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How to Eat on a Budget at College

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by Mara Strom

We’ve been talking on the Financial Aid Finder about how to get through college without blowing your whole budget in the first few weeks. Last week, we put the spotlight on textbooks — a major budget buster for many students.

This week, we’re looking at how to eat at school without eating up your budget. If you’ve spent anytime at a grocery store lately, you know that prices are going up (and up and up).

Whether you’re planning on living on campus and eating at the dining hall, or renting an off-campus apartment and fending for your own food, you’ll undoubtedly feel the pinch of these price hikes. Here are six tips for staying within your budget (you do have a budget, right? If not, don’t worry: Next Monday, we’ll look at how to make a college budget!)

1. Shop at grocery stores, not convenience stores.
You’ll quickly find that there are a plethora of convenience stores dotting the perimeter of your campus. Everywhere you look, you will be able to grab a quick bite to eat for “only” $5.99. Six bucks a day, twice a day, seven days a week, adds up to a big hole in your budget faster than you can finish that ready-made sandwich.

2. Avoid the 21-meal plan.
Many colleges require on-campus freshman to buy a meal plan. If at all possible, don’t buy the 21-meal plan. The odds of your eating every.single.meal in the dining hall are slim (no pun intended on how dining hall eating will impact your figure) to none. Instead, purchase 14 meals and leave yourself some flexibility.

3. Cook at home.
If home is an off-campus apartment, you’re set. Invest in an inexpensive set of pots and pans, a cheap cutting board, and a good knife. Check out garage sales and thrift stores, or buy on clearance at big box stores. For less than $50 you can outfit a functional kitchen. Don’t bother buying cookbooks — you can check them out from your campus library, or find a plethora of recipe sites online (my favorites are epicurious.com and recipezaar.com).

If you’re living in the dorms, you still have some options that are thriftier than going out or eating in the dining halls. Most residence halls allow microwaves and mini refrigerators; some permit rice cookers, hot pots and crock pots — all of which open up a world of possibilities. Even if you only buy an electric kettle to make oatmeal for breakfast, you’ll save a ton over the dining halls — and get a much healthier start to your day than from four bowls of Capt’n Crunch. Trust me.

4. Clip coupons.
Seriously. If this woman can spend just $40 a week to feed her family of four, then you can definitely save yourself some serious cash by clipping a few coupons. The Money Saving Mom also has some great ideas for saving on toiletries and household goods (yes, you will need toilet paper if you are living off-campus) by shopping at CVS.

5. Buy a Brita. And invest in your own water bottle.
Soda costs a fortune. So does bottled ice tea, juice and anything else you can grab out of the refrigerator section at your local Quick Mart. Bottled water isn’t much (if any) cheaper. Instead, pick up a Brita pitcher and a water bottle to take to class — and everywhere else you go. (I love these eco-friendly ones — good for you and the environment.)

6. Hold the reins on late night eating.
Ordering pizza or Chinese food is a nightly ritual in college. Treating yourself once in a while is okay, but ordering weekly — or daily — will undue your budget (and your pants). Allow yourself to spend a set amount on ordering out every month. Once that money is gone, it’s gone. This little foray into self-restraint won’t be easy (especially when it’s Two-for-Tuesday buffalo wing night), but your wallet and your waistline will thank you!

So, tell us: What are you doing to save money on food while at college? What’s your game plan?

Don’t forget to stay tuned for our suggestions next week about how to make a college budget.

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