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10 Ways to Deck Out Your Dorm — On a Budget

Back to school can be hard on your wallet. Be a quick study — for savings tips and insights on the Tally blog.

August 5, 2021

As colleges prepare to reopen for in-person classes in the fall, students and their parents plan to spend more than $1,200 on back-to-school items, including dorm decor. This figure may come with a bit of sticker shock, especially considering the cost of tuition. The average annual price of tuition and fees for a four-year in-state public university education is $10,560, while a private university will run you a whopping $37,650 annually, on average. 

Once you’ve covered tuition, room, board and textbooks, you may find you have little leftover in your budget for dorm decor. That said, you’ll be spending a lot of time there, and making a space that’s comfortable and reflects your personality is an important part of your college experience. Luckily, with a little bit of legwork and some creativity, you can deck out your dorm without breaking the bank. 

Here’s a look at ten affordable dorm room decorating ideas: 

Rearrange your room 

Before you start decorating, move the furniture to create an inviting space. Shift dressers and desks that are blocking windows to allow as much natural light as possible, and push them against the wall, if possible, to create open space. Consider ways to make extra storage, such as lifting your bed on risers, allowing you to put storage bins, shelves, or even a short dresser under your bed. 

If you want to open up the space even more, you could loft your dorm bed to accommodate a desk or dresser under it. Planning your dorm room to be as spacious as possible costs you nothing and can create a more inviting space overall.

Consider your lighting 

Nothing says “institutional” quite like overhead fluorescent lighting. Unfortunately, that’s the option many dorm rooms come equipped with. However, some cheap lighting options can spice things up and make your room feel homier. 

First, consider string lights, a versatile dorm room staple. They’re inexpensive and can be used in various ways, from outlining walls or furniture to making your patterns using removable Command hooks. For a decidedly more TikTok look, opt for LED strip lights you can attach to your bed frame or around furniture for moodier vibes.  

Then, there’s more practical lighting. Don’t forget desk lamps and floor lamps with shades in warm tones to make your room feel cozier. Grab your old bedroom desk lamp from home for free, and upgrade it with inexpensive color-changing light bulbs that operate with a remote.

Bring things from home

Speaking of taking things from home, when decorating on a budget, look for opportunities to use free stuff whenever possible, such as old furniture from your parents' garage. To give it a modern update, all you need is a can of spray paint or a trendy printed slipcover for chairs or upholstery. With a couple of DIYs, cheap dorm room decor can look high-end and on-trend.

Before you buy anything, ask around to friends and family to see if anyone is getting rid of old lamps, rugs, shelves, throw pillows or even microwaves. You may look to social media to cast a wider net for the things you need. For example, if your neighborhood has a “Buy Nothing” group on Facebook, you could put out the word that you’re looking for specific items.

Go thrifting 

If you can’t find the things you need in your network, thrift stores and yard sales are a great place to look for cheap dorm room decor. There’s another advantage to buying things secondhand. Dorm life can be filled with a parade of new friends, acquaintances and total strangers. It’s not uncommon for things in your room to get lost, damaged or permanently “borrowed.” As a result, it can be good to have items in your room that you’re not particularly attached to and don’t plan to bring with you when you graduate or even when the school year ends.  

Look for discounts 

This tip may seem a bit obvious, but if you’re diligent about cutting coupons, scouring sales and hunting down discounted items, you can save a lot on dorm decor. 

Take advantage of back-to-school sales and promotions to help you get the best deals. Look to stores that put a lot of effort into merchandise for college students, such as Target and Ikea. Ask about clearance sales and floor models. If you’re shopping for other appliances or necessities online, Amazon Warehouse can be a source for open box products sold at a discount that typically have never been used.  

Focus on your bed

The biggest piece of furniture in your dorm room — and therefore a focal point — is your bed. Not only will you use it as a place to sleep, but you’ll likely be studying there, using it as a makeshift couch when friends visit or plunking down to eat a bowl of cereal while you watch a movie on your laptop. As a result, it can be worth directing a little bit more of your budget to your bedding. 

Consider a mattress pad and topper to help make your dorm mattress more comfortable. Scour department store clearance sections to find a print you love at an affordable price point. Opt for oversized throw pillows that make your bed feel cozy but also serve as floor seating when friends stop by. 

Cultivate your green thumb

One way to bring some life into your dorm room — literally — is by adding plants. Plants add color and interest to a space and they improve the air quality. Not only that but there is some evidence to indicate that plants may help you be a better student by improving mental health, physical health and productivity. 

When choosing a plant for your dorm, consider those that don’t require a lot of care. If your dorm room gets a lot of light, you might want to try succulents, which are visually interesting and tend not to need a lot of water. 

Snake plants, aka sansevieria, can thrive in lower light and don’t require much watering either. Overall they’re pretty hard to kill, and they’ll survive while you’re away over winter break. 

Pothos is another popular houseplant that thrives in a variety of lighting conditions. Its trailing habit makes it perfect for use in a hanging pot or on a shelf. 

Plants tend to be priced according to size, so to save a few bucks, think about buying a baby version of a favorite plant. If you don’t mind giving it some attention, it’ll grow with time and care. 

Hang art 

Wall art is one of the most important tools in your belt for personalizing your space, and it’s a great opportunity to get creative. 

For example, look for cheap frames at thrift stores or discount retailers. Frame interesting paper you find in art stores or look for downloadable art to print yourself on websites like Etsy. Collage from clippings or frame a favorite editorial from a fashion magazine for free art. 

You could skip the frames altogether and use hooks and alligator clips to hang photos, prints and postcards. Bring a boho spirit to your space with a DIY macrame wall hanging. In some cases, you may need as few materials as a dowel and some string from a hardware store. 

Try removable wallpaper

Most dorm buildings won’t allow you to do anything permanent to your room. That’s why removable, peel-and-stick wallpaper can be such a boon to dorm room decorators. Prices vary depending on pattern, material and size of roll. But for $30 or $40, you should be able to get enough material to add interest to a variety of flat surfaces in your room. Use it as intended to draw focus to an area of your wall. Consider covering tabletops, doors, appliances, drawer fronts or cabinets.    

Get to know washi tape

Washi tape is essentially well-designed Japanese masking tape. And like temporary wallpaper, it’s colorful, totally removable and doesn’t leave any residue. It’s also inexpensive and versatile. Use it to tape pictures to your wall, and it will do double duty as an adhesive and interesting frame. Create geometric patterns on flat surfaces, such as doors and walls. Use strips of tape to make stripes, or cut the tape into squares, triangles and rectangles to build mosaic patterns. You could even tape off a grid on one of your walls to make a giant calendar for you and your roommate to share. 

You may be taking on student loans already to help you pay for school, and the last thing you want to do as you settle into your college digs is take on more debt — especially costly high-interest credit card debt. These cheap dorm room decor ideas can help you settle into campus life while staying on budget and keeping your financial life on track.

If you’re bringing some credit card debt to campus this fall, consider checking out Tally. The credit card payoff app can help you pay down debt faster and smarter with simple-to-use tools to help you avoid late fees and overdrafts.