Updated July 15, 2014

What to Buy (and Not Buy) for College

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The average student spends over $1,000 per year on textbooks and other supplies for college. Add that expense to housing, travel, and tuition and we're talking about a major four-year investment.

If you're sending your child off to college this fall, chances are you're going to want to save as much money as possible. Whether you're making purchases yourself or you've entrusted your child with his or her own student credit card, one of the best ways to reduce cost is by learning the difference between essential purchases and ones your child can get by without.

What to Buy for College

  • Laptops: Starting or returning to college is a great time to upgrade your computer, and college students need the portability that laptops provide. Competition among laptop brands during back-to-school season is intense, and the result is great prices. So time your purchase and send your student back to school with the latest and greatest technology.

    Did you know: One great way to save money on a laptop is to buy a refurbished model. Many manufacturers offer factory-certified “refurbs” that come fully equipped with accessories, warranties, and generous return policies. As an added bonus, you won’t be quite as affected by month-to-month fluctuations in laptop pricing, so you can make your purchase when you need to.

  • Textbooks: Count textbooks among those few non-optional back-to-school purchases. The trick to saving money here is to buy early and buy used. Most schools post textbook requirements online well before classes begin, and that’s the best time to start looking for your books. Online book sites almost always offer better deals than on-campus bookstores. Starting your textbook shopping early will give you plenty of time to hunt for the best deal. If owning a hard copy of textbooks isn’t a priority for your student, e-books or book rentals are two great ways to save some cash off cover prices. These savings can be significant and definitely add up over the course of eight semesters. The average price of a college textbook is a bit below $200, and shopping around for the best deal typically saves you 20-75% off the retail price.

    Did you know: It’s no surprise that textbook sales peak in the weeks before the fall and spring semesters begin (mid-August and early January), which is why these are the best times to look for deals. A less-explored means of saving money, though, is to sell back textbooks from previous semesters at these times too. It's much more profitable than selling them right after the semester ends, when most students do. The worst times to buy and sell? Around Thanksgiving and Easter.

  • Linens and Other Dorm Supplies: Parents purchasing new sets of sheets for their college-bound kids should look for lower thread counts. There’s no reason to spend a lot of money on bed sheets that probably won’t last more than a year or two. For basic room furnishings, August generally brings great deals on desks, chairs, and shelving units designed specifically for dorm life.

    Did you know: Nationwide retailers like Target, Wal-Mart, and Bed Bath and Beyond are your best bet for sales on linens and other dorm supplies. It’s possible to pick up a desk for under $40, a full sheet set for less than $25, or a small shelving unit for under $20 during the height of back-to-school sales at any of these stores.

  • Clothes: In early August, clothing retailers that target college students will compete for back-to-school dollars by offering deep discounts. That means it’s a great time to stock up on new fall clothes and send your student back to school with a new wardrobe. Don’t forget the importance of the obligatory college sweatshirt, either – especially for freshman; this will be one of the first purchases your student makes when they get to campus.

    Did you know: More than a dozen states offer “sales tax holidays” on clothing in August. They’re scattered throughout the month, but many occur that first weekend. These “tax holidays” are a big deal for shoppers – they can save customers 3% to 8% on all clothing purchases.

What Not to Buy for College

  • Printers: College students may need laptops, but they definitely don’t need printers. Campus libraries and computer labs usually offer free printer access to students, and many assignments can now be submitted digitally, eliminating the need for a printer altogether.

  • Tablets: There’s very little justification for purchasing a tablet to help your college student with their studies. Typing term papers on one is torturous, and the functionality-to-price ratio of a laptop is much higher than that of a tablet. Studies have shown that the average price of a laptop is quickly approaching that of some tablets, so the cost savings isn’t nearly what it used to be. Recent estimates have tablet sales passing total laptop and PC sales by 2015, but a laptop is still the way to go when you send your student off to college.

  • Small Appliances: Many college dorms now have very specific rules about what appliances are and aren’t allowed in dorm rooms. Even if your child's school does allow certain small appliances, it’s probably best to coordinate these purchases with roommates before you go out in search of the best deal.

As summer winds down and back-to-school sales heat up, take advantage of the many deep discounts offered, and save money on the essentials when sending your college student back to campus. Don’t buy more than you need, though – the best way to save money is simply to trim your college supply list.

Leah Norris is a research analyst at CreditDonkey, a credit card comparison and financial education website. Write to Leah Norris at leah@creditdonkey.com. Our data-driven analysis has been recognized by major news outlets across the country and has helped students make savvy financial and lifestyle decisions. (read more)

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