Dorm Room Essentials


Well, the time has finally arrived — you’re packing for college. Freedom, adventure, shenanigans, and (hopefully) a crap-ton of learning and growing await you during these next four years.

So, what are you taking with you? Don't say "my blanky."

What you pack for college depends a great deal on where you are going for college. Big university in the middle of a city or tiny college in the middle of nowhere? Does your dorm permit you to have a mini-fridge and microwave in your room? These are questions that need to be answered before you start shopping to outfit your new home. Your college or university should provide you with living information ahead of time, but you're still left deciding what you can't live without and what you can afford to leave behind in your old bedroom. And heaven forbid you should get stuck without something you really need while attending some idyllic liberal arts college in the middle of Western Massachusetts, because you'll either shell out big bucks at the student store or have to go without.

There are many things that make for a killer dorm room, like plants, well-designed politician posters, and a rug that really ties the room together. This is not an article about those things, because this is meant to outline the bare minimum that you can take with you while living comfortably in a college dorm.

Where to Shop

What's the best place to get good prices on your college essentials? Probably the same places to get best prices on anything else — Costco, Sam's Club, Walmart, Target, and K-Mart. Avoid buying stuff from the catalogs that colleges send out in the summer, and don't fall for the idea that your dorm room has to include a theme or any particular element that you don't think is necessary. Also, if you can manage to keep it spare and spartan during your freshman year, you can score tons of free stuff at the end of the term when seniors move out and dump all of their stuff for you to pick through (freegans rejoice!). (See also: College Move Out Days: The Best Time to Dumpster Dive?)

Sleepy Time Stuff

Sleep is so incredibly important during your college years. However, getting a good night's sleep when suddenly faced with a room-sharing situation can be tough. To help you catch all the necessary Zs, make sure to pack the following:

Ear Plugs (cost varies; $20 for 200)

Your roommate is guaranteed to either snore or receive very loud phone calls at 2 a.m. from his mother in Croatia (or both). Soft, foam ear plugs are going to allow you to largely ignore middle-of-the-night convos while still being able to hear your alarm ring in the morning.

Sleep Mask ($5-10)

There are going to be times in college where you are going to need to catch some shut-eye even when the sun is out or your roommate is cramming for an exam with the light on until 3 a.m. This is where a sleep mask will save you from a life of sleep deprivation.

Alarm Clock (varies)

If you have a mobile phone, you can its alarm clock to wake up in time for 8:00 a.m. Spanish (why, why did you sign up for 8:00 a.m. Spanish?), or you can buy a full-fledged alarm clock that will wake you up with soothing sounds or your favorite music.

Foamy Mattress Cover ($44-100)

Unless you are attending a college of chiropractic medicine, chances are that your dorm bed is going to suck. Find out ahead of time what size mattress you will have (twin, probably) and purchase a memory-foam mattress pad. It’ll be nice and cozy and will separate your tender spine from those metal springs by a few inches of soft, wonderful foam.

Sheets ($20 and up)

Some dorms provide sheets, others don't. But even if they do, you want to bring your own, don't you? Don't go for anything fancy, just two sets of simple sheets that will fit whatever size bed your college is forcing you to use.

Personal Care

Grooming is especially important during your college years. It might not be consistent, but it’s important. You should shower at least once a week, is my point.

Shower Caddy/Tote ($10-20)

Common showers? Unless your dorm provides lockers (they might), you’re probably going to want a shower caddy to tote your toiletries to and fro. Plastic is easy to clean and doesn’t rust, but metal is less likely to get moldy. There are even fabric or plastic mesh versions now, should you care to simply toss your tote through the wash after every few uses.

Bathrobe ($10 and up)

Bathrobes are indispensable in college. You can’t be expected to get totally dressed on your way to the bathroom in the middle of the night.

Flip-Flops/Shower Shoes ($1 and up)

Unless you are lucky enough to have a dorm room with a private shower, you’re probably going to have to deal with communal showering situations, which are often rife with bacteria. Avoid athlete’s foot and general grossness with a good pair (or two) of shower-ready flip-flops. You can bring as many pairs with you as you like, but reserve one pair specifically for shower use.

Slippers ($10 and up)

Although your flip-flops can double as slippers for schlepping around the dorm, you might want a pair of warm slippers if your school happens to be in a cooler clime.

Towels ($5 and up)

Most colleges don’t provide towels. You will need a minimum of two body towels and two hand towels. Washcloths are a personal preference (I never liked them).

Body Wash ($2 and up)

Under normal circumstances, soap is a more frugal buy than body wash. But when you have to tote your shower essentials back and forth and store shower stuff in plastic buckets, body wash is a scum-free alternative to bar soap.

Extra Razors (godawful amount of money)

If you shave, buy your razors in bulk ahead of time. Costco, your local dollar store, or Walgreens are good places to find deals on razor refills.

Feminine Products (varies)

Obviously for the ladies only; stockpile everything you will need for approximately nine months of menstruation, and then pack some more because you will make instant friends with other women who come to you in the middle of the night in desperate need of a tampon.


Laundry facilities will vary from place to place, but chances are that you will find yourself doing laundry more often than you like in college.

Laundry Basket or Bag (from $10)

Traditional laundry baskets take up a lot of horizontal space, so seek out baskets that are tall and have a small footprint. Sturdy laundry bags that hang on a light aluminum frame are also a good option.

Detergent ($13 and up)

Detergent is expensive if purchased anywhere outside of Costco or Sam’s Club. If you possibly can, buy one or two massive drums of the stuff at the beginning of the year, and ration it carefully. Powder detergent is a more frugal option than liquid detergent, but it’s also less useful in rickety old dorm washing machines.

