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Dorms on a Dollar: How to Shop Secondhand

If you just graduated from high school and plan on attending college in the fall, you might find the long list of dorm supplies and their accompanying price tags stressful, especially on top of the already high cost of education. Buying from second-hand or discount stores can greatly decrease the overall amount of money you spend, but before you run to your local thrift store, here are some important tips.


  • Figure out what you need to buy and make a list. Most dorms come with a bed and a desk. A quick phone call or check of your school’s website will probably inform you what you do and don’t need to buy.
  • Check items thoroughly for flaws: stains, cracks, etc. If possible, make sure the item works before you buy it. There is nothing more frustrating than thinking that you’ve saved money only to find that what you bought is worthless.
  • You will not receive a refund. If you are concerned about an expensive item breaking, you might want to consider buying it from a regular store that will offer you a refund.
  • Only buy what was already on your list. Don’t buy something just because it’s cheap. If you buy items because of a good deal, you might end up spending more money on unnecessary junk than if you had simply bought everything at full price!
  • Check items thoroughly for bugs, especially bed bugs. Bed bugs are a HUGE pain to eradicate, so make sure you check your items thoroughly before purchasing.
  • Look through the stores thoroughly. Stuffed with knick-knacks and junk, thrift stores are often overwhelming, but if you have the patience and perseverance to dig through the junk, you will often find the treasure.
  • Use your imagination. Most of the items look like trash when scattered haphazardly on all overcrowded shelves, however, with a clean-up, a paint job, or a revamp and a new setting, they could be the perfect items for your dorm. Remember that items created for one purpose can often serve another. I use a thin scarf as a wall hanging to decorate my dorm.

Where to Shop

If your default store is Walmart or Target, you may want to look into discount stores or other alternatives. Here are some of the best places to shop for college and dorm supplies:

Dirt Cheap or similar discount stores. If you need school supplies like paper, notebooks, folders, or binders, try visiting a discount store. At Dirt Cheap, finding notebooks and folders for 10 cents each, I bought most of the school supplies I needed for under a dollar.

Garage Sales. People who run Garage sales often just want to declutter their home and make a little money in the process. Sometimes they are willing to slightly lower the prices of items to get them off their hands. You can find all kinds of things at garage sales, so keep your eyes open.

Thrift stores. Goodwill is the obvious choice but look into local thrift stores in your town as well.

Estate sales. Families hold estate sales after major life events, usually after the death of an older family member, but sometimes after a divorce or other circumstances. Although usually held under sad circumstances, buying from an Estate sale supports the family in question. You can often find textbooks that are much less expensive than Amazon’s listings on

What to Buy

  1. School supplies. As already mentioned, Dirt Cheap or other similar outlet stores sell notebooks, binders, folders, and many other school supplies for an insanely cheap price.
  2. Dishes. Most thrift stores sell cheap, well-made, cute dishes. Not only are they often unique, but they will also likely last longer than cheap Walmart alternatives if you pick out good-quality items.
  3. Kitchen supplies. If your college living space includes a kitchen, you can often buy perfectly good pots and pans at thrift stores, and, if you're lucky, working kitchen appliances like a coffee maker or a toaster (but make sure you clean it thoroughly before using).
  4. Decor. You can use all kinds of supplies from second-hand stores as decoration, especially if you think creatively. I use a mug that I found with a picture of Van Gogh’s sunflowers to hold pens on my desk.
  5. Lamp. Although finding working appliances like this might be difficult, try your luck. Plug it into a socket to test it before you buy it.
  6. Laundry Basket. You can find all kinds of containers that would work as laundry baskets at thrift stores, including cute wicker baskets, if that is your style!
  7. An office chair. Most of the chairs I’ve seen that come with a dorm room are pretty uncomfortable. To protect your back and to make homework sessions less tortuous, think about investing in a good-quality office chair. If your college is far away from home, you may want to wait till you move into your dorm to buy a chair since transporting an office chair with all your other dorm supplies is challenging. Also, keep in mind that some dorms restrict the amount of furniture you can bring.
  8. Storage containers. Look for cute baskets and buckets to store your extra stuff on your desk or your shelf.

If you follow all of these tips and find success at your local thrift stores, garage sales, and discount stores, your dorm room will be unique and aesthetically pleasing while only costing you a fraction of the cost of full-price dorm equipment. Have fun and good luck!

Katelyn is an editorial intern at Potential magazine and a senior at Faulkner University where she studies English. She enjoys writing and she is excited to work with Potential to share her experience and research about college life, self-improvement, budgeting, etc.

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