How to Shop for College Kids

To avoid receiving this look from a college kid you're shopping for, heed our hard-earned advice. Or, if all else fails, just ask her what she wants.
To avoid receiving this look from a college kid you're shopping for, heed our hard-earned advice. Or, if all else fails, just ask her what she wants.

Despite an occasional bout of homesickness, most college kids don't want their dorm rooms to be just like home. And with their rapidly changing needs and interests, they probably don't want the same kinds of gifts you gave them when they were younger -- even by a single year.

Before you surprise your college kid with new footie pajamas or buy every item on a retailer-created checklist of "college student" gifts, it pays to make a list of your own. What type of item should occupy the top spot? A Q&A session. The first step is to ask your child what he's actually interested in unwrapping and what he wants to put in his dorm room. Be prepared for a sudden aversion to color coordination when it comes to dorm furnishings and accessories, as well as a clear departure from previous go-to gift requests. For the collegiate set, these new likes and dislikes are more about gaining independence than giving up a potential spot on "Design Star" or trying to distance themselves from family tradition.


Whatever makes the list, shop strategically to avoid back-to-school product pitches, such as dorm-room themed packages that include everything from bed sheets to ironing boards, all in matching colors. The back-to-school season is, for retailers, second only to holiday sales: According to a National Retail Federation survey, retailers expected to pull in an average of $809 in sales of dorm-ready electronics, apparel, furnishings and food per student in 2011. Some retailers, like Target, even start the school year by shuttling college students to private, in-store shopping parties.

So, if you want to save money -- and save your child the trouble of dealing with unwanted extras -- there are some gifts you should cross off the list entirely, and some that you really should wait to give until he's settled in for the year. We'll help you figure out how to tell the difference on the next page.

Remember that you may have to help a college kid move anything you give them -- possibly several times.
Remember that you may have to help a college kid move anything you give them -- possibly several times.

The truth is that there are only a few essentials your college student will need to start the school year. Right before classes start, stop by a discount store to pick up general school supplies like blank notebooks, highlighters, sticky notes and index cards. Items in this category are so deeply discounted that they make braving the back-to-school rush worthwhile, and you'll be able to buy enough to last the entire year.

But depending on what her dorm comes furnished with, there are a number of gifts that will improve your kid's quality of life away from home -- whether she's a nervous freshman or a seasoned senior. And one of the best places to look is your local thrift store. While this may go against your design sensibilities, trust us: Your student will be in gently-used heaven. If she's like much of her generation, your offspring will want to outfit her domicile with eco-friendly, inexpensive, retro-hip used alternatives instead of new furniture from a mass merchandiser. The best part is that instead of lugging the goods home at the end of the school year, your student can redonate them or pass them on to a friend with storage space. And in the meantime, there's no need to worry about damage caused by spills or wear.

Avoid gifts that your college kid will only use occasionally, such as an iron and ironing board, a vacuum or a paper shredder. Odds are there will be someone on her dorm floor from whom she can borrow these things. College life is communal -- there's just no way around it. Learning to cooperate, share and borrow is an important part of the skill set your child will develop throughout her college years and use all through adulthood.

Keep in mind that the items your college student needs will vary from year to year depending on what her roommate can contribute. For example, a freshman roommate may come through with a flat-screen TV for the suite they'll be sharing, but your kid may not get so lucky her sophomore year. Be prepared to pick up last-minute gifts if your child's access to an in-room coffee machine or other amenities changes.

What else will your student need during the next nine months? We'll share a list of the basics, along with some ideas for a few sensible luxuries, on the next page.

If your college kid's school is in a different climate, weather-appropriate clothing (or cash or gift cards to buy some) will be much appreciated.
If your college kid's school is in a different climate, weather-appropriate clothing (or cash or gift cards to buy some) will be much appreciated.

Your student may want his dorm room styled like something out of MTV's "Cribs," but before you call the school about getting a Jacuzzi installed, make sure he's stocked up on these practicalities:

  • Laptop and personal printer
  • USB flash drive (or two)
  • Twin bedding set (ask if the dorm's mattresses are standard or extra-long)
  • Bath towels (monogram or label them so they don't get "borrowed")
  • Favorite toiletries and a caddy to tote them
  • Bathrobe and water-safe flip-flops
  • Laundry hamper, bag or basket (portable for trips to the laundry room)
  • Alarm clock or iPad/iPod dock
  • Plate, bowl, mug and utensil set for in-room dining
  • Small bottles of laundry and dish soap
  • Surge protector and extension cords
  • Flashlight with fresh batteries
  • First-aid kit

If you're wondering where he'll put these supplies in a room that only measures some 100 square feet, consider giving him bed risers to create a storage area under his bed.

After you've given the basics, consider another gift that's always welcome: cash. College kids insist that cash is better than store-specific gift cards -- the store might be difficult to get to or expensive to ship from, and the amount you give may not cover the entire cost of a purchase. This means your student will have to shell out additional funds, which could make your well-meaning gift more of a hassle than it's worth. Cash can be used for anything, including a few of those longed-for luxuries your student probably misses most, like visits to the salon, meals in decent restaurants, new clothes and movie tickets.

Still not sure you want to donate cash to the college student cause? Most schools allow parents to fund an account associated with a student's ID so that he can buy incidentals at the campus bookstore, cafeteria or coffee shop. Or you could supply your student with a gift certificate for vehicle maintenance or a gas, grocery or pharmacy gift card. And if you can't shake the idea that monetary gifts are tacky, go ahead and pick something out -- but consider including a gift receipt.

Of course, it never hurts to send your college student a care package filled with home-baked cookies, hot chocolate mix and other snacks so he can feel the comfort of home. After all, even grown-up kids need to be babied once in awhile.

Related Articles


  • Broke Grad Student. "Three Things Every Parent Should Know Before Buying Gifts for College Students." Dec. 5, 2008. (Dec. 1, 2011)
  • Fenderson, Jaye. "What is dorm life like?" Seventeen. (Nov. 26, 2011)
  • Folgate, Erik. "Seven Gift Cards to Buy for College Students and Teenagers." Money Crashers. (Nov. 25, 2011)
  • O'Donnell, Jayne. "Off-to-college Kids can go Overboard on 'Essentials'." USA Today. Aug. 16, 2011. (Nov. 26, 2011)
  • Pinola, Melanie. "Which Back to School Stuff Should I Buy Now and What Can I Wait On?" Lifehacker. Aug. 10, 2011. (Nov. 25, 2011)
  • Seventeen. "17 Things You Need for College." (Nov. 25, 2011)
  • Target. "Back-to-School/Back-to-College FAQ." (Nov. 26, 2011)
  • Wilson, Craig. "College Kids Know Thrift and Nifty." Aug. 30, 2007. (Dec. 1, 2011) USA Today.