How to Outfit Your Dorm Room WITHOUT Asking Mom or Dad for Money

Cheerful student

In movies and television shows, dorm rooms are stylish spaces. In reality, most dorm rooms are dull!

The default for dorms happens to be white walls, vinyl floors, and spartan furnishings. Until you add your personal touch to the space, it usually looks like somewhere monks would live, not hip, happening college students, like yourself! You are a unique, adult individual with plenty of style and flair, which is why you need to do something with your room’s decor and outfit your dorm room without asking mom or dad for money!

If you’re wondering how you’re going to make that happen, you aren’t alone. Students everywhere try to figure out how to outfit their dorm room without asking their folks for cash–or signing up for credit cards–each and every semester. And there are some students who actually manage to do it! We decided to rely on the experiences of these savvy students who styled their room on slim budgets, and we’ve created this guide just for you!

Please note: If you haven’t moved in yet, start at step 1. If you are already in your dorm and wondering what to do now, get started at step 4.

Step 1: Make a list

You need to outfit your dorm room…but with what? Make a list of all the essentials you need or want for your space.

Before you begin, find out what’s already in the room. Once you know what’s there, you can begin to look at what isn’t there and needs to be supplied by you or your roommate. While your school may be different, my college dorm came with two small closets, a pair of built-in dressers, a mirror, a corded land-line phone, two loft-able beds, two desks with hutches, and two chairs.

Your school’s housing office may have even supplied you with a list of items that you need to bring or buy, and you can simply supplement it with things that are important to you or decorative items. If they haven’t, you can work off one of the several lists you can find online, like the Dorm Room Essentials Checklist at Real Simple or our eBay Guides College Kitchen Essentials Checklist. Just remember, you may not need everything on these lists, and some of the items may not be allowed in your college or university housing.

Step 2: Look at what you already have

If you are already on campus and miles and miles away from home, you may have missed the opportunity for step 2. For everyone else, it’s time to take inventory!

Even though many young adults want to think of going off to college as a fresh start and a completely new beginning, it doesn’t mean you need all new stuff. There are plenty of things in your bedroom at home that would make perfectly good dorm room decor.

Before you pack it all up, you should consider the following:

  • Are you going to be going home at all? If you will be spending holidays and the occasional weekend back at home, you may not want to clear out your room. Winter break will feel extra long if you are sitting in the dark because you took your bedside lamp and other lighting fixtures to college.
  • Is it truly your stuff? When I was living at home with my parents, all sorts of random objects made it into my room. Be sure that something doesn’t actually belong to a sibling or your parents.
  • Do you really need it or just want it? Yes, you are trying to outfit your dorm room, but your dorm room is small. Your collection of bobble heads would give your room some character, but it would also take up the precious little bit of shelf space you have. You may want to think of more compact decorative pieces.
  • Does your roommate want it? If you are sharing your room with your roommate, you have to take their tastes into account too. Don’t get your heart set on anything until after step 3, which is when you chat with your roomie about whether or not your My Little Pony poster will be a welcome addition to the decor.

Of course, there is stuff around the house that isn’t yours exactly, but these could find their way inside your dorm room. Show your parent or guardian the list you made, and ask if any of those items happen to be just laying around the house. By asking about extra things that your mom or dad may have otherwise thrown away or left in a closet to gather dust, you are helping them cut clutter and cutting down on the chances that you may ask them for money to outfit your dorm room in the near future.

Outfit your dorm room: roommates

Step 3: Talk with your roommate(s)

If you are like the vast majority of college students, you will have a roommate. Dorm rooms are small, so you will be sharing some cramped quarters with this other individual. You may know them already or you may not, but either way, you need to have a chat with them before making any decisions about outfitting your dorm room.

Reach out to them by phone or by email, and keep the list you made of things your dorm room needs handy. He or she may be on the ball and have their own list, but there’s a chance your new roomie hasn’t even thought about it yet, and you may need to steer the conversation.

