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Dress your dorm room on a dime

Lifestyle expert Elizabeth Mayhew provides tips to help college students take their dorm rooms from cramped to classy without spending a lot of cash.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

Those of us who have been off to college remember the professors we had, classes we attended (or didn't) and the friends we made, but very few of us remember those few weeks before leaving home (some of us for the first time) and the harried preparations that took place. Lugging clothes, computers, sheets, towels, minifridges and an endless supply of Ramen Noodle soups into an often charmless, cinderblock dorm room to live with an unknown fellow student has always been daunting.

But now, with more than 10 million kids living in college dorms, marketing and supplying students with all they need is big business. All you have to do these days is enter a mass retailer — Walmart, Target, Staples or Bed Bath & Beyond — to see that back-to-school/college dorm shopping is maybe only second to the holiday season for massive retail sales. The good news is that so much is available — more than ever — at affordable prices. Just make sure that before you spend next year's tuition bill on this year's supplies, you are armed with some key bits of information.

1. Before you shop for your dorm room, check with your school to see if they can provide you with details of your room — its size, configuration, etc. Some colleges even allow you to take virtual tours of your room before you arrive, at Dormtours. Your school will tell you what is provided and what is prohibited (most schools do not allow anything that gets hot, like hot plates or space heaters — even candles). It is also wise to contact your roommate to find out what he or she is bringing so that you don't end up with two microwaves or two minifridges.

No matter whom you talk to, two must-haves for dorm life are a minifridge and an alarm clock. The Deluxe Mini Fridge-Warmer ($100) chills to 40 degrees or warms to 140 degrees. Just select the temperature you want on the digital LCD readout. If you are the type to sleep though your 9 a.m. lecture, make sure you get the Clocky alarm clock; it rolls off of your night table and won't stop moving until you catch up with it. Both are $50 from ThinkGeek.

2. Chances are you won't be able to take your favorite bed sheets — most schools have extra-long beds that require extra-long bedding. I recommend buying a good quality mattress pad and bed topper to make those much-needed z's all the better. Also forgo flat sheets — make it easy on yourself by having only a fitted sheet and a comforter with a duvet cover; it will be easier to "make the bed" and one less thing to wash. Also invest in some extra pillows — when friends drop by, your bed will have to double as a sofa.

Savvy students also know to get blocks or bed risers to raise their beds up to provide much needed storage.

3. Don't go crazy with the clothes; if you don't love it, then don't bring it. Also remember you will probably head home for Thanksgiving, which is only a few months away. You can do your wardrobe switch then. The two things you want to bring a lot of are underwear and socks — just in case you don't do your laundry as frequently as you should. Speaking of laundry … plan on having a stash of quarters for the times you are forced to finally do a load or two. And rather than schlepping a hefty container of detergent to and from the laundry room, buy Dropps instead; they are dissolvable premeasured packets of detergent so there is no measuring, no heavy lifting.

4. Dorm rooms are usually outfitted with the basics: a bed, dresser, desk and chair, but you will want to bring some extra items to help you minimize clutter. Maximize empty wall space with modular shelving units. Make use of back-of-door, under-bed and closet storage. Hanging shoe bags can hold everything from socks to a flashlight or snacks for the late-night munchies. Boxes and magazine holders can help keep class papers sorted. Stacked cubes or boxes next to your bed can store items and double as a bedside table.

5. As for study time, I suggest bringing a task lamp for you desk — dorm rooms usually have overhead lighting only. Sami Hyack's design for Target even comes with a built-in organizer. I would also consider swapping your dorm-provided wooden desk chair circa 1950 with an up-to-date ergonomic model, $60 from Target. And make the most of your outlets or power strips with plug extenders — they are mini extension cords that all allow you to use all of your outlets regardless of the size of your plugs, $15 for a set of five from Bed Bath & Beyond.

6. This will probably be the first time you will have to share a bathroom with 100 other people and chances are you will have to walk more than 100 feet to get to it. A shower caddy is a must-have for dorm life. I would make sure you have a pair of flip-flops for shower time as well.

7. A note to parents: Even if you don't have a student going off to college this month, you should encourage your kids to take responsibility for their laundry, rooms and study time — you will set them up for success once they do go to college!