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14 Ways College Students Can Save Money on Back-to-School Supplies

If you’re heading to college, you’re likely experiencing a whole new level of sticker shock, even if your parents are helping you pay. Unlike public high school, college is expensive — really expensive.

Financial consulting firm Deloitte’s parent survey showed that in 2019, in addition to the increasing cost of college tuition, parents expected to spend $1,362 on supplies and gear. These costs break down as follows:

  • Electronics: $759
  • Supplies: $453
  • Clothing and Accessories: $266
  • Home Appliances and Supplies: $263
  • Dorm or Apartment Supplies: $321
  • Electronic Gadgets and Digital Subscriptions: $379

Of course, this breakdown doesn’t include the cost of textbooks, some of which can run $200 or more. The list also doesn’t include essentials you need to stay safe from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Fortunately, there are many ways to save money on back-to-school and dorm room supplies and head to campus with everything you need.

How to Save on College Back-to-School Supplies

Going to college is an emotional and expensive transition for both you and your parents. But shopping for supplies can be an enjoyable bonding experience, especially since it might be one of the last times you do something together before you head off to school.

Before you start shopping, make a list of everything you need and set a budget. A budget helps ensure you don’t overspend or buy things you don’t need. If your parents are helping you purchase supplies, talk with them about how much you can spend in each area. If the budget your parents set is lower than you’d like, you can always get a side gig to save up extra money.

How to Save Money on Study Supplies

In high school, you likely needed plenty of notebooks, folders, and pens. However, many of your college assignments will likely be submitted digitally, which means you’ll probably need fewer notebooks than in years past.

That’s going to be even more prevalent in the fall of 2020, with more campuses relying on virtual learning due to the pandemic. Buy just what you think you’ll need to get you through the first month or two so you can assess how often you use physical supplies. If you need more going forward, you can always order extras on Amazon.

1. Raid Your High School Supplies

Before you head out shopping, sort through all your high school supplies to find materials you can reuse in college. Clean out your backpack, open the box with everything you had stored in your locker, and check the desk in your room.

Reusing supplies is an easy way to go zero-waste in college and save money along the way.

2. Check the Dollar Store

Your local dollar store should be your first stop when looking for basic back-to-school supplies like notebooks, pens, and folders. Everything’s $1, so it’s a budget-friendly way to check some items off your list.

3. Buy Refurbished Electronics

You can save a lot of money by purchasing refurbished electronics. It’s essential to buy refurbished items from a reputable dealer to ensure you get a product that works for you for a long time.

For example, Apple is a trusted retailer of refurbished products because they have strict standards when it comes to replacement parts, and all products come with a one-year warranty.

Another trusted resource is Amazon’s Renewed program. Amazon Renewed professionally inspects and tests all parts, replaces anything defective, and then cleans the device thoroughly. Amazon Renewed products come with a 90-day guarantee.

You can also check out BackMarket, a website that sells refurbished electronics and provides a one-year warranty on most products. They also offer free shipping and a 6%-off student discount. At BackMarket, you can save even more money if you care more about how the computer runs than how it looks. Some devices may have severe scratches or dents but run perfectly. There’s less risk than you think in choosing one of these devices, which BackMarket refers to as “Stallone” (as in Sylvester, aka Rocky and Rambo). You have 30 days to test and return it, no questions asked.

Also, according to Consumer Reports, some credit card companies extend the warranty on refurbished goods as long as they come with a preexisting warranty. If you don’t have a credit card yet, talk to your parents about whether it’s the right time to get one. Some of the best credit cards for young adults do offer extended warranties. If not, your parents may be willing to use theirs. The cardholder can contact the credit card company to determine what, if any, protections they offer before you buy.

4. Buy Used or Older-Edition Textbooks

One big way to save money on college textbooks is to buy them secondhand and avoid the campus bookstore. You can save up to 90% off the cost of textbooks when you buy used or rent your textbook.

Keep in mind that while renting a textbook might be cheaper upfront, it isn’t always the best deal because you can’t resell it. Even if used textbooks cost more, you can recoup some of that money by selling your used textbooks for cash at the end of the school year. Plus, buying used gives you the option to keep the textbook if you later decide it will be a useful reference moving forward, such as an anatomy book. But if you choose to rent, do the math first to determine which is the better option financially.