As you talk to your roomie(s) about how you will outfit your dorm room:

  • DO ask if they made a list. Their list could include items you hadn’t even thought to add, and these could be things you already own.
  • DON’T expect them to bring anything. Even if you know your roomie(s) already, you may not have the whole picture of their financial situation. Don’t expect them to supply stuff that will be shared by all roommates. You may just have to go without a television or a futon for visiting friends, or you may have to save up for months before buying that electric blue Papasan chair.
  • DO ask them if they have any of the big shared items on the list. Your new roomie may have already purchased a microwave or had a nice LCD TV in their bedroom.
  • DON’T insist on your stuff. You’re going to be in small space with someone else, and you’re going to have to compromise a lot, so you should start now. If you both already have a TV that you both wanted to bring, figure out which set would be the best for the room, and go with the one that makes the most sense. If a new roommate is insisting that you leave your area rug behind so they can bring theirs, let them–starting a fight now will make the semester (or whole year if you can’t get a room reassignment) really uncomfortable.
  • DO offer to share. Your room won’t have a lot of space, so if you each have a full set of dishes, glasses, and silverware, you might not have enough room for food, books, or other supplies. Consider offering to share these and other “household” items.
  • DON’T buy things together. Only one of you can take these items with you at the end of the school year. You don’t want to spend your last week of classes fighting over who is going to take the floor lamp home instead of studying for exams.
  • DO offer what you can. Don’t beat around the bush! Now is a good time to be generous. If you have a lot of the big stuff  for the room, say so. You don’t want your roomie to have to ask his or her parents for money to outfit your dorm room if you could have done it at no additional expense.
  • DON’T forget to talk about tastes and interests. Again, this goes back to your My Little Pony poster. If your new roommate has a fear of animated, anthropomorphic animals, your poster could give them night terrors. And if you are a Red Sox fan, that New York Yankees welcome mat that he or she was going to bring could really rub you the wrong way. You want to avoid conflict and find common ground and identify areas to avoid early.

Step 4: Scrounge

Before you go out and spend a cent, you should look for as much free stuff as possible. If you are in a somewhat large community, online classified sites and message boards for people who are freegans or into freecycling will have listings for free stuff in your area. You may need to sign up, but this should be quick, easy, and–you guessed it–free!

Also, you can keep your eye out for curb-side treasures. Some people throw out perfectly good furniture and other items because they don’t want to go through the hassle of attempting to sell it or even taking it to a local charity to donate it. This is especially prevalent at the end of the month when most leases end. In college towns, you may have missed prime picking, as many students move out of their old apartments and houses and into new digs at the end of July and beginning of August, but in larger cities, you will still have an ample selection at the end of August and September.

Of course, it isn’t just strangers shelling out free stuff. If you haven’t shown your list to your family yet, do it now. Maybe they have stuff you need that you never would have known about if you hadn’t asked.

While you are at it, ask older friends who already live on their own or who have lived in dorms previously. They may have items you need and can lend them to you for the school year or simply give them to you because they are no longer needed.

Step 5: Shop

It doesn’t matter if you haven’t moved in yet or are several weeks into the semester; the rules for frugal shopping remain the same. As you outfit your dorm room, you are going to shop like the savvy, resourceful adult you are, and this means that you won’t overextend yourself or ask your mom or dad for money in the process.

You may be wondering what the rules are for shopping frugally, and you also may be thinking something along the lines of “rules are made to be broken.” If the latter thought crossed your mind, forget it! Not every rule may apply to your situation or particular purchase, but if you don’t follow these basic tenets of frugal shopping, you’ll be out of cash before you know it.

Our 6 rules for frugal shopping:

Frugal shopping rule #1: Compare prices.

This means compare posted prices online and in physical stores. I know you’ve never seen a Hello Kitty toaster before you walked into that cute, chronically overpriced home goods store, but do yourself a favor and search eBay and other online retailers before you pull the trigger.

Frugal shopping rule #2: Prioritize your purchases.

Separate “needs” from “wants” on your list. Be sure that all of the items in your “need” column have been bought before you so much as think about scooping up some of those “wants.”

Frugal shopping rule #3: Utilize rain checks and layaway.

If you find something on sale in a store and it’s out of stock, get a rain check, if available. A rain check means you can buy the item at a later date for the same low price. Alternatively, if you find something on sale in a shop and can’t afford it now, you may be able to put it on layaway and make payments when you can.

Frugal shopping rule #4: Buy used.

New items seem to make sense for your new beginning as an independent adult, but buying new-to-you items is a much more mature way to handle your young budget. Online classified ads, thrift stores, eBay, garage sales, message boards, and other outlets for used items should be scoured for what you are looking for before you buy new.

Frugal shopping rule #5: Use coupons.

