After all those years of being served up delicious home cooked meals by mom, having to fend for yourself at college can sometimes come as a shock to the system.
After your tuition, room and board, food will probably take the next biggest bite out of your budget. It’s surprisingly easy to see every penny drip away on take-outs, Starbucks and “treats” out.
If you can use your college years to work out how to spend your grocery money wisely, you’ll be set for life. You’ll have built a solid foundation for your financial future, and will live a less stressful, more comfortable life as a result.
Working out how to budget on food can be overwhelming at first if you’ve never had to deal with your own grocery bills, so we’ve simplified it down for you.
Bring Your Own Food
This is a simple way of saving money on a day-to-day level, and it really does work. One of the quickest routes to spending more than you mean to and messing up your budget is by not planning ahead- it leads to impulse buys that could definitely set you back by the end of the year.
When you do your grocery shop, make sure you get a good selection of easy snacks that you can bring out with you wherever you go. This way, when you sit down for coffee with a friend and those hunger pangs keep pulling your eyes over to the muffins on display, you can whip out something from your bag and munch without spending any extra.
Aim for healthy snacks, ideally with some protein to keep you going throughout the day. Try and avoid things that are mostly sugar or simple carbohydrate, as they tend to give you a quick blood sugar spike that won’t help you in a long day of classes. Here are a few ideas:
- Nuts (buy in bulk to save cash and put in Ziploc bags to take a portion for the day ahead)
- Cereal/protein bars
- Fruit (bananas are a good energizing option)
- Home-made trail mix (find some good ideas for this here)
- Nut butter of any kind spread on crackers or rice cakes. Hummus can also work well for this
- Carrot sticks and dip (you can pre-make dips and portion into pots to take on the go)
We could go on, but you get the idea! Bring your own nutritious snacks out with you each morning and you’ll easily avoid the overpriced café snack temptation.
This works just as well with meals– try to make as many of your lunches at home as you can rather than buying sandwiches while you’re on the go. It’s easy to cook up a batch of pasta with veggies and cheese in the evening and then bring a portion with you the next day as pasta salad, or make your own sandwiches to take out.
Finally, you can save a fortune by investing in a good, solid thermos. Hot drinks bought out can add up like crazy, so by making a big load of coffee or tea in the morning, putting it in your thermos and heading out the door, you’ll easily save a load of money. Having a thermos on hand at all times is alsoa great way of staying warm and cozy during the long winter months.
Make The Most Of Your Meal Plan
If you’re living on campus and paying for a meal plan option at your college (as many freshmen will be), it could be best to opt for the smallest meal plan option. As an underclassman you’ll probably have less options to choose from in terms of the size of your plan, but you may still have the choice of a lower plan.
While some plans are cheap enough to fit your budget, many students find that they end up spending a ton of money on food outside of what they’re already paying to the college. If you are paying for a meal plan then make sure you show up and eat the food that’s there– don’t let the meals expire before you’ve had a chance to get your fill. If you find yourself getting to the end of the week with food credits unused, make sure you use them to grab snacks and drinks to help keep you going.
If your college operates on a buffet system, be sure to make the most of what’s on offer while you’re there. Bring along a Tupperware container and fill it up with leftovers from the mammoth portion you’ve served yourself- they’ll make great night time snacks. It may look a little funny, but no one will be laughing when they see how much you’ve saved on food expenses by the end of the month.
Couponing is no longer just for your grandma and crazy people on TV. It can actually be a really handy way of saving money on your grocery shop with very little work required. You don’t have to sit for hours clipping and stockpiling thousands of boxes of cornflakes, just a few coupons here and there will help save you some cash.
There’s no need to over-complicate things- just grab hold of local newspapers when you get the chance and keep an eye out for coupons for things you generally buy anyway. Don’t counter-act the savings by going out and buying things you wouldn’t have bought in the first place just because you have a coupon!
Even if we’re just looking at a few cents here and there, it could add up to a fairly substantial saving at the end of the month- and we could all use a little extra cash!
Coupons aren’t only found at the back of newspapers. You’ll find tips, inspiration and free coupons to print and use all over the web:
- The KrazyKoupon Lady
- Retail Me Not
- Grocery Guide
- Supermarket social media pages and websites
- Grocery store websites
If you do decide to get into couponing, remember to check the small print each time. Deals sometimes expire sooner than you’d like, and there may be restrictions on how the coupon can be used.
Cook Up A Storm
This mainly applies to those of you who are living off-campus or who aren’t restricted by a college meal plan. Even if you’re going to be eating mostly in the cafeteria during freshman year, read on! Eventually you’ll need to put this tip in action, so it’s always good to be prepared.
- Start Simple: Never done much cooking before? That’s okay, a lot of us showed up at college having never made much more than a slice of toast- that doesn’t mean you have to resign yourself to four years of Ramen noodles. Ease yourself into the culinary arts with some simple recipes. This site, and this one both have some great ones, and you’ll find tons of other ideas online.
