6 Ways to Cut College Shopping Costs

College can seem like a never-ending shopping spree… in a bad way. Up until this point in your academic career, all you had to worry about was buying new school supplies and maybe a new backpack or outfit here and there. But with college comes a whole new lifestyle, and the costs of that new lifestyle can add up. Follow these tips to help you stay on budget in style and avoid stealing plastic utensils from the dining halls!

1. Make a list

The best way to make sure you don’t overbuy and spend money on random “essentials” is to figure out exactly what your essentials are for dorm life.

When shopping for college, it becomes super easy to get distracted by advertisements and offers for things that sound like necessities but that you don’t really need. To avoid overspending, create a master list of dorm essentials. While you’re still living at home, as you get ready each day and go through your daily routine, add to that list what you will continue to use in college. By keeping track of all the things you need to buy for your new lifestyle, you won’t be blinded buy all the so-called college necessities sold in department stores. When shopping, stick to your list to prevent yourself from buying things that you don’t need. This will help you avoid overspending on random, semi-useless items, while also keeping track of purchases.

Once you start packing all of your college goods, it’s so easy for the little things like nail clippers to slip through the cracks. Keep that from happening by creating your master list!

2. “Shop” at home first

Who says you have to have everything brand new? Take the list you just created and identify any of the items that you already have in your house that you can bring with you to college.

One of the most overlooked items on college shopping lists is school supplies. When you start to worry about buying new items like a shower caddy and a closet-size vacuum cleaner, you might forget about regular school supplies. But, by starting your college shopping trip at home, not only will you save money, but you will also be less likely to forget such essentials as writing utensils!

Scour your house for unused school supplies like notebooks, pencils, pens, binders and folders. Kara, a student at the University of Missouri, says this helps her save money while back-to-school shopping. “If you have any … school supplies at home, bring them with you. Buying school supplies from the campus bookstore is a rip-off, so I made sure to bring my school supplies with me,” she says. Over the years, school supplies tend to accumulate in random storage spaces around your house. While you may not want to revive the Lisa Frank era of elementary school supplies, the stack of generic colored notebooks you may find under your sister’s bed could be useful in college.

As you will find out, there is no must-have school supply list in college. Many professors will announce required course materials on the first day of class, but it’s up to you decide what works. So collect a few notebooks and folders from home until you figure out what you really need for each of your classes.

3. Don’t discount the discount stores

Dorm life is not supposed to be glamorous, but you definitely don't need to rough it, either. To find the best of both worlds, shop at discount stores: they are your not-so-secret weapon!

While department stores offer “back-to-college” sales and doorbuster deals, they also attract huge crowds. Walking around with a long list of things to buy for a new chapter of your life in a jam-packed department store aisle is not good for anyone.

Instead, avoid the herd and shop as much as you can in stores that always have good prices, like T.J.Maxx, Marshalls and HomeGoods. That’s what Alix, a collegiette from the University of Missouri, did. “I got all of my bedding from T.J.Maxx,” she says. In addition to comforters and sheets, these discount stores also offer great prices for items like rugs, lamps, dishes, storage containers and wall decorations.

4. Coordinate with your roommate(s)

The three essential big-ticket items in a dorm room are a mini-fridge, a microwave and a TV. But each room only needs one of each, or maybe even none at all, depending on your preferences. Check with your roommate(s) to see which, if any, of these products you each are willing to purchase. You can save a lot of time and money with a simple phone call. Who knows, maybe your roommate’s older brother just graduated and no longer needs his old mini-fridge. Score!

And even though splitting the cost on a major appliance like a microwave might sound like something a smart shopper would do, think about what will happen at the end of the school year. Who gets to take it home? Figure out what you might potentially use after your freshman year in order to get the best bang for your buck, and make that purchase.

5. Think multi-purpose

Another way to cut costs is by buying multi-purpose items. That cute, convenient ottoman or footrest can also be a storage space for extra school supplies. You can slide it under your bed to create extra space in the room and then pull it out when friends come over for extra seating.

Multi-purpose dishes will come in handy as well. Alexis, a student at Saint Louis University, realized that “you should make sure that your dishes are microwave-safe so that you can eat out of the same dish in which you ‘cooked’ your food.”

And when buying multi-purpose items doesn’t work, try repurposing pre-existing items yourself! For example, many people bring ironing boards with them to college to maintain the fresh-pressed look of their apparel. But instead of buying a desktop ironing board, try making one yourself from an old TV tray.

In college, your hamper for dirty clothes becomes the same receptacle for clean clothes fresh out of the dryer until you have the chance to put them away. Bed sheets become togas. And that’s just the way it is!

6. Shop for one

When you lived at home with your family, your parents stocked up on food and supplies for everyone, buying Cheez-Its by the ton and hand soap by the gallon. But you don’t need to shop like that anymore! For example, you probably don’t need to buy an entire gallon of milk for yourself when it’ll go bad after a week. And family-size bags of chips and fruit snacks are a thing of the past. Rather than stocking up on granola bars for months at a time, buy only what will last you a couple weeks at most. You probably will not end up eating as much as you think you will. And between living within walking distance of the dining hall and going out to dinner with friends, you will eat more outside of your room than you may initially anticipate.

Try to use up your pre-paid meal points or swipes in the dining halls first before hitting up the grocery store. Some campuses have market-like stores in the dining halls where students can use their extra meal swipes to purchase food items that could normally be purchased at the grocery store. Produce, ice cream and cases of bottled water that are normally more expensive in the grocery store can be purchased at the dining hall with a meal swipe instead. Also, if your dining hall offers to-go boxes, pick up some cereal from the dining hall next time you grab dinner instead of buying it at the grocery store. By using your meal points instead of your money, you only have to buy what is unavailable on campus at the grocery store, which will bring that grocery bill way down!

While shopping for college, keep in mind that your room is the place that you’re going to come back to at the end of a long day at school. It’s where you will think all of your great college thoughts and cram for final exams. It’s where you’ll hang out with friends, sleep less than you should, and craft some gourmet (read: microwaved) late-night meals. You have to make it comfortable for yourself. And if you happen to find an awesome deal along the way, that makes the college experience that much better. Good luck with your shopping, collegiettes!