Ever wish you could ask others how they spend their money? We’re going there. In our “Cash Confessions” series, LearnVest breaks down the numbers to show how real people spend their paychecks, and whether their habits are financially on track — or off the rails.
Here, Portland, Oregon, mom Cathie Ericson takes us back-to-school shopping for her college freshman to furnish his suite-style dorm at The University of Alabama. She set out with a budget of $1,200, and the fun began with a week to go till “D” (Dorm) Day.
First stop, Bed Bath & Beyond. Turns out, they really have the college crowd dialed in. We learn we can browse the store with a barcode-scanner and add anything we want to a list, just like a wedding registry (although, sadly, no one is gifting it to us); they'll bundle it up and have our package waiting at a BB&B in our college town. Bonus: We score 20% off our entire purchase since we visit on “college day.”
Even with the discount, we find there’s a lot of stuff at BB&B we can get cheaper at Target. But since we’re here, we get to scanning and figure we can make a Target swap later; when you open your BB&B package on arrival, you can leave anything you decide you don’t want.
So off we go to the linen section. First up, towels — and our first disagreement. I think $10 towels will suffice: “I don’t use $30 towels, and yours don’t need to be nicer than mine!” I suggest he pays the difference, and $10 towels are quickly scanned.
Off to bedding. I secretly hope he’ll choose the all-in-one set with, well, everything in one, since that’s obvi much cheaper. Thankfully, he loves a gray-and-black plaid set and we grab it, along with one other set of spare sheets.
Next up: a mattress topper, which is designed to make the standard-issue dorm bed a little comfier. I’ve been warned not to skimp, so I go for a full 3-inch removable, washable cover at a whopping $199 (but with that 20% off, I feel a tiny bit better it's "only" $159). Still, at this price, it better bring a lot of beauty sleep — and some smart sleep, too.
Moving on, we deliberate over a floor lamp for a while, but I finally say it looks like something that will just get in the way. I say if he feels like his dorm room isn’t complete without it, we can buy it later. ($40 saved!)
Off to kitchen accessories: They all look great, but realistically, what will he really need? He has a campus meal plan and the kitchenette has only a microwave and fridge. So, nothing except maybe the can opener for some soup. I steer him away from the $20 can opener to one that looks like it will do the job for $10. Then he has his eye on a $50 wooden flatware holder. No. The $5 plastic one is fine. We also scan four each of bowls, plates, spoons, forks and knives, along with a 16-piece drinkware set and a $28 Brita pitcher so he won’t resort to wasteful plastic bottles.
Total spent: $0 (plenty ordered, nothing paid for — yet)
In a panic, I realize the Nordstrom Anniversary Sale is ending — if my son is going to school in the South, he better have Sperrys.
I see one style on sale for $66.90 (down from $99.95), but of course he doesn’t like them. He angles for the “Gold Cup” style, which is marked down to $106.90 from $160. I’m not sure about them, so I try selling him on the classic Sperry at $94.95. Unmoved, he’s still hankering for those Gold Cups. “Those ones are on sale,” he says. Um, OK, but $107 is still more than $95. Originals it is.
He also needs chinos, and though I’d seen some affordable ones online, they don’t come in his size. I drag him to Macy’s to look at their selection, but it’s too overwhelming. At this point, I suggest he waits until he gets to campus to see what people are wearing before buying more clothing.
I do grab him a Ralph Lauren button-down, marked down to $44.95 from $90 — you can never go wrong with a nice shirt.
Total spent: $139.90
On Amazon Prime Day, he has his eye on an awesome TV, normally $650, marked down to $400. The roomies agree to chip in $100 each, so his expense is $100 plus two cables of some type that are “cheaper than they’d ever be again,” all shipped directly to school.
Total spent: $128
While grocery shopping at Fred Meyer, I stumble across the school supplies section and am wowed by a selection of $1 spiral notebooks, pencils (the good brand) and Sharpies. I load up, thinking whatever he doesn’t want, his younger brothers can use. He doesn’t want any of it.
