College frosh: Don’t break the bank

Inspired by the joke of a college student “cheat sheet” posted on CrunchGear by John Biggs, I’ve created the following recommended necessities for college students making their way into their first college dorm room. The following items are realistic and attainable [unlike the 55-inch plasma recommended on CrunchGear]. To begin, let’s observe the very room where my own college education began at good ‘ol Washington State University’s Streit-Perham dormitory:

streit-perham floor plan

A very modest 15′ x 10′ (for two) with torture-chamber-like pull-out bed contraptions and inconvenient permanently secured desks. Dorm room floor plans will vary drastically, and immovable furniture can easily turn that 150 sq. ft. room into a paltry 110 sq. ft. You can forget the MTV Cribs pimped room that CrunchGear assumed all students lived in.

Realistically – not counting the sound investment made on a decent computer – a college freshman can make it through his / her first year of college with the following recommended gadgets, gizmos, and dorm room necessities for what would amount to a typical summer job check before leaving for college. That budget does not count clothing, toiletries, the stash of snacks under the bed, or the keg tap. All of those are considered consumable(s) or replaceable expenses; expenditures that very few college students can live without – easily replaceable with short jaunts to the corner store or care packages from home.

MacBook: 4+ year students & Super Seniors

At the very top of the recommended “toys” & necessities list is a decent computer. A personal computer is a significant chunk of change. Fortunately, a sound investment in a rock solid machine will result in years and years of use. Invest wisely and your computing needs for the next 4+ years of college may very well be taken care of.

The Seattle Times raves about the Apple MacBook being the best solution for college students. I concur. Although I am no longer a waddling freshman, I can attest to the solid computing power and reliability. Mobility, power, convenience, applications to organize both school work & the social life, and a price point unrivaled by no other, the MacBook is a sound investment. With base models starting at $1049 (education discount), there is very little to balk at. Keep in mind, all current Intel powered Macs are more than capable of running Windows XP.

Little things go a long way

It’s no joke, students will loose things. If not because of personal negligence or a drunken late night stupor, the dorm room trolls will lay claim to valuables. For that reason, I recommend the “it fits in the backpack” rule of the thumb. Simply put, when a student leaves for class, if absolutely necessary, would s/he be able to carry the most valuable items comfortably in a single bag? This includes the laptop, camera, portable [xxx item(s)]. If you’ve answered “yes”, then you’re shopping with the correct frame of mind.

As far as recommendations are concerned, these are items which I brought during my first year, or items which would have made life a little more convenient.

Mobile gadgets & gizmos

Without or without a personal computer – see MacBook recommendation above – the following electronics are more than adequate for the average college student.

  • Sturdy backpack or messenger bag ($40-$100) – Would you rather purchase a very basic JanSport backpack which may ultimately cause back pain or break half way through the year? Or, would you rather invest in something that will help maintain some semblance of organization while promoting comfort? [I use the Timbuk2 Commute.]
  • USB Thumbdrive ($20-$50) – The SanDisk 1GB Cruzer Mini drives offer more than enough space for shuffling assignments between computer labs, storing backups (assignments), and storing encrypted confidential information.
  • Personal audio player ($100-$130) – It’s hard to compete with the most recognized MP3 manufacturer – Apple. Due to the fact that I have had no experience with anything but Apple, I would recommend the 1GB Shuffle (if you can find them) or the 2GB Nano (check the Apple Refurbished models regularly for warranty-backed deals).
  • Isolating earphones ($50-$80) – Dorms are loud (banging, creaking, stomping, etc). Libraries aren’t always the quietest places to go either. The best solution? Hunker down with your assignments or your computer and enter a less hectic world with a pair of noise canceling earphones. I’ve owned Etymotics ER6i’s which did exceptionally well at canceling outside noise – they’re almost too quiet.

Dorm room creature comforts

Due to varying dorm room floor plans, what may work in one dorm may never fit through the door in another. I recommend checking out residence hall floor plans; check your universities housing website. The worst thing you want to do is to pull-up to your dormitory – car stuffed to the roof – only to realize that half of your stuff is going back home.

