above, there are plenty more ways that smart shoppers can save.  Use several of these strategies, and you can save quite a bit on your purchase.

9. Online Savings Strategies

If you’re shopping online, make sure to use a cash back site like Ebates.  Simply shop the store of your choice through Ebates’ site, and you’ll get anywhere from 2 to 6% back depending on the store.  True, you won’t get rich using Ebates, but that’s money you are saving off retail that is coming back in your pocket.

Another way to save when shopping online is to search the web for promo codes for the store you’re shopping at.  Retail Me Not is a great site to get promo codes.  In addition, users of the site rank the promo codes so you know which ones have the highest success rate.

Glen’s Note: When searching for discount codes just type in the name of the site+’promo codes’ or ‘coupons’, ‘discounts’ or something similar (without the quotes).  You’ll usually see a number of related choices in the search toolbar for the term your searching for.  I’ve done this plenty of times and saved money.  It’s one of those no-brainer things you do when you shop online.

10. In-Store Saving Strategies

When you’re shopping in the store, don’t forget to use your smart phone for valuable coupons and for price comparisons.  In some stores, if you can show that the product you want to buy is cheaper somewhere else, they may give you the product for the lower price.

Glen’s Note, Part II: Many stores will gives student discounts if you show valid ID.  If you’re buying online you might be able to get a discount by using your student email address (usually one ending in .edu).

11. Wait Until You Have the Cash

If you want to do the least financial damage when setting up a dorm or apartment, you can simply wait until you have the cash.

I knew someone in college who went two months without sheets.  He simply waited until he had enough extra money from his job to afford a set of sheets.  I’m sure it was inconvenient to go that long without sheets, but he also didn’t have the inconvenience of credit card debt that many of my other classmates had.

Best of all, if you use this strategy, you eliminate buying many things that you later find out you really don’t need.  If you force yourself to save for what you need and only buy in cash, you’ll likely only buy what you need and you’ll look for a bargain when buying items.

12. Move In with Someone Who’s Already Established

If you have friends who are a year older and have already gone off to college and set up their apartment, you could save serious cash by moving in with them.  Then you’d likely just need to furnish your bedroom as your friend should have most of the furnishings already.

Final Thoughts

While setting up an apartment is exciting, remember that it also can have quite an impact on your finances for years to come.

If you stick to your budget and don’t buy things that you don’t really need and don’t spend a lot of money on brand new items, you have the best chance of remaining debt free.

If you choose to buy expensive items and pay for them on plastic, you may get stuck in a rut of credit card debt that can follow you throughout your college career and into your mid-twenties or later.

Being broke during college is normal.  There will be time to buy expensive, nice items once you graduate and get a good job.

Right now, make do with what you can find on a budget and do your best to remain debt free.

How have you saved on dorm room costs?

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Published or updated September 2, 2014.


  1. Nice piece and good tips. All good ideas. Last year when we moved our daughter to start law school we had a rental truck full of IKEA stuff, great value and very functional. I know my kids have become pretty adept at finding bargains (and a few freebies) from places like Craig’s list and in some cases from friends graduating who just want to get rid of some stuff.

  2. While this is a nice article, it doesn’t relate to what the title says:” setting up a dorm room.”

    You don’t bring 90% of the items mentioned in this article to a dorm and you need to bring everything back home every May.

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