- Bring A Cookbook:Your parents probably have a thousand cookbooks that they rarely use anymore, so ask if you can borrow a few to bring with you to school. Many of the recipes will probably be too pricy, but you can tweak the ingredients to suit your budget and there should be some good, simple basic ideas to give a try. If nothing else, cookbooks can be great inspiration for getting started in the kitchen. They also tend to offer step-by-step instructions on preparing food. Beginner’s books are the perfect way to start, so if you can get hold of a free beginners cookbook then bring it along.
- Make Your Favorite Take-outs: Can’t resist a big cheesy pizza? Learn to make your own base here and get your friends together for a pizza party on a budget. Love Chinese? Make your own stir fries- these are super cheap and easy to make. With a little practice, you’ll be able to replicate your favorite take-out dishes without the excess strain on your wallet.
- Get A Crock Pot: These handy cooking tools are perfect for making big batches of cheap, warming food to last you all week. They’re also ideal for students who aren’t too confident in the kitchen yet, so if you’re just getting started then they can be the perfect step to a balanced, inexpensive meal. Slow cook a batch and then save the rest in Tupperware containers. There are some great recipes to help you beginning slow cooking here.
- Arrive With Essentials: When you’re packing to go to college, make sure you have basic cooking tools ready to help you create your own cheap, delicious meals. You won’t need too much or anything fancy. These are the basics to begin with:
- A knife set- some sharp smaller ones and a big chef’s knife for the larger tasks.
- Measuring cups and spoons
- A cutting board
- A kettle
- A big pot
- A colandar
- A non-stick frying pan
- A casserole dish
- A can opener
- A wooden spoon
- A spatula
- A toaster
- A cheese grater
- Tupperware, Ziploc bags, foil
- Sponges (sadly, the dishes won’t clean themselves)
- Minimize Waste: If you have leftovers from a particular meal, try not to throw anything away. Chicken left over from last night’s dinner can make the perfect sandwich filling for tomorrow’s lunch, and extras can always be stored in the freezer to use for a different meal. Every little helps when it comes to saving in the kitchen!
- Organize A Pot Luck: Get some friends together and plan a pot luck dinner night, where everyone cooks something and brings it a long. This way, everyone gets a chance to work at their culinary skills, and you can sample each other’s efforts and share ideas and recipes. It’s also the ideal cheap night in if you want to eat together but don’t want to waste cash going out for a meal.
Cooking is really all about experimenting and going at it with confidence– everyone has to start somewhere. The main thing is not to resort to constantly buying food out just because you’re intimidated by the task of preparing your own meal. This will end up draining your bank account and probably expanding your waistline, too.
Follow the links we’ve provided and heed this advice, and you’ll be a world-class chef in no time. Well, maybe not world-class, but as long as you have a full stomach and have saved some cash, that’s all that really counts.
Before you even get to hit the kitchen, you’ll need to stock up. Grocery shopping could either destroy your budget or prepare you for thrifty living– it all depends on how you approach it.
When you first start shopping for yourself, it’s tempting to head into the supermarket and grab everything that appeals. It’s happened to the best of us, but try to plan your grocery shopping wisely to get the most bang for your buck.
- Buy In Bulk: There are certain grocery items that are always cheaper to buy in bulk- oats, pasta and rice are good examples- you can buy huge amounts of these at a great price and store them to use all semester (or year) long. If you do buy some bulk groceries, make sure they’re things you’ll really cook with so they don’t go to waste. Anything that can be frozen and used later also works well for this- if you buy a larger quantity of chicken, you can use some of it fresh and then freeze the rest to cook at a later date.
- Buy Generic: The vast majority of the time, the name brand version of a product is exactly the same as the generic supermarket version. It’s all in the marketing, and very rarely in the actual quality of what you’re getting. Buy generic versions and you’ll save plenty.
- Make A List: Don’t walk into the grocery store with no clue of what you’ll come out with- you’ll end up picking up stuff that you don’t need and forgetting the necessities! Before you head out, sit down and make a clearlist of what you need. Try not to stray from the list while you’re shopping, no matter how tempting those expensive cookies might be.
- Make A Budget: We’ll talk in more detail about budgeting in a different chapter, but it’s something you can apply to every aspect of your college life. Food shopping is an area where budgeting is particularly important, so set a limit before you hit the stores. Bring a calculator with you while you shop to make sure you’re staying within your budget- it may feel like you’re being overly strict on yourself, but it’ll feel great when you’ve saved a load of cash.
- Plan Meals: Research cheap meals and recipes (the sites we listed above are super helpful for that sort of thing) and plan what you’re going to cook at the beginning of the week. This will make it extra easy to make your grocery list, and will ensure that you use what you buy.