Check out these retailers to buy used or rentable textbooks:

Another strategy to save money on college textbooks is to buy older editions of the books on your list. But before you go this route, talk to your professor and ask if it will be a problem to use an older edition. Some professors have a specific reason for using the current edition.

Textbooks Notbooks Pencils Studying

How to Save on Dorm Room Supplies

It’s easy to fall into the black hole of “dorm room essentials” when you’re college-shopping. The cute little minifridge, the faux-fur throw pillows, and the indoor twinkle lights all seem to end up in your cart, regardless of your budget.

Although it’s tempting to turn this into a shopping bonanza, if they’re paying, your parents probably won’t be pleased about that when the credit card bill arrives in a few weeks. And if you’re footing the bill, it won’t be fun to start your first semester broke or with credit card debt. A smarter approach is to make a list, stick to your budget, and buy used when you can.

Pro tip: Download the Capital One Shopping browser extension. When shopping on Amazon it will alert you when a better price is available elsewhere. It will also automatically add any available coupon codes to help you save even more money.

Capital One Shopping compensates us when you get the Capital One Shopping extension using the links we provided.

5. Do Your Homework

When it comes to buying dorm room supplies, it pays to do some homework first. You don’t want to buy a coffee maker only to find out the school bans individual coffee makers or a futon if the dorm room already comes with a couch.

Once you find out where you’ll be living, head to the school’s residency page and look up that particular house or dorm. Find out the dimensions of each room, what the school supplies as a courtesy, and what’s banned.

For example, some dorms don’t allow microwaves, hot plates, electric kettles, or toasters. You can also check Bed Bath & Beyond’s college locator page, which has an extensive list of what many schools supply and what they don’t.

6. Shop at Home

Once you know what the school provides, make a list of everything else you need. Then shop at home before you start spending money on anything.

Shopping at home means looking around the house for things you already own that you could take to school. For example, you might have several towels, a desk organizer, or a working desk lamp that would work well in your dorm room. Just make sure you ask permission to take anything in case your parents have already decided how they plan to use it when you’re gone.

You can also reach out to friends and family members and ask if they have anything on your list they’re not using anymore. Chances are they’ll be glad to help.

Refer to your list and cross off everything you can already supply without setting foot (or mouse) in a store. What’s left is everything you need to buy.

7. Reach Out to Roommates

If you have their contact information, you can also save money by reaching out to your future roommate. Talk to them before move-in day and determine who’s going to bring what so you don’t end up buying the same furniture and supplies. For instance, you could bring a microwave and rugs while your roommate brings a minifridge and coffee maker.

8. Only Buy Necessities

What do you need to get through the first week of school? Chances are you need bedding, towels, and toiletries, and that’s it.

It’s smart to assemble and purchase the bare necessities first and then order the rest once you’re moved in and have a feel for the dorm. You can shop through Amazon Prime Student, which is free for six months, and have everything shipped to the campus bookstore within days. That’s also less stuff to move with you.

9. Go Thrifting

Shop for dorm room essentials like rugs, sheets, plates, and light cooking equipment at garage sales and thrift stores, where they cost a fraction of what they cost new. Many thrift stores, such as Goodwill, have “student days” starting in late summer and give student discounts of 10% or more.

10. Rent Supplies

Check your college or university website to see if they have a rental program. Many schools do now. In such programs, you can rent appliances like microwaves or minifridges at a fraction of the cost of buying them new, and you don’t have to move them out at the end of the year.

11. Check Craigslist

Start checking Craigslist for the city where you plan to attend school or a nearby area that has a university. Students who graduate from school in April or May often sell — or even give away — furniture and electronics like couches, futons, and TVs because they don’t want to ship or move them back home.

If your school or another university isn’t too far from your home, you can pick up some fantastic bargains from graduating students if you’re willing to store them over the summer. It can also pay to drive around campus neighborhoods at the end of the semester. Many students simply leave unwanted things on the curb for anyone to pick up.

12. Buy Quality

If you have siblings, your family can save money by purchasing high-quality dorm room essentials you can then pass on to your brothers or sisters when they head off to school. Higher-quality products typically last longer, so if you take care of them, your siblings can use them as well.

