August is the month many families start their back-to-school bargain shopping with gusto. Everything from socks and tee shirts to composition books and pencil eraser caps is generally on the list, and the list is a long one to be sure. This just in: the list doesn’t get any shorter when your little ones grow up and head off to college. In addition the usual wardrobe replacements and study supplies, dorm dwellers have additional back-to-school needs. Here are a few that are worth the dishing out of your hard-earned dough.

Simple Snacks:

Whether it’s enjoying ramen recipes for a late-night munch session or the need to have a few pick-me-ups on hand for the stroll between class buildings, most college students find themselves in need of a snack stash pretty early on in their academic career. You can pick up a variety of cheap grab-and-go options while shopping at Costco for example, including things like peanut butter and cracker packs, power bars and even dried fruit.

Folding Foam Chair:

Sure, the classic beanbag chair is cheap. The problem is that you can only use it for basic lounging. If you opt instead for gifting your offspring with one of those folding foam chairs that can also be used as an on-the-floor twin bed, you’ve bought yourself a free place to crash if you need to drive to their university to help them out with something for the weekend. Trust me, these things will come up. Bonus? They’ll be able to have friends over if they want as well, which makes them feel a bit more grown up and independent. The ability of these chairs to serve more than one purpose is what puts them on my short list of practical gifts for college freshmen.

Stadium Seat:

It might seem like I’m on a bit of a chair kick here, but bear with me for a moment if you will. Those folding, padded stadium seats are incredibly compact. This not only makes them easy to store between the bed and the wall in the dorm room, but also provide an extra seat for group study sessions, a comfy way to enjoy a home game on campus and a great outdoor adventure resource if your budding investment banker wants to go camping in Shenandoah for the weekend, as an example.

Message Board:

I know these might seem old school with all of the young people having smart phones these days. But not only do they still love to scrawl notes to each other, many of them are on a communications budget restricting them to the use of a prepaid that Mom only wants them to use for emergencies. If you have a niece or nephew you’d like to purchase a gift for, and only have a few bucks to spend, one of those dry erase message boards with an attached marker will likely still be a hit. They can attach it to the door of their dorm room or studio and use it to put up fun messages themselves, especially when they don’t want their study time interrupted.

Portable Sandwich Press:

I know that microwaves, rice cookers and popcorn poppers tend to get all the airtime when it comes to small appliances for dorm dwellers, but I’m here to advocate for the humble sandwich press. Not only can they be used to craft a number of affordably-tasty grilled sandwiches, they can also serve as an impromptu grill. A grill that doesn’t require an open flame and can therefore be used safely under college living conditions. Veggie dogs or premade burger patties won’t take up much room in a mini fridge, and provide a fun and frugal Friday night treat after a long week of classes.

Hand Vacuum:

Not only can hand vacuums serve to help with various housework hacks at home, they can also serve a college student well. Let’s face it. Dorm rooms aren’t exactly cavernous, so even if the entire room has to be vacuumed with one, the job will be done before a backache ever starts to form. Further, they can handle small spills with ease and make cleaning out your student’s bargain-mobile for the drive home to do laundry a breeze.

Study Supplies:

Every student needs study supplies, and your kiddo will be no exception. Fortunately, the end of summer is when every office supply and basic department store on the continent offers these goodies up for sale. Highlighters, college rule notebooks, an affordable tablet device and a great back pack are all on my list of must-haves, but your dorm dweller may have learning habits which require slightly different purchases.


Similar to holiday stocking stuffers, the list of appropriate dorm dweller incidentals can be quite extensive. This is one of the things that makes them an affordable solution for those wishing to give affordable and practical solutions as going away gifts. If you share aunt and uncle responsibilities with several other people, consider dividing up the incidentals list to give Mom and Dad a break. Chances are they’re dishing out all their extra dough for tuition, after all. One of you can take on multipurpose beauty products or skin care items while the other springs for laundry essentials like stain remover and soap pods. Someone else might want to take on first aid items or a few basic food prep tools. The point is, by taking on a category of incidentals you keep your financial outlay manageable.

Have you gotten a recent grad ready for their first year at college before? What did you find to be the most helpful items and biggest values?

Myscha Theriault

Myscha Theriault

A lifelong money cruncher who can squeeze a nickel ‘til it cries, Myscha is a syndicated columnist, best-selling author, and founder of Trek Hound and We Be Sharin’.