Sarah Mangum

I’m getting ready to embark on my two-day, 763-mile drive my new home for the next four years: The University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. My Volkswagen Jetta doesn’t have room for the countless shampoos, hairbrushes, and styling aids that fill every shelf, nook, and countertop of my bathroom.

So before I leave my lifelong home of Austin, I made it my mission to scour the city for the essential products I need to wash, condition and style my curly locks to perfection. Naturally, as a college student with a college budget, money was on my mind. So I browsed countless beauty supply stores, discount stores, and grocery stores to find all the best products at the best prices. And since my new home probably won't have room for the abundance of hair products I currently have on stock, space was also an important factor.

I set my limit at one medium-sized cardboard box and $40, with a few more pricey must-haves added in.

These days—with nearly every company coming out with great products especially for curls—inexpensive alternatives are available in most product categories, such as shampoos and hairspray. You might want to pick one or two products that you want to splurge on.

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I've found there are products that are worth spending more money on than others, whether it be some Curly Hair Solutions Curl Keeper or some Mop Top Deep Conditioner. Some of my friends swear by Miss Jessie's Curly Pudding, and are willing to sacrifice in other areas to keep themselves supplied. I justified my new DevaSun Dryer and DevaFuser because it dries my hair so fast — a huge asset for a college kid on the go.

Low-Cost Cleansing

My hair is very fickle; some days I am rocking the ringlets and other days my hair can’t seem to decide what it’s all about. My No. 1 concern is over-shampooing -- which dries it out -- and product build-up, which makes my hair oily and flat. I usually try to go at least two days between a wash. On the other days, I might wet it and condition it. I never use more than a quarter-sized amount of shampoo. Once a week, I shampoo twice, focusing on my scalp. Here are some great low-cost finds.

  • John Frieda Frizz-Ease Curl Around Style-Starting Daily Shampoo a very nourishing but lightweight shampoo
  • Herbal Essences Totally Twisted Curls & Waves Conditioner an amazing-smelling, lightweight shampoo
  • Suave Naturals Citrus Smoothie Shampoo gentle, moisturizing but nourishing
  • Elucence Moisture Benefits Shampoo peachy smelling, super-moisturizing

Conditioning on the Cheap

As far as conditioning goes, my hair is very long so I tend to use more than the recommended dime-sized amount. Once a week I use conditioner all over my head but the rest of the week I just use conditioner from my neck to the roots. If your hair is drier, it's a good rule to leave the conditioner in for two to three minutes to really let it soak in. If you’re pressed for time, however, just run the conditioner through your hair to detangle it, and make sure to rinse it all out! If your hair is super dry, you don't have to rinse it completely out. There are so many great daily conditioners to choose from.

  • John Frieda Frizz-Ease Curl Around Style-Starting Daily Conditioner hydrates your locks and pumps up the shine
  • Elucence Moisture Balancing Conditioner moisturizes hair without weighing it down.(4
  • Aussie Sydney Smooth Conditioner a great light, daily conditioner.
  • L'Oreal Paris Vive Pro Nutri-Gloss Conditioner makes hair look super shiny.
  • For a pricier alternative, one of my favorite products of all time is DevaCare One Condition, which leaves my hair smelling and feeling better than it has ever been. It can also be used as deep conditioner once a week and last you several months.

After I get out of the shower, I immediately spritz my hair with a leave-in conditioner and use a comb to detangle it. The wider the comb the better. You can pick up a comb at any grocery store; I like Goodies combs for their fun colors and nifty handles. For a low cost leave-in, I use Garnier Fructis Curl & Shine Leave-In Conditioning Cream ($3.99). I take a dime-sized amount and tousle it lightly at the roots. This technique is also great if it’s been a while since you have gotten a haircut and you are struggling with split ends.

