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How to be sustainable when moving in and out of your dorm

Going off to school and moving away from home for the first time can be overwhelming. With all the information on social media, websites, student and parent pages, and even store advertisements, thinking sustainable can be tough.

Four college students moving in to their dorm

Don’t feel obligated to go with the trend

As you get ready to head off to college, you might get caught up in all the social media posts about the perfect dorm room or apartment – all with matching furniture and décor. Don’t be swayed by the picture-perfect hype of those posts. If you want to match décor with a roommate, nothing says it has to be new. Even if you aren’t going vintage or retro, you can find great things at home and at secondhand stores to match your vision. Think about what makes you comfortable, items you truly need for your stay, and how much room you actually have to put everything – especially if you are sharing a room. Remember, everything you bring into your room will have to be moved out again at the end of the school year or when you move.

See what your school suggests bringing for your stay

Check on your student housing website for suggestions of needed items for your room. Housing will let you know which items will be provided for you (these items, like desks and chairs, typically need to stay in the room). You’ll also receive a list of prohibited items, such as appliances with open-flame heating elements that are fire hazards. The University of Minnesota provides a great guide with this information for their residence halls and on-campus apartments on their What to Bring section of their website.

Young woman making a list

Make a list

Itemizing what you’ll need is an effective way to avoid impulse buying. One way to create your list is by asking current and former students what they used. Also think about what you use in your day-to-day life at home – from your bedroom, to the bathroom and your laundry. If you are attending school in a four-seasons environment like Minnesota, be sure to include boots, a winter jacket, and other items you’ll need during the winter months, and if you are in athletics or performing arts, itemize the gear you’ll need to store in your room.

Buy essentials to start, and see what your room or apartment already supplies

Social media can provide great inspiration for how to outfit a room. But be careful: Many recommended “essentials” end up going unused.

  • Not sure if you’ll use a microwave in your room? Wait and see how your dining habits form over the first few weeks.
  • Worried your room will be too hot or too cold? Maybe wait on borrowing a fan from home until you know if you need it. And note: Heaters are likely not allowed in most housing as they can be a fire hazard, so again check with housing services on prohibited items.
  • Obtain the measurements for your room. Hauling a couch across town or country only to find it won’t fit would be frustrating.
  • Another thing to keep in mind is how you will be utilizing the beds in your room. Will you keep them low, or build lofts or bunk beds? That will also help determine what will or will not fit in your space.

See what you can get for free first

Once you have your list, you don’t have to hit the sales floor quite yet. Look around your house first. Your parents or relatives may let you borrow needed items like desk chairs, extra hangers, storage containers and bedding. If you are moving into an apartment, check to see what is furnished first. The desk or table you’re thinking about bringing from home may already be provided.

Then check what’s available used

Many schools have social media parent or student pages that list free or reduced-cost items that students no longer need. Keep an eye out for those listings at the end of each semester and especially the end of the school year. Facebook Marketplace or local Facebook Buy Nothing pages can also be a place for low-cost usable items. Local thrift shops and garage sales have a trove of goods that are ideal for a first apartment. A fun day of treasure hunting can outfit an entire kitchen. The University of Minnesota Reuse Center usually has desks and chairs for a low cost to set up your school workspace.

Finally, if you must buy new, buy high quality

A low price on a piece of furniture or electronic item may seem tempting but read reviews and check for quality before you purchase. These great deals aren’t so great when your item breaks after a short amount of time or isn’t comfortable to start with.

When moving in

Be sure to pack smart so you have a minimum number of loads from your car to the room. It will be super busy on move-in day and you’ll want to be efficient. Pack your items in reusable containers or storage bags like IKEA’s FRAKTA bag or moving bags from Amazon that you can fold down, store easily in your room, and use every time you move in/out.

Stacks of textbooks in bookstore

School supplies

Unlike high school, you won’t know going into classes what you will need likely until class starts. 

  • If you don’t have one that is still usable from high school, get a high-quality, waterproof backpack that will last you for years. Spending the money on this school supply will pay off.
  • Books have always been a large expense during college. The 2021-22 average for books and supplies at four-year colleges was $1,240 according to NerdWallet. A great tip is to wait until your first day of class to find out which materials need to be purchased. Many times professors will change the requirement or let you know what is optional. Some textbooks can be borrowed from the library for free, and others can be rented or purchased used through several websites – which is the next-best way to save money on college textbooks. Your university or college bookstore should also offer used books if the book has been used in the past.
  • Check with your school or major program to see if they require a certain type of laptop/computer for your classwork. Some majors are very specific in what they need (like computer science or design) and others may just have suggestions of basic needs.
  • Some schools discourage bringing your own personal printer – using Wi-Fi often interferes with other students and takes up a lot of usage. 
  • Bring leftover supplies from home and you won’t need to buy new pencils, pens, and desk supplies. If you need to buy new ones, look for products made from recycled paper or plastic, or are FSC certified.

What to do with your stuff when you aren’t at school

Summer break and studying abroad can lead you to wonder what to do with all of your stuff when you don’t have a room to keep it in. Whether your family lives across town or across the country, a storage solution might be required. Luckily there are many options out there now that don’t require you to discard and buy all new stuff when you return. 

  • The University of Minnesota’s Student Summer Storage program allows students to pay a nominal fee to store their stuff over the summer. The university will even pick up your items in boxes they provide and return them to your new dorm or on-campus apartment for the fall semester. You can also do short-term storage if you find yourself between apartment rentals at the end of the summer.
  • Storage rental units are all over the place and offer a great service for temporary storage with month-to-month rentals. Searching for nearby storage is easy, you’ll just need to find a ride to get your items there.
  • If you have items you no longer need or don’t have room for anymore, consider donating or giving them away before disposing of them. Check with classmates, post on a bulletin board, or share on social media what you have and how you can meet up to exchange the item. In the interest of safety, conduct the exchange at a neutral, public location and be sure to have a friend with you (whether you are giving or receiving the item). Local thrift shops are also happy to take your usable goods, so be sure to check if there is a local Goodwill or St Vincent DePaul thrift shop nearby.

Keep your moving simple by taking steps to also be sustainable, and it will lead to less stress and an easy transition to college life.