  • Mini fridge ($80-$200) – I can not stress the convenience of having your own personal mini-fridge. Having a cold bottle of “water” is a god-send on balmy days. Depending on your expected floor plan, you’ll want to figure purchase a mini-fridge that will pack enough beverages for 2-3 days while being compact enough to fit under the desk or in a closet. Igloo has a similar fridge which i stuffed in the closet.
  • Mini desktop fan ($20-$30) – Unfortunately, dorm rooms often lack the comfort of air conditioning units. Fortunately, manufacturers like Vornado offer mini desktop fans capable of kicking-up quite a wind storm. Place one of these near the window to create an exhaust vacuum to air the room of the stink from your roomies bed.
  • Mini television ($80-$110) – If a television is an absolute necessity, opt for a smaller cheaper solution. Something like the 14″ offering on Amazon. If you’ve got a computer, is the television really necessary?
  • Mini grill ($20-$30) – The cafeteria often closes earlier than the average college student stomach does. Grab a Foreman grill and have yourself a mini BBQ in your room. You’ll probably want to crack the window and fire up the Vornado fan to keep your beds & clothes smelling. Check with yrou residence hall concerning any possibly flammable item restrictions.
  • Alarm clock with battery backup ($12) – No need to grab the fancy alarm clocks offered at The Sharper Image. All a college student needs is a working clock with some type of battery backup (in case the power goes down). Professors aren’t too keen on the excuse “but my clock stopped working”. Check out Sony’s value priced solution.
  • Surge protector ($10-$20) – Electronic necessity. Better safe than sorry. Grab a PowerSquid Surge protector which offers squid-like tentacle extensions for getting around weird outlet placements or accepting large power brick adapters.

While bringing a personal mini safe could be viewed as overkill, personal security for valuable items carries no price-tag. If the idea of brining your own padlocked locker is unrealistic, observe any possible spots for hiding valuables in your room.

Mine was a hidden nook behind the metal panel carrying the sprinkler pipes. I used to have to snake my arm through the top closet cabinet, through a pipe opening, and back down along the pipe (where I would hide certain personals). Forget taping emergency cash to the bottom of pull-out drawers. I can almost guarantee that you’ll forget you hid stuff there by the time you leave (at least that’s what the previous students in my room did).

You don’t need to empty the bank

College tuition in itself is a financial burden which many students will continue to pay off through much of their adult life. There is really no need to have the most pimped out room on your floor. Chances are, by the end of the year, you’ll have either a) lost, b) broke, or c) thrown away much of what you’ve brought.

Do your homework before heading up to campus – survey the surrounding amenities, floor plans, or distance to the nearest grocery stores. Be resourceful. Contact your room mate and figure out who’s bringing what. And for gods sake, label your personal belongings and be observant of your boxers going missing – if you’re unlucky, you’ll land a roomie like I did who thought it was OK to borrow from time-to-time (yes, I insisted that he keep them afterwards).

Chatter: Unrealistic college items list

Yes. I am this bothered by the unrealistic and what seems to have been un-researched attempt at creating a recommended items list for college students [Digg this].

Discuss - 25 Comments

  1. J. Botter says:

    Dude, your boxers?

    That’s like the worst freshman horror story ever. What in the world would make someone steal another man’s boxers and wear them?

  2. Derek says:

    The explanation I was given was that I was always [at the time] my girlfriends place and that he needed something to wear. He insisted he was going to wash them afterwards. But enough of that…

  3. Ronald Heft says:

    Excellent article Derek! You were very realistic with your gadget choices. I will be keeping this in mind when I head to Penn State Main my Junior year.

  4. bonta-kun says:

    i know of very few dorms that actually allow george foreman grills, too much of a fire hazard

  5. Derek says:

    i know of very few dorms that actually allow george foreman grills, too much of a fire hazard

    I had no idea. Maybe the student handbooks have changed since I last lived in a dorm? I’m sure a ton of students still have these. I can’t even remember a single incident with an RA screaming bloody murder get that Foreman grill out of here! It was more of a “hey cook me up something alright?” Imagine what other no-no’s students have in their rooms. Hooka anyone?

  6. AK says:

    This is all very good advice, I very much wish someone had mentioned a few of these things to me before I shipped out to Pitt for the first time. The thumb drive and backpack are things I left out. Imagine that, my dorm was almost a mile from the main part of the campus and I had no bag to carry any books… Sometimes we forget the simplest things.

  7. JulesLt says:

    Let’s just say that when I was at University doing IT, a computer wasn’t even a pre-requisite for IT students, so it was some time ago, but I think some of the same things apply.

    If you’re on a budget, a good second hand machine will be more than capable of doing what you need for most courses (web access + word processing + light image work). My father has an iBook that is a few years old that I used last time I visited and I found that absolutely fine for light tasks while the small size was great – I am more used to 15″ and 17″ desktop replacement Acer machines.