There won’t be coupons for everything, but look for them before you buy. Online sites like RetailMeNot list coupons and offers for various online and physical stores that you can take advantage of, and you want to look at sites like this for coupons before you buy anything. Also, if you are in a physical shop and you realize you left your coupon at home, ask to put your purchase on hold and go get the coupon first. Only forgo the coupon if going to get it will end up costing you more in fuel, parking fees, or other related expenses.

Frugal shopping rule #6: Don’t buy anything you can’t afford.

If you don’t have the money and can’t put the item on layaway don’t buy it! Putting something on a credit card or financing it is borrowing money. As a student, you may or may not be able to pay these debts back in a reasonable amount of time. Asking mom or dad for money is better than borrowing it from a credit card or financing company, and you’re not about to do that either!

Barista making cappuccino in his coffeeshop

Step 6: Get a job

My dorm room roommate’s parents paid for her college education with only one stipulation. Jocelyn was allowed to party, date, play intramural sports, travel on weekends, and even do some slightly illegal things that I won’t discuss here. She was not allowed to get a job, as her mom and dad figured that would distract her from her studies and the college experience. If you are in a similar situation, I suggest you skip to the next step. Also, I’m sorry to inform you that asking mom and dad for money in this situation may be unavoidable. That being said…

If you can, get a job. You need a part-time gig to bring in money, not only the ability to outfit your dorm room, but also to allow you to have fun without having to ask the folks for some funds.

When the semester is already underway, you may have slim pickings in a college town for part-time careers, as the slots are probably all filled. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. You can start looking and leaving resumes for spots that will open up as student workers graduate, quit, or are fired. You can also expand your search to areas that aren’t so close to campus, as there may be less competition for these opportunities.

You can also make your own job!

Depending on your experience, skills, and qualifications, you can create your own money-making opportunity! A little entrepreneurial spirit could end up netting you some big bucks. If you want to do something that would be out in the community like babysitting, tutoring, mowing lawns, or shoveling snow, online classifieds and local message boards can let you get the word out. If you want to do something that you can do from the privacy of your own dorm room like writing blog posts, answering emails, or helping build web pages, you should check out oDesk and other online freelancing sites. Put up a profile and start applying to gigs ASAP.

Step 7: Save

If you are still trying to come up with the cash to buy things to outfit your dorm room after these other six steps, you need to start saving. There are several forms that this could take.

If you don’t have an income and are living off of savings or money mom or dad previously gave you, you need to make and follow a budget. A very mature, responsible, adult thing to do, working with a budget helps you to be sure you have the money for things that are truly important to you, like that hanging lotus lamp for your dorm room. Your budget allows you to save more money by looking at how much you bring in or already have and what you are spending it on. You may need to eliminate your weekly Gumby’s Pizza order and say “no” to Pokey Sticks if you want to have a microwave in your dorm room, but you may not see practical ways to save unless you actually made a budget.

If you do have an income, you need to make a budget anyway! I hate to break it to you, but you are a college student living in a dorm and not rolling in dough. Your budget should include a portion of your income being stashed into a savings account and a special fund for financing purchases of hot plates (which are probably not allowed) and other dorm room necessities you haven’t been able to buy yet.

Step 8: Let it go

Why did you go to college anyway?!

You should be there for an education, so who cares about what your dorm room looks like?! It may just end up being a monk-like room for studying, sleeping, and having light meals, and nothing is wrong with that. You don’t need stuff to have a good life, so you definitely don’t need material goods (beyond those the college tells you that you need for your courses) to get a good education. You don’t need a beaded curtain, a lava lamp, or whatever young people like now in order to have a good college experience.

It’s easy and cheap to outfit your dorm room if you just let it go and forget about it. Spend your time pursuing academics, friendships, intramural activities, and new experiences instead of worrying about what kind of stuff is in your space. If you don’t have the funds and can’t come up with them, don’t get caught up in trying to keep up with the kid across the hall. Be you, and know that being yourself and making the most out of your time as a college student is far more valuable than any piece of furniture or decorative junk you could ever cram into your dorm room.


Thanks again to friends, family, and colleagues for sharing their tips and experiences!

guy studying in library

Want to learn more about being frugal, saving money, and living responsibly? We recommend reading: 29 Fun & Frugal Things To Do Before Summer Ends!10 Fabulous Ideas for Repurposing Thrift Store Fashion, and Ditch These 9 Disposable Items: Choices That Just Might Save the World.


Of course, if you have any thoughts on saving as a student or tips for how to outfit your dorm room on a tight budget, please share in the comments.

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