- Make Monday’s Meatless: You might have heard about “Meatless Monday”- where people go vegetarian one day a week to improve their health and support environmental causes. Cutting down on your meat consumption can also do wonders for your bank balance- good quality meat can be very expensive, while the veggie alternatives are often reasonably priced. Try skipping the meat and bulking your meals out with beans and pulses, and experiment with some quick and easy veggie recipes.
- Fill Up Before You Go: Don’t go to the grocery store on an empty stomach- you’ll only end up being drawn toward every single thing on the shelves. Have a good meal before you head out and you’ll be less likely to shop on impulse, and more likely to stick to your list and budget.
- Avoid Empty Calories: One of the most annoying things about junk foods is that they often seem to be cheaper than the healthier alternatives. These foods may fill your stomach but they’re generally giving you nothing but refined sugars and simple carbohydrates. Aim for nutrient dense foods that will fill you for longer and fuel your body and brain.
- Save Your Change: Some grocery stores offer gift cards for shoppers- one smart way of saving up some extra money is to put the change from each shop that would usually get lost in your pocket onto a gift card. If you put your spare change on the card each time you shop, by the end of the month you could have a decent amount to use on a grocery shop. Don’t let those pennies, nickels and dimes go to waste.
- Hit The Farmer’s Market: Your local farmer’s market can be the perfect place to pick up bargain fruits and veggies- it’s often cheaper than the supermarket alternative. The food also tends to be fresher, and you get bonus points for supporting local businesses rather than huge grocery corporations.
- Collect Points: If your local supermarket offers a loyalty program where you can collect points on each shop to use later as money off- take advantage of the offer! These cards are often free to register for and can help you get some special discounts and offers, as well as allowing you to redeem your points for cash when you need it most.
- Get A Discount: This might not be on offer, but it’s always worth asking if the store you’re shopping at has a student discount available. This is a tip to use wherever you go- you never know where you might score some savings.
- Avoid Credit Cards: We’d advice you to stay away from credit cards at all costs, including when grocery shopping. Only use the cash you really have, and don’t borrow money that you’ll only have to pay back at a huge interest rate. If you’re really struggling to afford food then try everything else before turning to credit cards- speak to your family, your college guidance counsellor or the school’s financial office and ask for help when you need it.
Eat Out Wisely
Everyone deserves a treat every now and again, so make room in your budget for the occasional meal out for special occasions or to get together with friends.
There are ways to make even a usually pricy meal out budget-friendly. There’s no need to throw your budget out of the window as soon as you set foot in a restaurant- just make some minor adjustments to the way you order and you’ll save yourself plenty.
- Leave The Drinks: Fizzy sodas and juices in restaurants are sold at a huge mark-up, so order tap water and you’ll save yourself a few bucks. Water is also far healthier, and won’t fill you up with sugar and chemicals. Get your tap water with ice and lemon to liven it up a little- your body and wallet will both thank you.
- Find The Specials: Many restaurants have nights with specials- so find some two-for-one deals and discounted meals to get the most from your money.
- Go For Happy Hour: If you’re going to be drinking, don’t go in peak times when the drinks are seriously overpriced. Find out what time happy hour is and plan your cocktails for that time slot. Just make sure you don’t cancel out the savings by having twice the number of drinks!
- Get All You Can Eat: Buffets can be a great choice of location for hungry college students looking to enjoy a meal out together. Get some friends together and head to your nearest all you can eat buffet- try to make the most of what’s on offer without gorging yourself into a food coma.
- Sharing Is Caring: The thought of sharing your long-awaited meal out might make your blood boil, but if you go somewhere with big portions then it’ll definitely work out cheaper to share meals. Many restaurants already have portion sizes that are way too big, so sharing shouldn’t be too much of a problem! You’ll have half the bill to deal with, and half the calories, too.
- Skip The Extras: Try and find places where you get sides included with your entrée so you don’t end up spending a load on extras like fries or salad. You’ll soon work out where in your college town has the best value meals- so stick to those places to make sure you don’t get ripped off.
Stay At Home
You might not like this one, but it really can be an epic money-saver. If you’re going to college fairly close to home, you could consider staying back home with your parents- this won’t just save you the obvious expense of room and board at college, but you’ll also be able to stick with mom’s home cooked meals and avoid having to buy your own groceries.
Depending on your family’s system, your parents may ask you to chip in a little for food or rent, but this will still be drastically less than what you’d be spending if you move out. This can be a good choice if you didn’t get the full scholarship you wanted or as much financial aid as you need- it may not be as fun but it’ll keep you from falling into huge amounts of debt while you get your valuable college education.
If you do decide to stay at home and stick with the free food, make sure you join as many clubs as possible in your freshman year so that you’ll still be able to socialize at college outside of class time. It can certainly be more difficult to make friends when you’re not thrown together in a dorm situation, so you will probably have to go the extra mile to develop friendships.