    Headphones :Some people have problems with the Etymotic earphones – I did (although given what was removed from my ears by doctors later, it was no surprise). The alternative I eventually went with was the Sony Ultimate EX. The big advantage of all decent earphones is you can play them at a lower volume and save your ears.

    TV : What about something like the Elgato EyeTV USB key?

  8. Derek says:

    TV : What about something like the Elgato EyeTV USB key?

    Good tip with the Elgato key. I was actually just looking at that this past week. I couldn’t decide if it was worth it. Personal experience with the device?

  9. viperteq says:

    Derek, when I click on the link for the Powersquid, it takes me to the same page that has the alam clocks on it. You might want to check that link…..


  10. Derek says:

    Fixed. Thanks for the heads-up Viper.

  11. viperteq says:

    Damn, that was fast. Do you ever sleep?

  12. Derek says:

    This is Derek’s automated comment reply system kicking in. Seriously though, I was asleep. Then I had an idea for a project and just happened to be up for a bit longer.

  13. Phil Bowell says:

    I have one of the Myglia USB TV receivers. This one, and I recommend it to any student going off to uni this month. It’s very high quality device and works a treat. Picture is very crisp and the flexibility of recording offered by my iMacs huge hard drive makes it a must.

  14. weisheng says:

    I have an Apple cinema display so the EyeTV USB key has been a boon for me. The UK has started the transition to digital terrestrial television, so there’s a great selection of channels to choose from and I don’t need to clutter the room up with a television. The best thing about EyeTV is the software, it’s intuitive and now even boasts a Front Row type interface although I don’t use that much.

    Instead I use Salling Clicker and my Sony Ericsson phone to control EyeTV, DVD Player, VLC and Front Row. All my media files available from the comfort of my bed 🙂

    As for choice of computer, I would definitely recommend PC users to consider switching over to the Mac at this time. I switched not long ago and it’s been fantastic; there’s a plethora of apps available, the UI is beautiful and Mac developers pay attention to the smallest detail, something you don’t often see in PC apps. What’s more you don’t have to spend your entire day running antivirus and anti-spyware programs.

    And now that Macs are Intel-based, games are no longer an excuse! Macs definitely have greater longevity than PCs, my PowerBook is still as snappy as ever. The only reason I’m thinking of upgrading is so I can play some games on a new Intel Mac.

    For music, I would recommend JBL’s Creature II speakers. They hardly take up any space on the table but the sound that comes out of them is amazing. This ranks as my top purchase for satisfaction alongside my cinema display.

    Also, how could you leave out good old Ikea furniture if you’re moving out of dorms into private accommodation? Indispensable! Price and quality are both great. If you’re in the UK, never buy from Argos. They’re crap.

  15. Adam says:

    Etymotic ER6is, or other well sealing earphones can also double as earplugs when the moron next door decides to have a party the evening before you have a final.

  16. Ryan says:

    Hey, great post. I just wanted to stress the important of surge protectors. Not only is it good to protect your electronics, but you’d be amazed how few outlets there are in comparison to how many are necessary. My roommate and I both have a surge protector and we probably need another.

  17. Derek says:

    Etymotic ER6is, or other well sealing earphones can also double as earplugs when the moron next door decides to have a party the evening before you have a final.

    Funny. I actually snapped my pair at the base where the earphones plug into the MP3 player. Maybe I should just cut the wires at the base of the buds and use them for expensive ear plugs.

  18. J. Botter says:

    “]Hey, great post. I just wanted to stress the important of surge protectors. Not only is it good to protect your electronics, but you’d be amazed how few outlets there are in comparison to how many are necessary. My roommate and I both have a surge protector and we probably need another.

    So very true. I’d rather spend $70 for a good Monster (or equivalent) surge protector and know that my MacBook and other expensive electronic gear is getting clean electricty.

  19. […] It’s been 24-hours since the violent backlast against CrunchGear’s laughable attempt at a back to school check list. Derek Punsalan wrote a great entry titled “College Frosh: Don’t break the bank,” and Paul Stamatiou got us back to reality with his “Back to College shopping list.” Paul actually left a comment after reading my crunchgear tirade. […]

  20. Eli says:

    OH MAN! The PowerSquid. Quite possibly the greatest device to come out in the past century.

    Antibiotics fixed fewer ills than the powersquid.