Total spent: $16, but it’s all staying at home
We’ve landed at the airport an hour outside Tuscaloosa, and even though it’s 8 p.m., I want to go to Target and knock that off our list. I secretly think the Target in Birmingham might have a larger selection and better prices than the Tuscaloosa one, particularly considering the college crowd descending there. He’s not having it, and I know a shopping trip he doesn’t want to go on will end disastrously.
Total spent: $0
It’s move-in day, but our scheduled time isn’t till 2 p.m., so we have all morning to run to Target and BB&B. Target is mayhem: hundreds of kid-parent pairs just like us doing the exact same thing. I find myself peering in others’ carts and becoming distracted, but he helps me stay on task.
Since we don’t know this Target layout, we criss-cross the store multiple times and end up with So. Much. Stuff. However, I feel better about our haul because I know some of it will replace the stuff we scanned at BB&B, like plusher bath towels for only $8 and an entire set of dishes for $20 — about half as much as the ones at BB&B.
Then we add in all the things I had passed on at BB&B. Even if the roomies will hardly be whipping up five-course meals, the kitchen still has to be equipped with a trash can, a dish drainer, kitchen towels and other odds and ends. Ditto for the bathroom; we cover up the boring plastic shower curtain with a gray-and-white striped fabric number and add a bath mat and trash can. While these little extras sound silly, it all adds up. Three trash cans at $12 each (he needed one for his room, too) is dinner-and-a-movie territory.
The other thing I hadn’t counted on was the cost of setting him up with toiletries, which are usually included in my routine big-box store runs, and shared with his brothers at home. So there’s an initial investment in shampoo, conditioner, sunscreen, razors, toothpaste, etc., along with cleaning supplies (that I hope don’t last all year long).
As we move on to storage, I literally can’t make another decision and say we should return after assessing and measuring the room.
Before heading to campus, we pick up our BB&B bundle. We end up abandoning half of it and leaving with just the bedding, the cutlery, a standing fan and collapsible ottoman. (We end up returning the last two after seeing the room.)
After moving in what we’ve grabbed so far, I realize we accidently left the dishes at Target in our hurry to leave; I call, and they’ve been set aside for us to pick up again. Good thing, too, because now we have a new list of things to buy.
Back at Target, we grab some storage baskets, more hangers and, unfortunately, a $24.99 paper towel holder that I don’t discover is so spendy until I’m home later and doing my math. (It had been sitting on an $8 shelf.) We almost do the same thing for a lamp that’s actually $40 — good thing we catch it before paying. All the cheaper desk lamps have been cleaned out, so he’ll have to make do for now.
Argh! We still need actual school supplies, so we hit that section next: a couple of notebooks, some pens, scissors and sticky notes. I almost put the scissors back when I see they’re $11, but I resist. (Yes, they still haunt me. I wish I’d bought a pair from the dollar store at home.)
Total spent: $1,039.62 (cringe!)
I start the day — where else? — at Target, returning a trash can we don’t need. I see a three-drawer faux wicker chest he had eyed the day before in someone else’s cart, but they ended up being sold out. Now that they’re restocked, I text him a picture to see if he wants it (hoping he doesn’t because I’d then have to come BACK to return the three baskets I’d bought instead); fortunately he says he’s fine. But he does need masking tape, a storage container for the bathroom sink and a picture frame. Sigh … back I go combing the aisles one final time.
Total spent: $24.86
Final Total: $1,332.38
Budget check: All in all, the college-dorm shopping experience went relatively well. I stayed close to my budget of $1,200, and without some of those shared items, I would have been on it. My son moved in a week before his roommates, and it seemed silly to wait and divvy up kitchen mats and scrub sponges on our respective shopping lists (and it's not like I’m going to send his roomies an itemized bill for one-fourth of the $8 dish drainer). If he and his crew had been a bit more organized, we might have made a master list and each ordered or purchased specific items, but I figure it will all come out OK. At some point, they’ll likely buy something that’s still needed or replenish the supplies.
The main thing to remember as you shop for college? Time with your soon-to-be-college-kid is priceless, even if it’s spent negotiating over towels and flatware holders.