Back-to-school shopping is costly, but off-to-college shoppers are just the kind of suckers retailers love.
Last year, the National Retail Federation noted that families sending their kids off to college planned to spend $899.18 on back-to-school shopping and $43.1 billion collectively. That was down down slightly from $916.48 per family in 2014, but the total was still nearly two-thirds of the $68 billion spent on back-to-school shopping at any grade level last year.
Families were still spending $207.27 on electronics like tablets and laptops, $136.95 on clothing, $117.98 on food, $66.70 on school supplies, $72.79 on shoes and $78.02 on personal care items. More than half (51.3%) actually bought furniture for their dorms and paid $126.30 for it. Keep in mind, these are dorms that are already furnished. As the percentage of students living at home dropped from nearly 47% to 41.5%, the number living in dorms grew to almost a third of all college students.
That doesn't mean students or parents are in any rush to plow through shopping lists. Roughly 48.1% of back-to-college shoppers had their decisions guided by sales, which are valuable when 49% of schools require laptops or other devices.
However, it doesn't pay to procrastinate when 48% of college shopping is done in discount stores and 45% takes place in department stores -- compared to 39% online. To save parents and students some time and frustration, we consulted with the folks at DealNews and found ten items that shouldn't be crammed into the car before heading to campus. Books and student loan debt are costly enough. You don't need to toss more money at the following:
Potential Savings: $30 to $100, not including ink
You may as well pack students away with stone tablets and chisels.
Professors take most assignments via email these days, which means lots of projects finding their way into inboxes at 11:59 p.m. the night before they're due or a few hours into the next day with a lengthy explanation. Nobody wants to deal with reams of paper anymore and, if necessary do, students will head toward printing station or lab. If a major requires printed assignments, a student will get that warning well in advance. If that warning never comes, save the ink, printouts and precious dorm space.
All it takes is some college shopping to make certain tech seem superfluous.
Think you can save some cash getting a tablet? You're either losing functionality or spending way too much on what's basically a laptop with a detachable screen. A high-end laptop like a MacBook Pro? You're handing to someone who'll use it to type papers and go online... and who'll be doing a lot of both in close proximity to coffee, ramen and a whole lot of other hazards. A desktop? What, are they taking a course in Warcraft?
A decent laptop can be had for less than $500, and any other device is ancillary or downright frivolous. Considering there will likely be a smartphone heading up to campus, too, students who aren't STEM majors won't need much more technological firepower than that.
Potential Savings: $66.70
We know shopping can be one last bonding experience for parents and kids before they head off to college, but just wait for the syllabus. There are some basics that you can throw in there, sure, but there's no need to ship a student off with half an office supply store and a calculator that may never be used if they can get by on a quick trip to a CVS/Walgreens after the first week.
Potential Savings: $80 to $100
This is likely going to be the last time this student sleeps in a twin bed. It's going to be oddly long, it's going to be subject to a whole lot of spills and its sheets are going to be subjected to questionable laundry habits and that student's personal hygiene (or lack thereof). Seriously, go somewhere cheap, go to the sheet aisle, find the most basic sheets for that bed size you'll never see after college and pick them up. There's a time and a place for nice sheets: College isn't it.
Potential Savings: $20 to $50
At best, they're just going to sit in a dorm closet until a student moves off campus... and even that's a stretch. At worst, it's just going to give an English major the idea that bunk beds are possible with some screws and duct tape. Most colleges will lend you some tools if you need them, but all it takes is one look at cinder-block dorm walls to remind you why dorms typically don't like students hammering nails into them.
Potential Savings: $20 to $100
If you're shelling out for a meal plan, too, you're just paying for items to collect dust.
Also, give some serious thought to how this student handled dishes at home. Did they pile them up in the sink? Did they scarcely grasp the concept of a dishwasher and how it runs? Have they ever used dish soap in their lives? Do they understand the merits of soaking dishes? Have they ever seen a sponge or scrub brush in the wild?
If the answer to any of the above is no, sending them to college with cheap dishes and one of those scrub brushes with dish soap in the handle isn't going to help them. Let that student "borrow" dishes from the dining hall, where people you're paying to wash those dishes can deal with the aftermath.
Potential savings: $80 to $140
An iron and ironing board? Really? Again, have you ever seen this person iron his or her own clothes? Does he or she have a wardrobe that warrants ironing? Have you not invested in wrinkle-free fabrics to remedy any lack of ironing?
College students, overall, are not going iron. It just won't happen. If they don't learn the throw-it-in-the-dryer cheat, they'll learn which clothes don't look like a giant wrinkle when they are scooped off the floor or taken out of the closet. What they won't do is unfold a board and iron or, worse, use one of those hand steamer atrocities that only makes their clothes slightly warmer and more damp.
Oh, and a vacuum? Terrible idea. Most residence halls just have them around for students to borrow. With the exception of Parents' Weekend, there isn't going to be some run on vacuums where demand far exceeds supply. Speaking of supply, though, cleaning supplies like glass cleaner, furniture polish... those may as well be attached to a boomerang that you throw the day those students leave for school and that comes back sometime around summer break.
Potential Savings: $200 to $400
While there may be exceptions -- dorm suites that spring for DirecTV's NFL Sunday Ticket, Game of Thrones fans -- chances are a television is just going to go to waste. Remember that laptop you bought? That now gets Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, HBO Now, etc. Pulling the old 16-inch tube television out of the attic or sending up that old plasma screen that's been lingering in the basement it basically just sending it to collect dust in a new home. If the folks in the suite deem a TV necessary, let them negotiate among themselves. In a modern dorm, however, it's as much of a waste as a land-line phone.
Potential Savings: Immeasurable
This is largely for Boomer and Gen X parents: Half of the stuff you needed for your dorm room is on a phone now.
Alarm clock? Phone. Camera? Phone. Music? Phone. Calendar? Phone. What are we saying? Simple: If it's a standard phone feature or if there's a smartphone app for it, you don't need to send the obsolete device along for the ride as well.
Potential Savings: $25 to $100
This includes anything not already on your shopping list.
Bed, Bath and Beyond nourishes itself on the tears of overprotective parents.
Dryer balls will never "come in handy." Dorm-room potpurri will never "come in handy." Toothbrush holders, closet organizers, miniature food storage containers... none of this is going to help out and just about all of it will end up out of sight and out of mind. Yet the same parents who fret about the costs of college and their children's student loan debt have seemingly no problem splurging for zebra-striped storage baskets if they think it will make everything O.K. It won't. If you need to spend to make yourself feel better when your student moves away, look at the price tag on that knick knack you're holding, total it up with everything else you thought "looked cute" or "reminded you of him/her" and transfer it into their account sometime before finals. It'll be more appreciated than over-the-door hooks they'll never use.