BY MELISSA BURNS
There are lots of sacrifices you can make in college to avoid depleting your bank account. You don’t have to shell out for brand new textbooks. You can walk or ride a bike around town rather than maintain a car. You can reduce housing costs by splitting rent and utilities with roommates.
Unfortunately, there’s no alternative to eating. What’s a college student on a tight budget to do?
Here are seven ways to save money while staying healthy and satisfying your hunger.
- If you’re required to purchase a meal plan, choose the right one.
It can be tricky, but it’s ridiculous to pay for three meals a day if you’re not likely to eat them all. Money magazine reports that students who eat every meal on campus spend around 85 percent more each day than students who cook at home.
Decide how you’ll use the plan. For example, if you like a big breakfast but prefer to eat light meals the rest of the day, buy the plan with the fewest meals. Enjoy breakfast each morning at school, but prepare everything else at home.
If, on the other hand, you don’t trust yourself to stay out of restaurants, go all out for the plan with the most meals.
- Take some time every few days to plan your meals.
Students who neglect to take this crucial first step are likely to go over their food budgets before the week is through. They may even gain unwanted pounds.
If you haven’t planned, shopped, packed lunch or stocked the fridge, you’ll be tempted to eat the wrong foods and spend too much money. That aroma of pepperoni wafting from the neighborhood pizza joint is hard to resist when the cupboard at home is bare.
Search online for weekly menus. The recipes should be healthy, inexpensive and easy to prepare. You’re not likely to stick to your plan if ingredients are numerous, difficult to find or a hassle to prepare.
For breakfast, hot or cold cereal is a great choice provided it doesn’t have too much sugar. You can break up the monotony with toppings like fruit or nuts. Eggs are nutritious and inexpensive. Boil a few at a time and store them in the fridge. When you buy bread for toast or sandwiches, freeze the unused slices to prevent them from spoiling.
Speaking of the freezer, it’s your best friend. Just about anything can be frozen for later if it’s allowed to cool first and stored in a safe container. Frozen fruits and vegetables save prep time and prevent spoilage. Just remove only the amount you’ll use for one meal.
Invest in a quality lunch bag or bento box that holds foods at safe temperatures. If you’re on the go, you won’t have to worry about giving in to fast-food temptation.
- Learn to shop.
After you’ve chosen a few days’ worth of recipes, make a shopping list. Before you leave the house, take a quick inventory to make sure that you’re not buying items you already have. Calculate what you expect to spend, and make adjustments if necessary.
A couple of academics from New Zealand, Art Thomas and Ron Garland, have done extensive research into grocery shopping habits. They found that people who adhere strictly to a shopping list spend significantly less money than those who don’t. Sticking to a list eliminates impulsive spending. Shoppers with lists also finish up a lot faster.
You should also know that grocers tend to place more expensive brands at eye level. The higher or lower you have to reach for a can of black beans, the less you’re likely to pay. The quality is often very comparable.
In general, no item is a bargain if it’s not on your list. The only exception is a sale or buy-one-get-one-free offer on something that you eat frequently. The same is true for coupons. Just because there’s a coupon for something doesn’t mean that the product is a smart buy or especially good for you.
Don’t go to the store on an empty stomach. No one can make good decisions when everything from frozen egg rolls to chocolate layer cake sounds delicious.
Stock up on staples, like rice and boxed pasta that keep for a long time and go with everything.
Avert your eyes at the checkout counter. Those candy bars, lip balms, and tabloid magazines are placed there for a reason, and it’s easy to double your grocery tab in a matter of minutes.
- Cook with a buddy.
Ask one or more friends to share grocery costs and cook with you once or twice a week. Search for recipes that make several servings. Pot roasts, casseroles, enchiladas and pasta dishes are ideal for sharing.
Versatile entrees that can easily be used another way are also good picks. A roasted or store-bought rotisserie chicken, for instance, will provide plenty of leftovers for chicken salad, fajitas or soup the next day.
- Get a slow cooker.
For convenience, food quality and energy savings, slow cookers can’t be beaten. Here are a few of the benefits:
- Since all of the ingredients go into one pot, you’ll save significant time on cleanup.
- Slow cookers are so versatile that a variety of meals can be prepared in
- Your meal will be ready and smell wonderful when you get home from school.
- You can cook a lot of food at once, so there will be plenty of leftovers, freezing or sharing.
- The long, low-temperature cooking process tenderizes even inexpensive cuts of meat and enhances food flavor.
- You can use a slow cooker any time of year. Hot soups and stews will be welcome in the winter, and using it in the summer instead of the oven will keep the kitchen cooler.
- Slow cookers use far less energy than gas or electric ovens.
- They also tend to be fairly inexpensive, but you should do some research before buying one. To find the best one for your needs and within your budget, check out this list of the five best slow cookers reviewed and other lists like it.
- Kick the latte habit.
You don’t have to be a math major to tally up the cost of visiting your local barista every morning. If you can’t resist the convenience, consider buying a small single-cup coffee machine. A wide variety of coffees and other drinks are sold for brewing in them. They’re often on sale, and they pay for themselves in a few weeks.
- Avoid vending machines.
Compare the price of vending machine pretzels to the price of a large bag sold at the grocery store. As you’ll see, it makes better sense to buy from the store. Just portion snacks into small plastic bags when you get home. You may have noticed that skipping meals to save money wasn’t recommended. Don’t do it. It’s unhealthy, especially for breakfast.
According to the Food Research & Action Center, going without breakfast affects your ability to learn, concentrate and retain information. Any amount of money that you save by skipping meals is a mere pittance compared to the cost of tuition for repeating courses.
Melissa Burns graduated from the faculty of Journalism of Iowa State University in 2008. Nowadays she is an entrepreneur and independent journalist. Her sphere of interests includes startups, information technologies and how these ones may be implemented.