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16 Cheap Essentials That Every Dorm Room Needs

Joanna Nesbit  |  November 11, 2021

Stock up your dorm room in style with these 16 affordable (but oh-so-necessary) things that we just can’t live without. You’ll be so thankful you grabbed these now.

It’s never too early for families with college-bound kids to start collecting dorm items for the fall semester — but trust me when I say that less is more. I’ve now moved two kids away to college, and I’ve seen the size of those rooms. (Yes, in some cases, they’re bigger than they used to be, but they’re still really hard to fit everything into.) 

Trust me, I get the temptation to want to equip your kids with every conceivable material need, but they aren’t going to want to pack it all up at the end of the year — they’ll have no trouble chucking those hard-earned dollars of yours into the dumpster. 

So, what do you really need besides bedding, towels, and a couple posters? Consider your kid’s habits, their room specs, and what the college provides. (Pro tip: Most colleges have parent Facebook pages where you can get good advice about different dorm buildings.) 

Good luck on your journey. If you’re heading off for a round of pre-college shopping, Here’s a list of things I highly recommend. 

Collapsible Luggage

These Fracta IKEA duffel-style bags are a perennial favorite among college families because regular luggage doesn’t store easily in a dorm. The bags are strong enough to handle flights and can easily be collapsed and then stuffed under a bed or used for storing off-season clothing.  

Mattress Cover

Dorm mattresses run super thin and are typically covered in vinyl, so a mattress cover can add a lot of comfort. If you decide to add a foam topper— we found a two-inch one to be plenty — the mattress cover holds it all together.  

Command Strips and Hooks

Colleges typically don’t allow nails or screws to be placed in the walls, so command strips let you hang posters and other artwork without causing any damage. You can also add command hooks to the closet door to hang extra clothing. You can pick them up at stores like Target, Lowes, and Bed, Bath, and Beyond. 

Collapsible Shower Caddy

One of my kids told me after her first year that a mesh shower caddy is preferable to a rigid plastic one. It dries between uses, and packs up easily come spring. Lesson learned. 

Mesh Laundry Bag

Collapsible laundry bags take less room than plastic baskets. Try this duffel style for carrying loads to the laundry room. (That IKEA bag could double as a laundry bag, but stuffing sweaty or damp clothing into plastic for days should be avoided.) 

Shower Flip Flops 

If your student is sharing a dorm shower with an entire floor, flip flops are a must. You don’t need anything fancy — a pair of $3 foam flip flops from Target will help your child avoid hairballs and toe fungus like a pro. 


Most of the time, dorm room closets don’t come with hangers, and your student may end up hanging more clothing than they expect to, given that dorm room dresser drawers are notoriously small. Take plenty when you move in, either regular or these extra slims

Portable Fan 

Many dorm rooms are in multi-story buildings that don’t offer air-conditioning, and August can be stifling. Review the campus’s climate and coordinate with roommates on this one. One of my kids wore out the fan we purchased. 

Portable Battery Pack

A small portable charger for your phone or tablet when you’re on the go will save you just when you need it. Not every big lecture class will have an available outlet, and it’s nice to be able to charge up from a bus or train whenever you need to. This one can handle eight charges. 

Charging Cords and Surge Protector

The dorm room might have plenty of outlets — or it might not. Either way, tuck the surge protector under the desk for all the expensive computer goods traveling to campus. Also, take an extra-long phone cord and possibly this 3-device charging cube for charging multiple devices. 

First-aid Kit 

It’s easy to go overboard on medical supplies, but students will end up appreciating a few things like a thermometer, over-the-counter medicines for headaches and congestion, band-aids, and Neosporin. Throw in some ear plugs for noise-sensitive kids. Put together your own kit or try this one from Amazon. 

Reading Lamp

Not all students study at their desk (a comfy couch is usually preferred) but this lamp clamps to a desk or to the head of the bed. (This can be especially useful if your child is in a bunk bed situation.) Either way, it adds a bit of ambiance. 

Bed Caddy

For lofted beds, this cloth caddy makes a great night stand. It can hold a book, phone, water bottle, pencils and more. Bonus: it packs up easily at year’s end (yep, we learned what worked and what didn’t). 

Microwave-Safe Dishes 

Even if your child is planning to eat most meals in the dining hall, they might make tea in their room or eat overnight oats before a morning class. Make sure they have microwave-save dishes, and air-tight containers to store snacks to prevent unwanted visitors like rats and mice. 

Door Stop

Dorm doors tend to be heavy, industrial doors that close automatically. You’ll appreciate a door stop on move-in day, and after that your student can use it to prop the door open whenever they’re going in and out, or just want some fresh air. (After all, an open door is one of the best ways to develop new friendships!) 

Amazon Prime Student Membership

Rather than outfit your student with every last item you can think of, sign them up for a student membership so they can order things as they need them. It’s free for the first 6 months, and $6.49 per month after that. 

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