How to Shop for College Kids

College Students' Needs and Wants

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.