Furnish Your First College Dorm or Apartment on a Budget

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As any college student can report, money can be tight. You'll need to be creative and smart to furnish your apartment or dorm as inexpensively as possible. Here are some tips to picking up some essential living items.


  1. Make a list of items that you will need. A list of common items to get you thinking can be found below in the Things You'll Need section. Consider what items are essential and appropriate for where you will be living and how long you will be there. Dorm living will require minimal essentials since so much is already provided. Apartment living may require more. Use your judgment and common sense. Put the list in order of importance.
  2. File:My Parents in 1958 Idaho Springs, Colorado 6105.jpg
    Grandma's junk drawer hand-me-downs may not match or be pretty but free is always good.
    Ask your parents, grandparents, aunts, cousins, neighbors, etc. if they have any unused or unwanted items. You'd be surprised how many people have attics and drawers full of unused items in need of a good home. You may be doing them a favor by taking it off their hands. Start asking over the summer so they can keep their eyes open and set things aside.

    Talk to your parents about taking the TV, DVD or stereo from your room if the item is considered a family item and not yours personally. Suggest taking certain items from home a reward for graduation, help around the house, etc. If your TV is very large you may want to consider asking about taking a smaller one from the home.
  3. Have your parents or grandparents throw you a shower or party to stock your new pad. Stores like Target and Bed Bath & Beyond offer registries. Keep everything really inexpensive and don't make lavish requests for plasma TVs. You can register for everything from bath towels to lamps and microwaves. By keeping it simple and reasonable, people will appreciate your plight and feel more inclined to help you out. You must send thank you notes to everyone who gives you a gift. Be grateful.
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    Thrift stores are often affiliated with a charity. Not only can you get cheap goods, the money you spend goes towards helping the charity.
    Go to your local thrift stores like Goodwill, Salvation Army stores or any other charity run thrift store. Check back often as their supply changes daily to weekly. You can easily pick up pots, pans, bowls and utensils for $1 or less. Also watch for church sales. Many older church goers unload great items to be sold super cheap at these sales.
  5. Plan for the short term. Most of the items you will need to get through college or for your first apartment don't need to last more then a few years. Cheap plastic items, such as fold-able tables, futons, or patio furniture, can be a cheap way to to fulfill short term needs while money is saved to buy higher quality, long term furniture.
  6. Visit Dollar stores in your neighborhood. These are a great place to buy mops, brooms, and cleansers. Also try to pick up your toilet brushes and toilet plungers here. Those are two items you don't want to get used.
  7. File:From the thrift shop 9147.jpg
    Shop yard sales with an open mind and a practical attitude. Even if it isn't your style it may suit the purpose.
    Shop local yard sales. Sometimes the kitchen and bath items may end up in a box since they're so small. Ask the yard sale holder if you don't see them, they may be hidden. If the items are too pricey or can be found cheaper elsewhere you should wait. Another tip is to quietly speak with the yard sale host. Explain that you're going off to college and are trying to find certain items. Give them your number and tell them you'd be happy to take items off their hands should they not sell by the end of the day. Most people would rather give them to a needy student than set them on the curb.
  8. Check the curb. Many people toss things instead of trying to sell or donate. This is common especially when moving or the day of or after a yard sale. For the best stuff travel to the best part town. People with extra money to spend often toss out new and like new items just because they have gone out of style. You can find boxes and boxes of stuff. Of course, only get items that can be washed and sanitized.
  9. Head to the local landfill or recycling center. No, there's no need to swim in the hill of the days' discards in order to save on college cash! In many landfills, there is a separate building where people can drop off lightly used furniture and other house items, which is usually categorized as "Too Good to Throw Out." Spring Cleaning for county residents can mean a new couch for your apartment or a computer station for the dorm at no cost to you except energy to load the stuff into your vehicle. Be sure to visit these places frequently, as a full shed one morning can be bone dry the next. BONUS: the "Too Good to Throw Out" building is also a great place to drop off old furniture.
  10. File:Adparlor 6611.jpg
    It's OK to paint or apply funky finishes to make something look more your style. Slipcovers are available at discount stores or you can use sheets in a pinch. Be creative and have fun with it!
    Check auction listings. Many people put their unused items into storage and sometimes they forget to pay the storage bill. Those items are put up for auction. You may be able to stock up for just a few bucks. Most people try to get their hands on the treasures at auctions so the basics can be picked up super cheap.
  11. File:Curled up Currency 7329.jpg
    You've saved some money with the above steps. Save it for a rainy day!
    Pack things away as you get them and check them off your list. Remember to wrap and pack carefully anything that's breakable. You don't want to end up at school with a bunch of broken dishes and have to start over. Don't forget to label the boxes.
  12. Shop for food while you're still at home. Stock up on canned items like soups, powdered drink mixes, tuna and ravioli, boxed mixes, and items that won't crush or go bad. Don't forget salt, pepper, mustard, ketchup, sugar, sweetener, non-dairy powder coffee creamer, Pam cooking spray, popcorn, cans of peanuts, etc. Look at the food you eat daily and keep a list of non-perishable items on your fridge. Don't open anything that requires refrigeration before you leave for your new digs. Many jarred products are safe at room temperature until opened, like mayonnaise and salad dressings.

