Handling Dorm Decor When Roommates Come from Different Financial Worlds
Question: I am a single mom, and my oldest son, “John,” will be moving into the dorm soon. Last week he received his housing assignment and the roommates have been exchanging texts and emails. So I was pleased when this boy asked for my email address so his mother could write to introduce herself. But when her email arrived, I was overwhelmed. The mom seems very nice, too, but her message included a long list of dorm room “essentials” and a proposal that the roommates could share many of them and that we parents could share the costs. Well, the price of college is knocking us for a loop and we can’t afford all the “extras” (as I see them) on this list. Many are big-ticket items by my standards (TV, refrigerator, microwave, Xbox, crock pot, toaster oven, Keurig coffeemaker, etc.) Other items include a rug, an air mattress, an extra chair for guests and more. John and I had actually discussed finding a used dorm-size fridge, but there is no way that I can pay for a television or a gaming system (nor do I want my son to have those temptations in front of him as a freshman) and there is a microwave in the kitchenette on the floor. The roommate comes from a suburb that is known for being a fancy one, and it probably never crossed the mother’s mind that not everyone has as much extra cash hanging around as she does. I had planned to write a friendly reply explaining that we are not in a position to make a lot of purchases. I would also explain that I’d already told John that he should live in his college room for a while before deciding what he really needs and that he can then buy one or two items once he’s accumulated some money from his work-study job. But my son is mortified. He doesn’t want me to tell his roommate’s family that we are “poor” (not the word I would have used but not entirely wrong either!) He says we can come up with the money somewhere and that he won’t start college with his roommate looking down on him or, even worse, buying the stuff himself and viewing John as a charity case. But I feel that we should be honest about what we can afford, which — right now — is almost nothing. So how can I deal with this pleasant but somewhat insensitive mother without driving a wedge between my son and me just before he leaves home?
Being a college parent will surely require many fine lines to tread, and you’re already facing your first one before your son has even left home. But “The Dean’s” advice to all parents — whether rolling in dough or poor as church mice — is to embrace a “less is more” view of dorm accoutrements, especially at the start of the school year. Most newbie collegians are pretty clueless about what they will really require, and “must-have” lists can vary widely from student to student and from college to college.
So how to respond to Martha Stewart Mother? Tell her you really appreciate her efforts to coordinate but that you and John had already agreed that he would live in his room for a while before determining what he can’t live without. Of all the dorm room imperatives, the one thing that roommates seem to want the most is space. Even the largest rooms fill up fast when the extra square footage is usurped by stackable plastic bins or beanbag chairs. And it can be impossible to decide how to allocate a limited area without inhabiting it for a month or more. So you might want to make this point to the roomie’s mother, if you think you can do it diplomatically and without John rushing for the “delete” button when he reads your draft (which you should probably permit him to do).
You can also mention that John will be using his campus-job bucks to buy furnishings once he determines what he and his roommate need. That’s not quite the same as saying that your own checkbook balance is in single digits, but hopefully she’ll catch on. However, of all the items on Megabucks Mom’s list, the refrigerator is likely the one that the roommates will use the most, and it may actually pay for itself if John can regularly snack on leftovers rather than on nightly pizza deliveries. So perhaps you and John can volunteer to provide a fridge for both boys, especially since you’d been talking about getting one anyway. This gambit might help to make John less self-conscious about your financial pressures, and then the roommate’s mother can spring for other items that her son “needs” but that John doesn’t care about ... or can’t afford.
Here are some other related points to consider:
- Read restrictions before buying: Older dormitories in particular may ban certain types of electric gizmos such as toaster ovens and crock pots and may impose a surcharge for refrigerators. So read the rules before you write back.
- The best things in life are free: My own son’s university puts a microwave and fridge in every dorm room! Presumably that’s not the case here, but have you checked? You already mentioned that there is a microwave on the floor. Is there also a communal fridge, toaster oven or coffeemaker? There’s almost sure to be a TV in the common room, and it’s very possible that, by the end of the first week, one of the other floor residents has plugged in a game console.
- One man’s trash ... : Often there are “stores” right on campus (especially at the start of the semester) where freshmen can find great gear at bargain-basement prices that the previous year’s seniors couldn’t haul home. College communities also often have Facebook pages dedicated to these kinds of exchanges. Craigslist is another decent option for used goods, but students new to the area need to be cautious when traveling to unfamiliar neighborhoods.
- Let your fingers do the walking: Thanks to the modern miracle of Amazon Prime, even carless collegians on rural campuses can count on free speedy delivery to their doors (or nearby) via a membership to Amazon Prime (also free to students for the first six months). With conveniences like this, it’s really wise to buy as little as possible in advance. When my son was a freshman, he even bought paper towels through Amazon Prime because it was a lot cheaper than taking an Uber to Target.
- Fifty percent of all marriages end in divorce: And the number of roommates who don’t live together after freshman year is far higher than that (and some don’t make it to Thanksgiving). So joint custody of dorm-room furnishings is apt to lead to complications later on, even when the separation is amicable.
While any approach you take when you respond to the roommate's mom -- short of capitulating to all of her demands -- might irk your son, you really do need to set some limits. If John and his roommate become BFFs, it’s likely that there will be additional expectations down the road (“We’ll take the boys skiing in Italy and John just needs to come up with the airfare”). So The Dean’s recommendation is to volunteer right away to provide the fridge but then insist that John wants to spend some time in the room before deciding where his work-study paychecks will best be directed. She ought to get the hint, and John can live with this plan. Finally, remind him that he doesn’t always see eye-to-eye with you, and so it’s very likely that his roommate-to-be is already cringing after reading his mother’s introductory missive, and this kid may not want to own a crock pot any more than you want to buy one!
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