After paying for books, not to mention school itself, there isn't much left over for dorm room decor. But consider this a lesson in practicality: Once May rolls around, everything in the room must be cleared out, which is a giant incentive to decorate on the cheap. Many retailers are now running "back to college" specials. Here's where to find 10 dorm room essentials on a budget.
There isn't room for much furniture beyond the supplied basics, but several student informants swear by the Lack side table from Ikea. It's small enough to be portable, provides an excellent surface for studying while sitting on the floor, and costs $10 or less, depending on the color. It comes in five finishes, including birch, black, and yellow, and transfers easily to an apartment. Buying secondhand items is another money-saving option.
Small appliances such as coffee pots and toaster ovens are prohibited in many college dorms, although mini-fridges and microwaves usually pass muster. Some schools rent them, which eliminates the need to cart a bulky appliance back and forth over summer break. For these big-ticket items, it's a good idea to spread the cost among roommates. Dorm-size fridges start at about $100 and are large enough to accommodate leftover Chinese takeout and canned beverages. Walmart sells a model with an ice cube chamber and chalkboard coating on the door, which invites personalized doodles and to-do lists. Small microwaves often carry price tags under $100; find out which microwaves are the best.
Many dorm rooms are furnished with extra-long beds, and regular twin sheets and blankets don't fit, so take care to purchase the proper size linens. Some students like to coordinate with roommates; others are more individualistic. Look for matching sheets and pillowcases at Target, which stocks dorm-appropriate (i.e., extra-long) cotton sheet sets for under $20.
Most dorm closets and dressers are miniscule, so organizing wearables is critical. Scarves can become part of dorm room decor when hung on the wall or draped over the window. Plastic storage cubes that look like dairy crates and tinted plastic stacking drawers go for $10 and $14, respectively, at The Container Store. One recent grad moved the drawers from dorm room to college apartment to post-college crib. Under-bed storage boxes probably sound like a good idea, but save your money and reserve that space for suitcases and duffels, which are eminently useful for stowing out-of-season items.
When a roommate goes to bed and turns off the overhead light, it's hard to get late-night studying done without a desk lamp. Ikea may be the best source for this. The $23 Forså table lamp presents a classic profile that will smarten up any desk. (Note: Ikea lamps often take unusual bulb sizes, so pick up a few extras while shopping.) JC Penney offers a simple desk lamp that takes a standard 60-watt bulb for $15.
Private baths are a rarity in college dorms. Carry personal-care products to and fro, and keep them all together the rest of the time, with a shower caddy. The Container Store steps up here with a version in blue and white for $8. JC Penney offers a six-piece towel set -- two washcloths, two hand towels, and two bath towels in any of six colors for $17.
Peel-and-stick wall decals are tempting elements of dorm room decor, but students advise against wasting precious wall space. Artwork, of the self-made variety or supplied by friends, is sure to accumulate, and cheap posters and postcards are readily available. At AllPosters.com, uploaded photos are converted into posters; a 24x32 print costs $18. Most dorms forbid nails or screws in the walls, which makes removable hooks a necessity. Home Depot and many other vendors sell six-packs for less than $10.
Target holds the edge in this category with a wild array of comforter sets under $20. Bed Bath and Beyond has a clearance bin that often contains good quality comforters at greatly reduced prices, including some in the extra-long size. A bonus offered by this retailer: Buy products locally and the student can pick them up at a store near college.