    • Talk to your parents about adding a few items to each weeks grocery list. If you start early you can have a great supply of food to last you while at school.
    • Also ask your parents about making a trip to the local discount shopping club and pick up some food in bulk.
    • Condiments such as salt and pepper are probably in good supply at your parent's house. Spices are expensive and you won't go through it quickly so ask your family to borrow from their supplies.
  13. Also check with your local antique shops. A lot of them have used items cheaper than you can purchase them at the retail shops. They have many decorative items as well. Keep in mind that you can usually bargain with them and most times receive a discount.
  14. Visit your university's surplus store. They often will offer used office furniture, lamps, tools, and the like at reasonable prices.
  15. Visit your university's loan closet. Some colleges operate "loan closets" on an honor basis, where you can get stuff for free if you agree to return it (and bring more stuff) as soon as you don't need it anymore. Sometimes access to loan closets is restricted to international students or students of a certain department or school.


  • Don't wait until the week before school starts. Start picking up items over the summer or the previous school year. Stocking a college pad can be expensive so give yourself plenty of time to look for bargains.
  • The best time to find curb items is in May, when most colleges finish the school year. Students often discard items they can't take with them when they move. Connect with other students on Uloop for free or inexpensive items; Craigslist is also full of free or cheap items this time of year, too. If you are in a large city, walk around towards the end of the month, when move-outs are most common.
  • Even if you are living in a dorm for now, you can start picking up the other essentials. Keep your eyes open and pick up good deals. By the time you do move into that apartment you'll be stocked with supplies.
  • Before you move into your college home, instead of asking for clothes, clothes and clothes on your birthday or Christmas you should ask for gift cards for discount stores where you can pick up supplies.
  • If you are fortunate enough to get multiple items, you can donate the extras to friends facing the same shopping challenges.
  • You can even start networking with your friends to share shopping tips. Let them know when you see something on their list and vice versa.
  • Use your creativity to decorate your walls. Have pictures of friends, family and images of your home town enlarged and put in matching frames. You can find these from discount stores or buy mismatched ones and paint to match.
  • Check college newspapers or other free publications in your college town or for a college near your home town. Other students may be moving out and have hand me downs for a very good price.
  • Don't forget to check sites like Craigslist or other local message boards for free or low cost items.
  • For every item, consider whether you will really need it -- for most new college students, you will be moving into a room smaller than your room at home, and you will have a roommate.
  • Your college's website should have an area dedicated to incoming freshmen, which will probably have a list of what to bring and what not to bring to the dorms (e.g. many colleges disallow appliances with exposed heating elements, like coffeemakers with pots that sit on hotplates).
  • If you know or will find out exactly who your roommates are before you move into the dorm, get in contact with them and work out who's responsible for getting the bigger things like microwaves, TVs, game systems, printers, et cetera, in accordance with what your school allows.


  • Most thrift stores and yard sales sell items "As Is" which means it may not work. Ask to plug in any electrical appliance to see if it works before you buy.
  • Dorms often restrict what electrical appliances are allowed. Verify your dorm allows items before moving them in. You may just have to pack it away until you have your own apartment.
  • Team lift if something is heavy! Starting the semester with a strained back (and possibly broken furniture) makes for a very unhappy student.
  • Ask what kind of hook up is available before you shop for a washer and dryer. Don't buy a gas dryer if the hook up is for electric only.
  • When heading to the landfill, check that your vehicle properly displays the county sticker. There may be heavy fines for a "visitor," even if to pick up (and not drop off) items. Consider having a friend drive you to the dump if you're from a different jurisdiction.
  • Bleach and ammonia may be inexpensive and effective cleansers but they cannot be mixed together. Toxic fumes will form!
  • Bleach will bleach out fabric on which it is accidentally spilled. Use caution when cleaning with bleach and use caution when dealing with the mop or rags you've used.
  • Bleach and ammonia have strong fumes. Dilute with water and use in a well ventilated area but do not mix (as mentioned previously).
  • Used furniture may contain bedbugs. Mattresses are most at risk, but bedbugs can live in small crevices in any furniture. Note that bedbugs are very flat, and so can hide very effectively in crevices; you are unlikely to spot them through casual inspection. Once bedbugs enter a home, they are extremely difficult to eradicate. To avoid problems, be very sure your furniture has not come from an infested home.
  • Carefully consider furniture that is found on the curbs. Like mattresses with bedbugs, wooden furniture and couches can contain roaches if they have been kept in a home with an infestation. You do not want to deal with this.

