How to Decorate a Dorm Room on a Budget

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By Sakina Taher
Last updated on September 7, 2022

Decorating your dorm room to reflect your personal style is a great way to get more comfortable with your new home in the US. Read on for tips on how to decorate your dorm room on a budget!

Two female international students studying in their shared decorated dorm room

A dorm room acts as a second home for international students in the US — it is a space for comfort, having friends over, and studying. Decorating your dorm room is a great way to get more comfortable with your new environment, and can help you create a space that feels relaxing to come home to each day. 

From fun and vibrant DIY techniques to maximizing storage and furniture space, there are many things to keep in mind when decorating your dorm room, but it is also important to make sure you do not spend too much. Learn how you can decorate a dorm room on a budget and discover cheap ways to decorate a dorm room. 

Decorating a Dorm Room on a Budget

Decorating your room can seem costly at first, but with some planning, research, and a little creativity, it can be a very affordable and fun experience. Before you begin, here are some factors to keep in mind:

  • Set a budget — Over the first few weeks of school, consider keeping aside a small amount of money just for dorm room decor each week. This can help you plan and prioritize the most important items to purchase, while also allowing you to eliminate any items you may not need. You can even choose to decorate your room in phases, which can be less costly compared to doing everything at once.

  • Layout — Even though dorms are small, considering your layout options can maximize the use of space and provide a clutter-free living environment. When placing furniture, consider the flow of access to doors and windows and if storage space will be sufficient for both you and your roommate (if you are sharing your dorm room). 

  • Theme — Depending on your resources, you can plan out the color scheme and overall look for your room, ideally in coordination with your roommate (if you have one). While it is great to have a room designed to the colors and themes you enjoy, it is also important that you and your roommate are both happy with the final result.

Planning around budget, layout, and theme can give you a starting point of the decor items you want to purchase. Once you have your to-buy list, you can start comparing prices across several stores to find the most affordable options.

Shop Secondhand

A cheap way to decorate a dorm room is by shopping for secondhand items (or items that have been previously owned by someone else) that often cost less than their original price. This is a great way to find unique pieces and decorative items and repurpose them to suit your needs. 

You can shop secondhand at:

  • Thrift stores — Thrift stores only sell secondhand items, ranging from clothes, shoes, furniture, art, and more. Stores like Goodwill and The Salvation Army sell donated items where profits are usually offered as charity. While scouting through thrift stores, check the quality of the items, brands, and general wear and tear. Compare these with original prices and items available in other stores to get a good deal.

  • Garage sales — Usually set up in a home’s front yard or garage, garage sales offer a range of household items and furniture for discounted prices. These are an ideal opportunity to find secondhand furniture directly from the original owner, giving you a better idea about its condition and unique details.

  • Online sales — The internet is home to the biggest secondhand shops. Consider keeping an eye out for preloved items sold on social media and online stores such as TheThriftShopper, Poshmark, ebay, and more. 

Secondhand items may need to be repaired or changed if you want to match the theme of your room. With a little guidance and a few tools, you can even make these changes yourself and save on additional costs.


Cheap dorm room ideas such as wall frames, ornaments, and bedding usually come from “do it yourself” – or DIY – techniques. These are quick and easy ways you can improve or add style to your dorm room at a low cost, compared to buying something new. 

Here are some DIY items to consider in your dorm:

  • Cork boards — They give you space to pin up your daily class schedules, to-do lists, and pictures of family and friends. 

  • Paint — Most dorms will come with furniture that’s already in good shape. But for secondhand furniture or decor items that may need a few touch ups, painting them yourself can be cheaper than asking a professional.

  • Washi tape — Printed washi tape is similar to regular tape, but it comes in floral, plaid, and colored prints. It is an easy and creative way to cover up cracks on walls, marks on furniture, and scratches on appliances. You can paste washi tape diagonally, horizontally, and vertically to create patterns, giving a personalized and interesting look to your items. 

  • Clothing — Clothes you do not use anymore can be stitched up to make blankets, seat covers, or pillowcases. Hanging some of your jackets, hats, and accessories outside your cupboard can also add a touch of personalization to your decor. 

