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I Totally Blew it Dorm Shopping with My College Freshman, and Here’s What I Wish I’d Known


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Remember that nesting instinct that kicked into high gear when you were pregnant about 18 years ago? Decorating the nursery with a grandly coordinated theme. Washing every outfit with baby detergent and hanging them up on tiny matching hangers...Stocking and organizing the room with every possible baby gadget.

(Okay, maybe this just happens for baby number one, because by the time I had baby number three I’d run out of nesting gusto and my son actually slept in a drawer next to my bed for the first three months.)

But prepare yourself…if you’re shopping for dorm room stuff with your incoming college freshman the nesting craziness is about to make a hurricane-force come-back.

Here’s what you need to know to avoid loads of extra expenses, hassle, and a giant emotional breakdown in Target.

1. Get very familiar with EXACTLY what’s included in the specific residence hall your kid is staying in.

Better yet, ask your son or daughter to look up this specific information because allowing them to have responsibility and ownership in the process will help tame your overbearing nesting-beast. Here’s what they’ll need to confirm:

  • Does my dorm have air conditioning?
  • Is a fridge and microwave provided? (If not, what are the rental options, or specs for bringing one’s own?)
  • Is a rug provided? (Are other rugs allowed?)
  • What are the walls made of in this particular dorm, and what is the recommendation for proper hanging hardware?
  • Are window coverings provided? Are additional window coverings allowed?
  • Are the beds loft-able? Is there a process for requesting (and paying for this) prior to check in?
  • Are coffee pots allowed?
  • Is there a closet? How big is the dresser? (If one is provided.)
  • Is a desk lamp provided?
  • Are extension cords allowed?

2. Coordinate with the roommate to avoid unnecessary duplication of things.

Before you run out and buy a mini-fridge and microwave, ask your kid to contact their roommate and plan in advance who will be bringing items such as: appliances, TVs, iron, rug, window coverings, cleaning products, and bathroom items if sharing a bathroom in a suite, etc.

3. Make a shopping list with your student and focus on one “bucket” at a time.

This avoids a chaotic free-for-all, and makes the outings less overwhelming and exhausting. (Plus it’s a great excuse to schedule several shopping “dates” to savor time alone with your kiddo!) Here are some bucket areas  to consider:
• Organizational items (it’s why knowing the room layout is important)
• Bedding
• Dorm décor (lamps, picture frames, posters, wall hangings, etc.)
• Bath items: towels/caddy/toiletries/hygiene supplies/first aid items
• School supplies
• Technology hardware/software
• Snack items

4. Make a budget. (And stick to it!)

I totally failed at this, and our dorm shopping bounty probably rivaled the cost of a semester of tuition. I learned an important (and expensive) truth that the nesting instinct plus the imminent reality that your child is leaving has a massively deceptive effect on good decision making.

Now as a veteran mom of dorm shopping, I’m creating a budget for each area listed above, and I included my son in the process of making the list and estimating costs. (Wow—kids are so clueless!) We also decided what items I would agree to pay for, and what items he could pay for. (A great conversation to have when they’re rolling in the graduation money!)

5. Empower your kid to make decisions.

Dorm shopping has many teachable moments where your son or daughter can learn some important life skills for "adulting,"  such as how to best organize and style their space based on how they function, and learning how to anticipate needs ahead of time. Keeping your opinions to a minimum allows them to make choices and gives them ownership about their new space and how they'll live. If they debate the need for an umbrella and rain poncho and think it's silly, let them experience the consequences of walking across campus in the rain. They'll be fine, just uncomfortable, but that's their responsibility now, not yours!

6. Fans. Buy a lot of them.

Fans are your friend. Even if there is air conditioning, fans are great white-noise makers. But if your kid is in a dorm without air conditioning, the first month can feel like living in the gates of hell. A box unit for the window is wonderful—IF it fits (check out what kind of windows they have before you lug that big thing to college). Tower fans are nice, but they don’t give much relief to a lofted bed. Clip-on fans or small fans that can fit on a shelf are the key!

7. Candles are a no-no.

Residence halls take fire code very seriously, and have gotten very strict about candles—often banning them completely. (My daughter had to get rid of her never-lit smell-good candles!) The same rule applies to incense burners and anything else with an open flame. Battery operated candles and string lights are the way to go!

8. Bedding matters, and microfiber is the Best. Thing. Ever.

I’m a sucker for super-soft sheets, but as tempting as it might be to ensure your child is nestled in heavenly delight, this does not require purchasing 800 thread-count bamboo sheets. Microfiber is the best invention since the microwave—for real! Microfiber sheets are super-soft, lightweight, and only take about 10 minutes to dry in the dryer! Plus—no wrinkles. AND, they’re cheap—usually less than $20 for a full set. (Target and Walmart have a great selection.)

But consider investing in a quality mattress pad/topper. The dorm mattresses are typically 4” vinyl mats, and they need some serious help.

Remember—dorm beds are typically TWIN XL—regular twin size bedding won’t fit. 

9. Command Hooks. Command Hooks. Command Hooks.

If 3M were smart, they'd just set up kiosks in the parking lots of freshmen dorms on move-in day and sell every variety of Command Hook. Because you always need one that you don't have, and the uses for Command Hooks in dorms are endless! Buy a lot of varieties and sizes, and just return what you don't end up using. (But per wise advice from another veteran mom, make sure your college allows Command Hooks, because apparently some have banned them.)

Written by Kami Gilmour, mom of five teen and young adult kids.  She's the the author of  a best-selling book, Release My Grip: Hope for a Parent's Heart as Kids Leave the Nest and Learn to Fly.

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Showing 4 comments
  • Kylee Beard

    Fun fact…I was an RA in college and had to put out a dorm fire started by a candle. Those mattress toppers are SUPER flammable let me tell you.

  • Sharon

    When we KNEW our daughter was going to stay in a dorm for college – the year before she left – she decided on a color pallet and we started shopping with coupons, sales, and at discount stores (i.e. Ross, TJMaxx, etc) so that by the time she left everything was already puchased and waiting for her. Not big burden, no rushing – and she got exactly what she liked, at the right price. Yes, planning is essential. BTW, just like in any institutional environment (dorms, nursing homes, etc.) always use LED candles. Wax candles are normally prohibited.

  • Tracie

    Before you purchase every 3M Command hook you can find, you might want to double check and make sure your school allows them. My daughter’s school doesn’t, nor does many of the schools my friend’s kids are attending. They don’t always come off without damaging the wall.

    • Kami Gilmour

      Great advice, Tracie! We’ve now updated that section in this post to remind parents to check with their school first!

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