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When it comes to shopping, packing and move-in, first-time college parents need a strategy as much or more than they need a list. (Although we have a great list: download it here.)
How can we streamline and de-stress this process? What does your student really need in the dorm room, and what will turn out to be a waste of money and time?
Here's some advice from a panel of been-there-done-that college parent experts!
This can’t be understated. There are Dorm Shopping Lists out there that make you think your student needs 15 separate items for organizing their shower experience. This is not the case.
“Come up with a list so your student has what they need to make their bed, do laundry, take a shower, do schoolwork, and be dressed for the first month,” Laura advised. “Help with things they wouldn’t think about: sewing kit, Band-Aids, duct tape. And make this list together at home so you’re not in Target fighting about getting a tiny little lamp that your kid thinks is adorable but is useless and probably a fire hazard.”
We understand the convenience of pre-ordering a dorm bedding set that’s waiting on the bunk when they arrive, but most parents gave a thumbs-down to the quality of prepackaged “bedding-in-a-bag” items. Well-priced, higher quality options are easily available online and at department stores.
For one mother, it was important to be able to actually touch the sheets, towels and comforter. Another advised, “Make sure everything is washable and dryable. Not that they will wash it…”
"I’m determined to be disciplined in the less-is-more department. Yes, we want to save money. But much more than this, I want my daughter to have as uncluttered a dorm room as possible. For college students, there are big benefits to tidy spaces," Robin said.
“My biggest advice is, as much as possible, wait until you get there,” Cathy recommended. Unless the school is in a very small town, there will be stores, and this keeps you from over-shopping and/or duplicating with a roommate. “This approach does add a day to the drop-off trip, but especially for moms is a good excuse to hang around just a bit longer!”
There’s less incentive to wait to shop if your student will attend school within driving distance and you’re able to load up the vehicle. Still, there are usually items students assume they’ll need which it turns out they can live without. If they still want something after being on campus for a few weeks, you can order it or drop it off, or they can buy it themselves.
Waiting is also smart because, until you’re actually in the dorm room, you may not know where the storage space is: under the bed, on shelves, on the floor, in a closet or wardrobe.
Whether you drive or fly to campus, expect to make a run to the nearest store for hangers, drawer organizers, cleaning supplies, toiletries and the like. As long as they have a notebook or two and some pens (plus a scientific calculator for math/science students), school supplies are also a good category to wait on — students won’t know till classes start exactly what they need.
“Some things, like a rug or lamp, we will wait to buy when we see his dorm room,” said the mom of a student who will attend North Carolina State University this fall.
On a related note, one parent was happy with an approach that involved “knocking things off the list a few at a time both for budgeting purposes and to help alleviate stress about trying to get everything all at the same time.”
She and her son tackled bulkier items first, including bedding (and had that sent to the grandparents, who live near campus — they got free shipping at Bed Bath & Beyond and used coupons, too).
The most important items? Clothing. "I know that sounds like a 'duh,' but if you think about it, everything else is easy to buy locally or online. Clothing takes more time than you or they will have, so make sure they have enough," Laura said.
We strive to avoid gender stereotypes, but it's common to hear parents say their sons and male-identified children are more likely to be disinterested/no-frills when it comes to dorm shopping while daughters care a lot about personalizing and beautifying their space.
Either way, dorm room decorating doesn’t have to happen 100% on move-in day; the effect might be more authentic if achieved organically over time.
That said, some students are chomping at the bit to design and shop for their space. “It symbolizes their independence and, often, the first room they’ve ever decorated themselves,” one dad observed. It can be comforting for students to feel that their new home-away-from-home is complete from the get-go, and parents may find it easier to say goodbye if they are leaving their child in a color-coordinated nest.
Which leads us to why shopping and packing for college is such a big topic anyway. It’s not really about the stuff.
“The shopping thing can be an emotionally laden process,” Scott said. “For my wife, it was a BIG deal to send her daughter off with a bed ensemble and matching room. Setting up the room — making the bed, putting the pillows in a nice order — made her feel that she’d done her part to set up our daughter for the year.”
"We will shop at home before we go to move-in at University of Denver. Ellie is excited and will probably spend the gift cards she got for graduation, and shop with Grandma," Karen said.
For other families, this isn’t where the bonding is taking place. “We didn’t shop at all prior to arriving in college,” said Carolyn, who has packed off three. “It was all stuff we had around the house, even the XL twin sheets. We did fill in where we needed once we got to the college town.”
Even if you’re “shopping” in your own closets, it’s something you can do together, and your student will appreciate your guidance. “I took the lead every time,” Carolyn said, “because they just didn’t know what they needed. It’s a nice way to feel and be involved.”