Things You'll Need

    1. Kitchen
      • File:Tine is on my side yes it is 357.jpg
        Essentials can be expensive, unless you know where to shop.
        Utensils: You'll need knives, forks and spoons to eat with but also knives to chop with and larger spoons for stirring. You should also get bigger plastic or wooden (not metal, it scratches Teflon) spoons and spatulas to use on Teflon coated (non-stick) pans.
      • File:Dishes 6934.jpg
        You don't need commercial sized cookware. A few medium sized pieces are enough to get started. It's also easier to store and clean. If you have a dishwasher think about what will fit.
        Pots and Pans: You may not cook a lot now but you should learn. Once you learn to cook for one you can stretch your buck a lot farther. Get non-stick (Teflon coated) pots and pans (easier to clean and food won't stick.) You'll need a skillet type pan, medium in size, a sauce pan or two, a baking sheet or jellyroll pan and a round pizza pan if you can find one (and like to eat pizza). Jellyroll and baking sheets come in many sizes. Try to get a small or medium pan since the large pans (usually 17"-19") don't always fit into small ovens.
      • Dishes: For ease you should stock up on plastic plates (paper plates makes too much waste). It is also important to have microwave safe dishes. Look on the bottom of the plate. It will usually be marked if it is microwave safe with "Microwave Safe". You'll need bowls and plates. If you drink coffee you'll also need coffee cups.
      • Glassware: Glasses are for drinking. Not as ashtrays and not as mixing bowls. Some people prefer glass over plastic. Most people have a combination of the two. Look for a heavy feeling glass that isn't too big nor too small. Think of the glasses you drink out of daily and look for glasses that size. Glasses with stems (think wine glasses) can break easily and may not be suitable for everyday dorm/apartment use. If you find a few inexpensive ones or someone offers you free ones you can take them but save them for special occasions. Plastic cups should be sturdy and without odor.
      • Food storage: Storage bowls are usually plastic and come with a lid. You can find very inexpensive plastic storage containers in the grocery store. They are inexpensive enough for you throw away should they get old or nasty. Try to have 1-3 larger storage containers and at least 4-5 smaller containers. If you are living somewhere susceptible to insects you can also get storage containers big enough to hold a box of cereal, a bag of sugar, and large enough to hold a loaf of bread.
        • Ziploc bags are great for storage. You can store the rest of a sandwich, snacks or use them to pack take-along snacks so you can stretch your budget and not eat out as much.
        • Try to pick up the inexpensive storage containers for your leftovers and everyday use. These can usually be found on the aluminium foil or Ziploc bag aisle in most grocery stores for $2-$5 for several small ones.
        • For storing sugar, flour, bread, etc. you may need a larger plastic storage container that can be found in the Rubbermaid or kitchen storage section of your local discount store. These will cost a bit more because they are heavy duty. Try to ask your family if they have extras before you buy.
      • Mixing: You may not do a lot of mixing but having 1-2 bowls around isn't a bad thing. Some even come with lids so you can have back up storage if you need it. Stainless steel bowls are inexpensive and will literally last a lifetime if you maintain them.
      • Look for a few cookbooks if you like to cook. There are cookbooks dedicated to cooking for singles, on budgets and easy meals. Don't forget to add measuring cups and spoons to your shopping list since you'll need more precise measuring with cookbook recipes.
    2. Gadgets and small appliances:

