Best of…Dorm Life (Five Tips for Decorating on the Cheap)

dorm_paint_samples_0During this September and October, U Chic will be running some great articles (i.e. oldies but goodies from our archives) as a part of our “Best of” Freshman series. Each one will focus on a specific topic designed to ease you into college life, while peparing you for your first year away from home. This week, we’re zeroing in on living in the dorms, and how you get into the swing of things while staying both happy AND healthy!

Decorating Your Dorm on the Cheap.

As a child, I used to dream about what kind of house I would live in when I was finally an adult. Depending on the day, I might see myself in a ramshackle Victorian mansion, an old farmhouse, or a sleek, stylish downtown loft. My fantasies definitely didn’t involve cinder block walls, ugly institutional furniture, or a roommate with widely differing view of the word “clean.” Yet those were the realities I faced as an undergrad. No matter where you live during your college years, it is likely to be far from perfect. But that doesn’t mean you can’t make your first home into something special. Though I still don’t have that million-dollar loft, I have managed to learn a few tricks for taking your dorm or apartment from drab to fabulous.

1. Paint

A fresh coat of paint is one of the quickest (and cheapest) ways to turn your living space around. Head the store and grab a bunch of samples, and then pick a color that works with your style. Don’t be afraid to go bold. If the key-lime colored living room doesn’t really work, just chalk it up to youthful stupidity and move on. (Canary yellow, anyone?) Want to save money? Use the samples themselves to decorate with (as seen above). It’s cheap, innovative, and easy to remove at the end of the semester.

2. Lighting

The importance of good lighting cannot be underestimated. Most dorms, and many apartments, are cursed with the kind of lighting that would make even Megan Fox look washed out and unattractive. Trust me, there is nothing sexy or alluring about getting your latest crush or conquest back home, only to flick on a light that reveals every pore, pimple, and under-eye circle in crushing detail. Invest in some strategically placed lamps, with different kinds of shades and bulbs of various wattages (a definite thrift shop trip is required). And though they’re significantly more expensive initially, energy efficient bulbs will save you money over the long-term (plus they’re much nicer to the environment).

3. Accessorize, Accessorize, Accessorize …But Not Too Much!

We’ve all heard the Coco Chanel adage about always removing one accessory before you leave the house, right? The same logic applies to your apartment or dorm. Sure, you want to dress up that extra long, lofted twin bed, or hide those weird cracks in your bathroom wall. But you should resist the urge to buy everything you think is cute, cool, or clever. Instead, focus on what you really need, and what works with your style. Look at that batik throw in your hands and ask yourself: “Does this really mesh with the retro-fifties aesthetic I am trying to convey?” It not, put it down, and back away slowly…

4. Get Thrifty

Garage sales and thrift stores are generally cornucopias of unwanted, bargain-priced furniture and home décor. Unfortunately, much of it has been dumped at the Goodwill for a reason; it’s either broken beyond repair, or it’s hideously ugly (and not in a funny or ironic way). But with a little common sense and a lot of patience, you can score big with this approach to home furnishing. The keys to successful thrift shopping are a good eye (it’s especially important to inspect any upholstery thoroughly), scouring multiple stores (some will have a better selection than others), and return visits (stock changes frequently). But dedicated thrifting will often yield awesome one-of-a-kind finds and that vintage, kidney-bean-shaped table is cooler than anything you’d get at Ikea.

Warning: With the recent spread of bed bugs across the country, be careful with what you purchase. Also, avoid dumpster diving at ALL costs!

5. Get Creative

Even if you’re not an art major, decorating your new abode is a chance to let the right-side of your brain shine. Take some arty photos with your digital camera, print them, and put those on your wall instead of the same boring, mass-produced posters everyone else has hanging above their bed. Find unique ways to make use of awkward spaces. My roommates and I recently turned a strangely-sized built-in closet unit into an attractive (and much-needed) bookcase. Sew your own curtains. Refinish the old chairs you found in your parents basement. Look at design magazines for ideas for projects.

In search of inspiration? Check out these websites:

Readymade ( — A magazine “for people who like to make stuff.” The design ideas range from the fanciful (a CD-rack made out of Legos) to the more practical (ways to hang your art). — A blog with the mission of “helping people to make their apartments better places to live.” Features advice, product reviews, and listings for stores and services in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco.

Ikea (– This Swedish home furnishings giant is the go-to place for cheap furniture and other necessities for your first apartment.

Wallpaper ( — No, you won’t be able to afford any of the products featured in this London-based design bible, but it will look great on your coffee table.

Head on over to 1,000 Dreams Fund to learn how to get funding for your dreams!