But while buying higher-quality appliances and electronics can be an excellent way for your family to save money long-term, you might want to take some things to your apartment once you graduate. Talk to your parents upfront about what you plan to pass on and what you want to keep so there’s no confusion or resentment later on. Just know that, depending on your agreement with your parents, you may end up paying for anything you want to keep.

13. Splurge Where It Matters Most

It’s easy to overbuy when you’re shopping for dorm supplies. After all, this is your first real foray into adulthood, and your dorm is your first personal space away from home.

There’s nothing wrong with splurging to make your dorm comfortable and personal, as long as you don’t strain your budget. If you’re going to splurge on some extras, do it in areas that will make the most significant difference to your comfort, stress levels, or happiness.

For example, are you dreading having to share a dorm room with someone else? The lack of privacy can be a real challenge. So splurge on a Privacy Pop bed tent so you’ll have a private space when others surround you. If you’re anxious about being away from home for the first time, buy a weighted blanket to help reduce that. If you love reading late into the night, splurge on a memory foam bed rest pillow to make your dorm bed feel just as comfortable as the couch at home.

Spend some time thinking about what’s making you feel most anxious about going to college and then brainstorm ways to alleviate that anxiety.

14. Stock Up on Health & Medical Supplies

Every campus will have different protocols for students and staff during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many campuses are reducing housing density by 25% or more, eliminating gathering spaces like lounges, and requiring students to wear masks during class.

Some students feel anxious about heading back to school in the middle of a pandemic. Stocking up on supplies like face masks and hand sanitizer can help you feel more in control. You could also spend time with your family during the summer making homemade face masks so you all have plenty of extra ones. There are also places to buy masks if you’re not particularly crafty. Before you buy extra masks, read up on how to pick out a mask so you purchase one that meets your needs.

Other students are less concerned. But remember: Although you might dislike wearing one because it’s uncomfortable or “uncool,” it’s essential you realize the COVID-19 virus can spread even when you don’t show symptoms, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Even if you’re healthy and not worried about getting sick, healthy young people have had severe complications (including death), and you can still easily spread the virus to teachers, staff, and immunocompromised students who are more vulnerable to the disease. Wearing a mask helps protect others and can save lives.

Another idea is to make a custom first-aid kit to keep in your dorm or apartment. Creating a custom kit is almost always cheaper than buying a preassembled first-aid kit, and you can stock it with items you need or are used to relying on at home. Having a first-aid kit can also help you avoid a visit to the campus medical office.

With your parents’ permission, pull medicine and supplies from your medicine cabinet at home, and buy anything else you need to fill in the gaps. Make sure you have the following essentials in your first-aid kit:

  • Over-the-counter (OTC) flu and cough medications
  • OTC pain relievers
  • A digital thermometer
  • Antiseptic wipes
  • Vicks Vaporub or other mentholated topical ointment
  • Allergy medicine
  • Cough drops
  • Bandages in various sizes as well as gauze pads and surgical tape
  • Isopropyl alcohol
  • Saline nasal spray
  • Neosporin or other antibacterial cream
  • Anbesol (for toothaches and canker sores)
  • Shelf-stable elderberry syrup to boost immunity naturally and ward off influenza
  • Antacid and antigas medications

It can be expensive to buy all this at once. Retailers often put first-aid and preparedness items on sale in August, back-to-school season, and September, National Preparedness Month.

Make sure you understand the proper dosing for all medications you put in your kit and learn more about the importance of not mixing medications and alcohol consumption. You can find more information on the harmful effects of mixing OTC medications with alcohol at Alcohol.org.

Final Word

For most first-year college students, heading off to school for the first time is a tumultuous and exciting experience. You’re excited to experience life on your own. But you’re also unsure about taking these first steps into adulthood. The result is that many parents and students end up overshopping for college because they want to make the experience as comfortable and fun as possible.

There’s nothing wrong with splurging on supplies. But with a few money-saving strategies like buying used and partnering with roommates, you can have some wiggle room in your budget to spend extra in areas where it will really matter.

What are you doing to save money on back-to-school college supplies?

Heather Levin
Heather Levin is a writer with over 15 years experience covering personal finance, natural health, parenting, and green living. She lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina with her husband and two young sons, where they're often wandering on frequent picnics to find feathers and wildflowers.

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