      • Microwave-try to get a smaller one since space will be a premium (unless you get a great deal on a large one).
      • Can opener-these come in electric and manual. If you open lots of cans you can think about an electric.
      • Toaster or toaster oven-Toaster ovens can save electricity if you use it instead of an oven for small items.
      • Coffee maker-look for something with a simple carafe. The replacements can be found easily if broken. You can also use coffee makers for making tea or just heating water.
      • Blender-great for making shakes and smoothies. The lid is essential.
      • Hot Air Popcorn Popper- This is a fantastic item and if you can find a cheap working one you should get it. Popcorn is easy to fix, super cheap and a great snack to offer friends that won't hurt your wallet. With the hot air poppers you can prepare it in 3 minutes and have minimal cleanup.
    3. Towels and linens: You'll need at least two sets of sheets for your bed, a blanket or comforter (more or less depending on where you live), wash cloths, bath towels, kitchen towels, oven mitts, cleaning rags and/or sponges. Cool colors are fun but staying with whites will give you the option to bleach if things get really dirty or smelly. Try to get blankets and comforters that are machine washable and can actually fit into a washing machine. Don't forget linens and pillows. Sleeping on a mattress with no mattress pad or sheets can be unsanitary, promote dust mite infestation and shorten the life of the item.
    4. Cleaning: No one likes to clean so make the job easier with the proper tools. Get a mop, bucket, broom, dust pan, rags, sponges, an all purpose cleaner like 409 or Fantastic that will clean or degrease, ammonia is also great for cleaning everything from appliances to windows, bathroom cleaner, toilet bowl cleaner and toilet bowl brush, (if you have carpet you'll need a vacuum cleaner and vacuum bags). If you really hate cleaning you can pick up some yellow kitchen gloves to keep your hands from getting dirty. You should also pick up a plunger for your bathroom. They're cheap and when you need one, you need one. Sometimes super cheap dollar brand cleansers may not work as well as the name brands.
    5. Furniture items: This can be picked up free from family. Ask your parents if you can take older furniture from the home or check the attic or basement for forgotten lamps and accessories. Make a list of the obvious needs: Bed, dresser, couch, chairs, etc.
      • If you can't find a table you can always use tray tables. They're cheaper and easier to move.
      • Check Craigslist, local thrift stores and put the word out to family that you need furnishings.
      • Avoid waterbeds or king size beds. Many places prohibit waterbeds and king size beds only work in very large rooms. Think functionality and take what will fit. You may need to talk to your parents about letting you take something from the guest room or trade with a sibling.
      • Use slipcovers to give old couches and chairs a new look. Slipcovers will also protect them from spills. Don't worry about finding top of the line couches and chairs. Get what you can and what will fit your space and use slip covers to tie the décor together.
    6. Larger appliances usually come with apartments but you should ask when renting a house.
      • Washer and dryers- availability may vary from location to location so make sure you ask if these are included. If they're not included but a hook up is available you can easily find a used washer and dryer second hand. Check the yellow pages and contact buyers that buy and sell appliances. These businesses often buy broken units and refurbish them for resale. Also check the newspaper classifieds and Craigslist. Often people will unload old ones when moving or getting new ones. These are sometimes in excellent working order and are sold at a very low price because they don't want to deal with moving or hauling. (This is also how some used appliance retailers get products.) If they offer a laundry room and in-apartment hook-ups you should check the cost of their laundry room. You may easily spend more paying per load than spending $50 each on a used washer and dryer.
        • Verify the type of washer and dryer hook up that is available in an apartment before you buy. They may offer a hookup but only for a electric dryer or a stackable until.
        • Don't worry if the plug on the dryer doesn't match the receptacle in the apartment. There are two kinds of cords and plugs widely used. You can go to any home improvement or appliance store and get a new plug for about $10-$15. Following the instructions, it will take about 10 minutes to exchange the old one for the new one.
      • Air conditioners- these may or may not be a necessity where you will be living. Sometimes old houses that are rented out may not have the amenities like air conditioning. You can often find window units for sale at some of the same used appliance centers as you would find washer and dryers. Check Craigslist and your local paper for inexpensive used options. Some larger apartment buildings may rent and install these. If you're moving into a high rise this could be a low stress option.
    7. Lighting. You'll need it to study and lamps can be much more cost effective than running overhead lights. Make sure you're asking family about unwanted lamps. Check yard sales and thrift stores. Be open to floor lamps, desk lamps and table lamps. Like with other hand-me-down décor you can often paint it black, gold or silver to match most any décor. Discount stores also sell replacement shades. Consider using energy efficient bulbs and make sure you aren't using a 100 watt bulb in a lamp made for a 40 watt light. It could be a fire hazard.
    8. Storage options. By having storage available you'll eliminate clutter and having things stacked around your new place. Add bookcases or storage shelves to your list. Students will have lots of books and keeping them organized can save you time and frustration. Have enough room to store the items you have. Don't forget to bring adequate storage for clothes, personal items, etc.

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