You're off to college. One of the challenges of starting life as a freshman is packing up your whole life and then trying to fit it all into a small dorm room. How do you prepare for everything you need while you start the adventure of living away from home and your parents?

You might be surprised to find out that you can make do without a lot of the pricey items that appear on many checklists.

Here are five things you really need as you start college.

1. Laptop, notebook or tablet computer

Whether you're taking notes in class, doing research or writing papers, a portable computer is helpful. Choose a computer that is easy to use when typing. If you decide on a tablet, it may be worth the extra expense to purchase a portable keyboard to take notes and complete assignments.

Additionally, thanks to cloud sharing systems, it's often possible to connect your device to the school's wireless network for cheaper access. You might even be able to use that wireless connection to print assignments from the university computer lab -- although an increasing number of professors expect you to upload your documents to a university content management system.

Your computer can also double as an entertainment device. You may not need a TV and a cable/satellite plan.

You can save money by purchasing a refurbished computer or last season's model, heavily discounted to make shelf space for the latest version.

2. Inexpensive phone plan

You'll need to stay connected and an inexpensive phone plan can help with that. There are a number of low-cost ways to use a smartphone without breaking the bank. There are several innovative carriers that offer low-cost plans. You have to buy the phone yourself, but you won't be trapped in a contract. These carriers tend to offer decent smartphones for low costs.

3. Book bag

Textbooks are still required for many classes. Therefore, don't skip out on a book bag. There are a number of book bags designed with laptops in mind, so you can carry your computer and your books. Look for a book bag that offers sufficient space for your needs and includes areas for cords and power supply.

4. Dorm room essentials

There are a few things that make sense when you live in a dorm room, or if you plan to share an apartment with others. Bath towels and wash cloths, personal hygiene items and a good shower caddy for carrying your items to and from the bathroom are simple items that you can purchase on sale or with coupons. Other dorm room essentials include:

  • Basic first aid kit
  • Trash can and trash bags
  • Laundry bag and detergent
  • Desk lamp
  • Bedding (many dorm beds require XL sheets, so be sure to double-check)
  • Batteries
  • Basic toolkit (should include hammer, screwdriver and ratchet)
  • Bed lifts to create extra storage (some university housing programs still offer cinder block rentals for a cost that is lower even than bed lifts bought at the store)
  • Over-the-door hooks
  • Storage bins for organization if your room doesn't come with built-ins

5. Textbooks

Even though you still need textbooks, you may not need to spend an arm and a leg. You can buy textbooks secondhand, rather than buy new. There are also textbook rental sites that allow you to pay a smaller fee and rent either hard copy or digital textbooks.

With a little planning, you can start off on the right foot with what you need for college, and you won't have to worry about busting your budget.

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