How to Shop for College Kids

College Dorm Shopping List

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.