Dorm Room Clutter: What Do You Actually Need for College

A few days ago, I stumbled across a handful of pictures from my college dorm room (I considered posting them, but there are several people depicted and I don’t post pictures of people without asking them permission and I’m not sure how to contact them). As I looked them over (and enjoyed some memories), I couldn’t help but look at the background of the pictures, just to see how I lived then.

What I saw was a lot of clutter. A fridge I rarely used. A robe I think I used once. A big rack of rarely-watched videos. Way more clothes than I ever needed. Lots of little tchotchkes that just took up space.

When I was first planning for college, I had little idea what I was doing. I read lots of “here’s how to get ready for college” articles and vacuumed up the suggestions like a Hoover on overdrive. I spent the entire summer collecting and buying things I’d need for college.

When we finally arrived on campus, I had a pickup truck full of stuff. It filled up my half of a tiny dorm room. A dorm fridge. A microwave. A big television. A computer tower (actually, I didn’t get that one until I was on campus a while) and a monitor. A desk lamp. A giant teapot. A ridiculously huge shower bucket stuffed with stuff. Clothes that overflowed my dresser.

Virtually all of it was a waste of my time and my money. I didn’t use any of that stuff. I had little idea what I would actually use in advance, so I just more or less bought everything that I thought I might need – and it turned out I didn’t need most of it.

If I started college all over again, I could fit everything I’d use in a single backpack. Here’s what I’d take.

A laptop with a webcam and microphone This would take care of all of my research needs, report-writing needs, and, yes, telephone call needs. I suppose I might also take a prepaid phone with me for uses where I didn’t have a wi-fi signal.

A small reading lamp For studying and taking notes in dim lighting. I’d get a very tiny clip one that could go anywhere, powered by LEDs.

Enough clothes for about five days or so, rolled up tight Nothing fancy, just sturdy pants, shirts, and underclothes. I can do laundry once every five days or so.

Some basic toiletries Gotta keep clean.

Notebooks and writing supplies Obviously, for note-taking purposes. I find that taking notes longhand is the way for me to absorb complex ideas, but some people might find that just typing on their laptop might work – it depends on how you learn, which you should already know before college.

I’d also need textbooks, of course, but I could get them when I arrive via Amazon and re-sell them at semester’s end.

Sure, I might find that I needed some more items along the way, but wouldn’t it be better to find out the items that you actually need rather than buying a bunch of stuff you think you might need in advance?

Doing that saves money. It saves a lot of time. It saves space. It saves a lot of mental energy. It gives you a very clean and open space to rest your head and figure out what comes next in your life.

The next time you read a long list of things that people say you “need” for college, ask yourself a simple question: do you need it, or is it just something that seems like it might be useful? If it merely seems like it might be useful – even if you can envision a lot of scenarios where you’ll be using it – hold off. Pick it up later on.

My gameplan when I send my own children off to college is similar. I intend to send them with the minimum amount of stuff they need – basically, the stuff listed above, with variation based on the technology at that time. If they find they actually need more items, they can either use their own savings to get them or make the case to me with regards to it.

They’ll save time. They’ll save money. They’ll save energy. And in a college dorm, what exactly will they lose?

Trent Hamm
Trent Hamm
Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.

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