Get Your Kid Off to College Well Prepared, on a Budget

A guide to what your freshman will need, and how to get it without stressing out or overpaying.


A blogger named Sonya Ann has created a “complete college list” based on her experiences packing her older child off to college for four years. Novices would do well to heed this detailed account of everything a student needs, from cards to bed sheets.

If you’re looking at shuttling a freshman to campus this fall, you should already be shopping — with an eye toward bargains, of course. Buying it all at once in late August would be stressful and almost certainly more expensive than it has to be.

Those back-to-school sales do have some great deals, but the phrase “loss leader” works both ways. The merchant loses money on a few things but makes it back on the nonsale items shoppers buy while they’re in the store, which is their loss, or rather the price they pay for convenience.

You don’t necessarily need all of the things on the list. (Bug repellent? Movies? A Hairdini?) However, it’s a great reminder of the things we’re so accustomed to having that we don’t really think about them.

That is, until they aren’t there. If the average freshman needs dental floss or shoelaces or cough syrup, which of these two scenarios is more likely?

  • He’ll load a mobile coupon app onto his smartphone and then walk to the CVS six blocks away.
  • He’ll head to the on-campus store and pay the inflated price for Robitussin.

Of course, even the most exhaustive list can use a fresh pair of eyes. For starters, I’d pull together a mobile medicine cabinet — a small plastic container with bandages, antibiotic ointment, hydrocortisone cream, generic ibuprofen (or whatever), throat lozenges, cold meds and some of that Robitussin. College campuses are Petri dishes for whatever cootie is going around, so your kid should prepare to be sick.

But as Sonya Ann points out, there’s no need to pay retail for such things. In fact, there may be no need to pay at all. You probably already own a lot of the items on her list: towels, phone charger, OTC medications, index cards, a surge protector and the like.

(And yes, it’s perfectly acceptable to send your kid off with some of the 3-year-old towels from the linen closet and buy yourself a few new ones.)

The list, on the cheap

While it might not be cost-effective to carry crates of stuff on a plane, those who are driving to college can fit quite a bit in the back of a car. And plenty of the listed items won’t take up too much room in a suitcase.

Some of the needed (or nice-to-have) items might be available on The Freecycle Network or Craigslist. You could also put out the word that Junior needs a desk lamp or would like a small microwave oven; relatives and friends may have stuff like that in the attic.

These frugal hacks are from Sonya Ann and me:

Have the list on hand: Keep the master list in your purse or glove compartment from now until move-out, in case you see a great deal on batteries or fleece pants.

Shop sales, obviously. In addition, if your state has a sales tax, find out if it also has a back-to-school sales-tax holiday. There were 17 states (mostly in the South and Southeast) that mandated such tax holidays for student supplies in 2014, each lasting two-three days, according to Bankrate.com.

Watch for cast-offs: Live in a town with colleges that are just winding down for the summer? Departing students may be willing to sell that printer or beanbag chair for a song. (They might also just throw them away; Erin Huffstetler at My Frugal Home has scored things like mini-fridges and storage bins.)

Scavenge: Yard sales and thrift shops might yield bed risers, a bulletin board, storage boxes and other useful items.

Strategic shopping: Starting in July, the big-box office supply stores and also some drug and department stores will run loss-leader specials on school supplies. While your 18-year-old probably doesn’t want a pencil box or a big pink eraser, she can probably use mechanical pencils, highlighters and Post-It notes.

Strategic deliveries: Order items online and pick them up at a local store, such as Wal-Mart or Walgreens, or have them delivered once your student is settled. (Ordering through a cash-back shopping site like Mr. Rebates, Extrabux or Fat Wallet provides an extra layer of savings.)

Gift cards: Redeem rewards credit-card points for gift cards, either to pay for items now or to send to your student for that cold-and-flu-season trip to the CVS. Or cash in points from rewards programs like Swagbucks and MyPoints.

Life skills help students save

College students can avoid buying things if they have a few basic skills, like how to sort and launder their clothing, for instance. That includes how to treat stains promptly, how not to wash wool socks in hot water and how to sew up small rips in seams before they render a garment unwearable.

Knowing some cooking tips will come in handy, too, for those late-night study sessions. (Hint: It is possible to make decent food in a microwave.) Sonya Ann’s list includes utensils, plates, cups and paper towels. I’d throw in a few basic spices from Walgreens or the dollar store, purchased now or when you get there.

Planning is paramount

But as Sonya Ann notes, doing more now means doing less later. Maybe a lot less. She’s seen other parents make multiple shopping trips after moving their students into the dorms.

“I can’t even imagine what that bill looks like,” she says. By comparison, she didn’t make any shopping runs after getting her daughter settled.

Her advice? A little planning will let you do the move in one fell swoop: “Get in and get out, that will save your sanity on move-in day.”

Readers: After checking Sonya Ann’s list at the above link, are there any items you’d add? Any strategies you’d suggest for parents who will be sending their kids off this fall?

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