How to save on food in college (with lower-cost tips and alternatives)

Kevin Gallegos Vice President of Phoenix Operations Freedom Financial Network

With few exceptions, college is expensive, no matter where you go. Tuition, books, fees all add up fast. Often, little is left for other expenses, including food. While every student needs to eat, it’s possible to save significantly on the food budget without sacrificing quality.


Do

Do use your campus meal plan

If you (or your parents) have purchased a campus meal plan, use it. As your year goes along, if you think the meal plan you have doesn’t work for you, check into more affordable options that could work for you. In the meantime, though, stick with what you have to the degree possible. Otherwise, you are wasting money. 

Do budget

If you don’t have a campus meal plan, you’ll need to create and use a simple budget. Ideally, this will include all your items of expense, not only food. Budget by the week for food to keep close track of it.

Do seek out locally grown, in-season foods

While there are plenty of choices in summer, you can do this year-round (think about beets, Brussels sprouts, squash and broccoli in the fall and winter, for instance). Have a refrigerator? Find a quick pickle recipe for locally grown cucumbers or bell peppers instead of buying prepackaged. For meat, check out local farms (see www.localharvest.org to locate farmers). 

Do improve your own water and soft drinks

Make tap water interesting and flavorful with lemon, lime, cucumber or other fruits and vegetables. For juices, lemonades and sodas, remember that their plastic packaging adds to the cost. Instead, consider buying powdered mixes and making your own. You can also use a seltzer maker to make your own cola and seltzer water. 

Do observe unit price

Look beyond the item price. Check the unit pricing displayed on tags on store shelves, or calculate yourself. Mid-size packages sometimes will be the best purchases.


Don't

Do not forget to track expenditures

Most people are surprised to find just how much they spend each day and week on food. Writing it down opens your eyes to true spending patterns, and helps you identify where you can cut back.

Do not ignore cliché questions

Can you do without the expensive cup or coffee or smoothie? Maybe you can replace it with the free coffee at your part-time job. Or buy an inexpensive coffee maker or blender, and make your own.

Do not drink

Or at least cut down when you’re out. For many students, this can sound dull. But think carefully about the cost of alcohol in restaurants and bars. Going out for drinks can doom a food budget for a week, month or longer.

Do not think bulk buying is only for large families

Warehouse clubs can offer tremendous savings for college students, too. Many items don't come in large quantities and don’t perish easily, and there are many "individual" items. Get together with friends to share large purchases. You’ll find excellent prices at farms, orchards and farmers’ markets, especially if you can share large quantities (think bushels of fruit) with friends. If you don’t need perfect-looking produce, ask about “B” fruit or bruised boxes. These “B” or bruised fruits and veggies can be up to half off and have just as much taste and as many vitamins as perfect-looking pieces. 

Do not rush for the convenient options

You’ll pay for the convenience of bagged lettuce, pre-cut fruit and vegetables, and shredded cheese. Take just a few more minutes to rinse and tear lettuce, cut up produce or to shred a block of cheese. Avoid single-serving packages if you can. Buy larger sizes and divvy up smaller portions in plastic bags or, better yet, small reusable containers. 


Summary
Jumping cartoon

College students need nutritious food to keep minds and bodies strong. With some planning and forethought, the food budget can become one of the greatest areas for saving.


More expert advice about Financing Education

Photo Credits: midnight grocery shopping by Ginny via Flickr; Check Man, Cross Man and Jump Man © ioannis kounadeas - Fotolia.com

Kevin Gallegos Vice President of Phoenix Operations

Kevin has worked with Freedom Financial Network since 2005. Before that time, he held the position of enrollment sales supervisor for Nationwide Financial Solutions in Tempe, Ariz. Kevin also has worked as a business analyst and customer service...

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