Dryer Sheets ($4 and up)

Easier to store than fabric softener, dryer sheets can be reused at least once each.

Rolls of Quarters

I imagine that many colleges now have advanced laundry systems that allow you to use credit cards, student IDs, or other means to pay for your laundry, but many millions of years ago when I was in school (1999), quarters were where it was at. And I happened to go to a school that shall remain nameless (Mount Holyoke College) where obtaining enough quarters to do a month’s worth of laundry was pretty much like pulling teeth, only less pleasant and occasionally with more bloodshed. My mother, bless her heart, used to send me rolls of quarters in her occasional care packages. Get a couple hundred dollars worth before setting out and hoard any that you come across when getting change, and you’ll be fine.


It's always the little things that make life less stressful — realizing that you have what you need to run minor errands, like a bus pass and a decent pair of socks. Here are some minor items that make dorm life more tolerable.

Waste Basket ($5 and up)

Most college dorms provide at least one waste basket, but you can never have too many baskets to stash things in.

Desk Fan ($12 and up)

Fans are a godsend for muggy climes with no air conditioning and for drowning out the sounds of a snoring roommate.

Stamps (varies)

You will occasionally have to mail something in college. A pack of Forever stamps will take you far. The same goes for envelopes. Buy them now, as they will cost a million times more at the student bookstore. You might want to consider printing out your own return address labels.

Surge Protector/Power Strip ($5 and up)

It’s amazing how few outlets you will find in a 15 ft. x 15 ft. bedroom. A surge protector will offer extra places to plug in your lamp/laptop/cell phone charger.


It sort of goes without saying that you will need to bring any and all prescription medicines with you while away from home.

Documents and Filing System

Bring any and all documentation that you might need for filing financial aid paperwork, to get a job, or to pay your bills. It's unlikely that you will need a full file cabinet — an accordion file should suit you just fine.


Hey, better safe than sorry, right? Even if you don’t personally get the opportunity to get (safely) busy, you can bet that a roommate or friend will probably be grateful for your prophylactic stash.

Learnin’ and Technical Stuff

Books and computers are expensive, but the advent of the technical age means that many books are now in electronic format, making a computer a worthwhile investment. How many other peripherals you need depends largely on your ability to plan ahead.

Computer ($300 and up)

Some colleges have well-apportioned computer labs at your beck and call 24/7; others are a little stingier. It’s obviously more convenient to have your own computer in college, because you can use it for note-taking, loading e-books, writing papers, and keeping in touch with everyone you left behind when you went to college. How MUCH of a computer you settle on depends on budget and major — if you plan to work with graphic design, a netbook is not going to cut it. But if you’re a Lit major or taking Asian Studies, you can probably get by with a lightweight, inexpensive netbook or even an iPad.

Printer and Paper ($50 and up)

Computer labs usually offer printing services, but the price can vary. Printers are so cheap these days that it almost makes sense to buy your own and keep it on hand for days when you need to print a term paper but don’t have time to wait in line behind 20 other students. If you do have your own printer, be sure to bring enough paper.

Food and Snacks

Keeping yourself armed with edibles that can stand the test of time is a good way to avoid splurging on late-night Denny's runs (not that you shouldn't EVER hit Denny's at 2 a.m.). If preparedness leads to savings, then having a well-stocked snack pantry is practically the key to your vault of gold.

Dried Fruit and Nuts (varies)

It helps to hit up Trader Joe's on your way to college and stock up on dried fruit and flavored nuts, which will get you through many a late-night cram session. Go easy on the dried fruit, though. Peanut butter is also a fantastic source of energy that is easy to store.

Ramen ($0.50/pack)

Ramen is the answer to all of life's woes. If you can find a nice, cheap electric kettle for your room, all the better. Another option here is a rice cooker, if you are a big fan of rice or the one-pot meal. If you're not a carb-lover, investing in a big stash of beef jerky can be a wise choice, even if it is on the pricey side.

Coffee and Tea (varies)

Having your own stash of coffee and tea will not only help keep you awake when you suddenly remember that you have a paper on the early Islamic caliphates due in the morning, but also makes for some good socializing time with new roommates and friends. Buy a decent selection of tea (black, green, chamomile), offer a warm cup to any homesick co-ed, and you've got a friend for life.

Are you heading for college? What are you bringing with you? What do you think you can live without?

Disclaimer: The links and mentions on this site may be affiliate links. But they do not affect the actual opinions and recommendations of the authors.

Wise Bread is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to

Guest's picture

i would add: baby powder and baby wipes. there will inevitably be a couple times when you wake up 7 minutes before the start of your first class. there's no time for a shower in this situation. The baby wipes will help you feel refreshed, and the baby powder will help you not stink. Plus, you can rub a little powder through your hair to keep it from looking oily.

Meg Favreau's picture

I'll second the earplugs and their place near the top of the list. Those things got me through college.

Andrea Karim's picture

None of my roommates ever snored, oddly enough. I probably did, though.

Meg Favreau's picture

I was just lame and went to bed early (or, I suppose, "college early").

Guest's picture

Remember that most college towns are near enough to a Walmart/Bed Bath & Beyond/Target etc that its better to buy stuff once you are already at college. Also remember that Thanksgiving/Winter Break is a great time to bring some stuff home and other stuff back to college. On that note, bring luggage and pack in tubs. You will not be able to unpack all that much when you are moving every year. And you will go home at some point so appropriately sized luggage is a must. (You can't easily fly with your laundry basket.)