  • Glassware — Glass items such as bottles and jars can be repurposed as vases, candle holders, and pencil holders. You can decorate them using washi tape, painting them, or tying strings and ribbons around to complete the look. 

With a little bit of creativity and some basic tools, DIY methods are resourceful when decorating a dorm room on a budget. There are so many ways old items can be reused to reduce waste and costs, while enhancing the overall look and feel of your dorm room and showing off your personal style.

Hand-Me-Downs Are Your Friend

Hand-me-downs are previously owned items passed down for another person to use. When decorating a dorm room on a budget, hand-me-downs are a cost-saving alternative to buying brand-new pieces. Ask your network (especially older siblings and cousins who went to university before) for items that may be useful to you. 

Hand-me-downs could include:

  • Microwave

  • Television

  • Fridge or mini-fridge 

  • Bookshelves 

  • Tools (Paint brushes/screwdriver/hammer)

  • Photo frames

When accepting items, remember to check whether they will fit in your dorm. Take measurements to ensure that things are the correct size and won’t take up too much space. Double-check that everything is in good working order. You want to narrow down your options and make sure you only accept items that support your daily life.

Seniors who are about to move or graduate from college may also have items to offer, so ask around and spread the word. If you require a big (or expensive) item, you may get lucky with a valuable hand-me-down.

Split Costs with Your Roommate

When decorating a dorm room with a roommate, it is important to have open and respectful conversations about budgets and how money is being spent. If you have one or more roommates, ideally the costs to decorate can be divided equally. However, how costs are shared can vary, depending on the item. For example, if you need more space to store your books and other equipment, you might purchase an additional storage item that your roommate would not pay for, as it is for your own use. 

Similarly, your roommate may have dietary choices that are incompatible with yours, so both of you can decide to buy your own fridges from your personal funds. Communication and transparency between you and your roommates can make decorating a dorm room on a budget an easier and more enjoyable experience.

Buy Versatile Pieces

Dormitory life can be fun and rewarding — living with your friends, studying in groups, and having people visit is exciting, while managing dorm space and sticking to a budget can be a valuable learning experience. One unique way on how to decorate a dorm room on a budget is to look for pieces that can be used in multiple ways, which allows you to save costs on buying multiple separate items. 

Here are a few items to consider purchasing:

  • Storage ottomans — An ottoman is a low seat that usually does not have arms or a back rest. Once the seat is flipped open, ottomans have compartments that can store bulky items such as blankets and pillows. 

  • Shelves — Tiered shelves can be used to store books, lamps, storage boxes, snacks, picture frames, and more. 

  • Side tables — Side tables (usually kept near your bedside) are a multifunctional storage unit. They can hold personal items such as your glasses, books, medicine, and personal items and also shift to become dressing tables to store combs, tissues, and makeup. (Note that many dorm rooms already come with side tables, so you may not need to buy another after you arrive in the US.)

As college students, most of your time may be spent around campus: at the library, learning centers, clubs, and recreational spaces. It’s important to make your dorm room a comfortable home base you can return to for rest, studying, and spending time with new friends. It’s a place that can truly reflect you. Take some time to settle down once you arrive and carefully evaluate which items you may need to support your daily routine and make you feel at home.

Final Notes

There are many cheap dorm room ideas you can apply when decorating a dorm room on a budget. To make the best choices, consider your preferences and personal style, along with possible maintenance costs and durability of the items you need. You can also consider making space for some organizational items such as laundry baskets, bins, and cleaning supplies to keep your room neat and tidy.

If you need additional support on how to decorate a dorm room on a budget, Shorelight advisors can direct you toward places to shop, as well as available cash back offers and/or seasonal discounts. Counselors can guide you through any part of your university experience, including how to better understand US classroom culture, overcoming homesickness, or prepping for orientation programs

Adjusting to college life is a journey where you will get to know a lot about your skills and capabilities. Enjoy the process, knowing you will grow and improve over the years ahead. Decorating your dorm room is just the start of your US university adventure!

Shorelight can support you as you transition to life in the US >