7 Creative Ways to Save Money on Food in College

Even if you’re not on your college’s meal plan, you don’t have to subsist on Ramen noodles from a Styrofoam cup like some sort of collegiate cliché. There are plenty of other smart and easy ways to eat well and save on food costs when you’re in college and living on a budget.

1. Shop with savings in mind

Make smart choices at the grocery store. Don’t just grab whatever looks good on the shelf. Basically, you want to shop with an eye toward economy purchases.

  • Start with a plan. A shopping list is your friend. It can help you stay on track, buy healthier ingredients for complete meals, and avoid impulse purchases.
  • Buy generic. Many generic products are just as good as their brand-name counterparts, and famously cheaper. Plus, you can save 15 percent on house brands.
  • Join up to save. Use coupons, store loyalty memberships, and rewards programs.
  • Get the app. Several shopping apps will net you cash back for certain deals — and some for scanning items or even just entering the store!
  • Hit discounts and deals. For instance, BOGO (buy one, get one free) is an effortless way to save!
  • Scope the student incentives. Many grocery stores near major campuses give incentives for students to shop with them, so be sure to ask about them.

Also, if you don’t already know how to do it, learn how to understand unit pricing. Sometimes it’s done for you and listed on the label on the shelf. If not, use an online unit price calculator until you get the hang of it. And don’t let yourself be tricked into buying more. Remember, you’re not going to save money by buying three cantaloupes or two bags of salad instead of one — chances are, the extra will get nasty and moldy and you’ll have to toss it. 

2. Learn to cook

It’s almost always cheaper to cook at home than eat takeout. If you have an apartment with full kitchen capabilities, preparing and cooking your own meals is even cheaper than punching a meal plan card on campus — which is why some college students living off campus don’t bother with meal plans. (Although, if you do have a meal or partial meal plan, you should be sure to use it to the fullest or lose out on that money.) Here are some budget-friendly cooking tips.

  • Stick with staples. Focus some meals around inexpensive staple foods such as potatoes, rice, or pasta. Add a few veggies and some seasoning, and you’re good to go.
  • Minimize meat. Meat is one of the most expensive elements in any recipe. Make it an accent rather than a centerpiece of most meals.
  • Use frozen produce. Whenever possible, stock the freezer with frozen fruits and vegetables. They’re usually cheaper and more convenient than fresh produce, and they’ll hold longer.

If you have an Internet connection, there’s no shortage of inspiration on YouTube, Facebook and Instagram. BuzzFeed’s Tasty videos have garnered billions of views by making cooking look easy and appealing. If you prefer a more “old school” approach, go to your local thrift or used book store and buy yourself a basic cookbook or two. See if you can find one that focuses on budget cooking.

3. Drink water

Water is way healthier for you than sodas, sports drinks, coffee, and even fruit juice – and it’s much, much cheaper. Plain water tastes fine if you use a filtering pitcher and drinking it can save you $1,095 a year, according to one blogger’s estimate. But if you can’t get used to it, get yourself a glass pitcher and toss a few slices of lemon or orange in with your water; it adds a nice flavor. Or you can buy tea bags in bulk for 9 cents apiece or less. By bringing your own beverages in a reusable sports bottle, you’ll not only be saving a small fortune, you’ll also be helping the environment.

4. Find free food

On and around college campuses, you’ll find there are lots of opportunities to access some free food. Consider these strategies:

  • Attend on-campus events. At everything from student mixers to job fairs,
  • Join a club. Many college-sponsored clubs make pizzas or sandwiches part of their regular meetings.
  • Schedule a happy hour. Learn the schedules and offers for happy hours at local bars and restaurants. It’s a good way to eat cheap and meet up with your friends, too.
  • Taste some samples. Many markets or supermarkets offer food demos, letting you load up the toothpicks as you make your way through the store. If your family or any of your friends have a Costco membership, the store offers lots of great samples on weekends (and often during weekday afternoons, too). Costco also sells a popular $1.50 hot dog-and-drink combo.

5. Plan your meals

It’s easier to stick to a tight budget if you plan your meals ahead of time — and then stick to the plan at the store. Try these techniques:

  • Make a list. Jot down any items you need that are missing from your fridge or pantry. Having them in writing makes it easier to remember what to buy, and harder to justify getting things that don’t appear on the list.
  • Eat before shopping. Going to the store hungry increases impulse buys. Going when you’re full makes it easier to be disciplined and stick to your grocery list.
  • Shop alone. Similarly, shopping with your friends is likely to bump up your impulse purchases of desserts, snacks, or “Ooh, what’s this weird fruit?”
  • Read the register. It’s easy to check out when you’ve finally made it to the checkout lane, but that’s when you should be most alert. It’s easy to make mistakes with so many items passing through the scanner, so keep an eye on your totals.

6. Take old food and make it new

If you’ve got a mishmash of leftover foods and aren’t sure what to do with them, surf on over to Supercook.com to transform your odds and ends into a brand-new meal. This way, you can avoid waste and find new and fun things to eat.

7. Use your freezer

You can avoid foods spoiling by wrapping up leftovers or your extras by sticking them in the freezer. Numerous foods freeze very well.

  • Yogurt
  • (Most) cheeses
  • Vegetables
  • Meats
  • Butter
  • Tomato sauce

Another good habit to get into is cooking in bulk and breaking it down into portions. You can save both time and money by making a tray of lasagna, ziti, chicken, or even a meatloaf, and splitting it up into several meals. Keep some in the fridge for this week, and freeze the rest for next week.

Taking on the chore of shopping and cooking for yourself can feel like a big task in the beginning, and it can be tempting to overspend when faced with an entire store full of groceries. The problem with overspending is that after you’ve blown your monthly budget on chips and chocolate, you might end up with weeks of nothing to eat but potatoes and rice. By learning smart and creative ways to save with an eye toward budget shopping, you’ll become a pro in no time at all.

P.S. Keep partying to a minimum — it’s expensive and helps you to make bad decisions.

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