Styling for a Steal

Since my hair is so fickle I never know what it’s going to do when I get out of the shower. I usually leave it in a towel for a few minutes to get all of the excess moisture out of it and then I flip my head over and add the whichever product I am using. There is probably one portion of your hair that always frustrates you the most; for me it’s the top of my hair because it never seems to want to curl. I might add some extra product to it and scrunch. As a general rule, if you have thin, loose curls, you want to go for a lighter gel or cream. When picking a product, you also want to make sure you buy a product specifically designed to define curls and not just one to reduce frizz.

  • For my hair, I use Herbal Essence’s Totally Twisted Curl Scrunching Gel. It has a great lavender and jade scent and keeps the frizz out of my waves all day.
  • For thicker hair, I would suggest a heavier gel or mousse; Pantene Hydrating Curls Defining Scrunching Mousse Extra Hold, which holds curls by scrunching them and then letting them dry.
  • Dove Smooth & Soft Anti-Frizz Cream works well for any type of curl. It has the great fresh Dove scent and is lightweight enough to used under other products.
  • For a pricier alternative that I think is well worth the cost, I would recommend Curly Hair Solution’s Curl Keeper. This gel is water-based so it can be used every day without buildup, and has nice fresh scent. It is a product that can be used as a base under other styling products, but for me it works better by itself.

Diffusing: from cheap to chic

After styling, I usually let my hair air dry. But I hate leaving the house with wet hair. So if I get rushed for time—which is going to be a given as a college student -- I diffuse my hair. With curly hair, a diffuser is a must unless you want a head full of frizz. Diffusers dry hair without the harsh, concentrated heat of a regular dryer or straightening iron. There are variety of choices, depending on how much you want to spend. The Luxor Professional Air Diffuser fits all dryers and works great with all types of curls. You simply pop it on the end of your dryer and tousle locks from roots to scalp in a circular motion. It also helps to add body and fullness to hair.

Conair Curl Fusion Ionic Dryer is a great bargain for curlies. It dries quickly (it has 1800 watts) and leaves curls intact.

The Sedusa diffuser is one of the coolest products I have seen yet. You diffuse your hair by actually inserting half of the hair into a giant cone containing giant spirals in it for curls that bounce all day long.

Another affordable alternative is the Remington CurlEnvy Styling Kit, which includes a dryer, diffuser, round brush and duckbill clips.

If you've got the money, you may want to spring for the DevaSun Dryer and DevaFuser. It is one of the coolest things I've ever seen, and it dries my hair really quick.

Frugal Finishing

For hairspray, you don't need to spend more than $10. From my experience, there is very little difference between the hairsprays I can pick up at Target and the more expensive brands. They all do pretty much the same, varying in intensity and hold.

I love Pantene Pro-V Restorations Frizz Control Anti-Humidity Hairspray. It's light, and no matter how much I use, my hair never feels flat or crunchy. I also love Tresemme European Tres Hair Spray, extra hold. It's a lifesaver on super humid days or big nights out.

There are a few other things that every girly girl needs for her new dorm room.

Micro-fiber Towels: When you’re running late for a class, nothing dries your hair faster than a super-absorbing, micro-fiber hair towel. Mimi’s Diva Dryer Hair Towel is made of a super-absorbent micro-fiber that dries hair in half the time without frizz. And it's pink! I also love the Curl-Ease Towel.

Curl Rejuvenators: When you’re coming in from class and you need a quick hairapy moment, flip your hair over and spritz the spray and scrunch. You can now go back into the world with fresher hair and keep it frizz-free the rest of the day! Mop Top’s Detangler and Refresher is also a must have. It has a great fresh scent and tames hair by detangling and conditioning it without weighing it down or making it feel oily. I also like Jessicurl Awe Inspiraling Gel and Frizz-Ease DreamCurls Curl Perfecting Spray.

Hair Accessories: I won't have much time to mess with my hair, so I'm bringing along plenty of fun accessories to help keep my curls looking stylish. I'm packing fun headbands (check out This is J), bobby pins (for every type of style I try) and clear elastic bands for braids. A good get-to-class look for me is a loose bun with a colorful headband.