How to Eat for Less in College

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How to Eat for Less in College

The following guest post was written by Froogal Stoodent

A recent survey that appeared in Science Daily showed that one of the greatest sources of stress among college students surveyed is their finances. Seventy percent of students who took this survey reported being stressed about money.

Fortunately, there’s a solution that can save you hundreds, if not thousands, per year. But, as they say, there’s no free lunch. If you want to save money, it’ll take a bit of effort. It won’t be too difficult, but it’ll take a little time and basic research at first, and you’ll have to stick with it – even if you don’t feel like it.

If you’re still interested in saving money every semester, here’s how: Make your own meals.

“How can I cook in a dorm?” you may be wondering. That’s a good question, and many times, you can’t. Either you’re not allowed, or the necessary equipment (oven, sink, etc.) isn’t available. That’s another good reason to live off-campus, which I advocate. But even if you do live in a dorm, you can still save money by preparing your own food.

Why bother? Well, as I’ve explained before, the average student loan debt in the United States is $30,000. The average interest rate on student loans is 4.66%. The average term of repayment is 10 years.

So, if you’re in a perfectly average situation, you’ll end up paying over $7,500 in interest on that balance, for a total repayment of $37,588 (on $30,000 worth of loans)! If that doesn’t give you indigestion, I don’t know what will …

Understanding the basics

Every semester, your college sends you a bill. Tuition gets the most attention, because it’s the biggest portion of the bill, but there’s much more on the bill, if you attend a traditional 4-year college. (If you go to a community college, you’ll dodge this bullet until you transfer to a 4-year school). There’s a section for ‘room and board’ as well.

Room, obviously, refers to your dorm. Dorms are typically very small spaces, shared with another student who you may or may not have chosen to live with, that costs thousands of dollars over the course of only 8 or 9 months. This procedure would never fly in the real world, except possibly in overcrowded cities like New York, LA, Tokyo, etc. That’s why I recommend living off-campus, among other money-saving college hacks.

The ‘board’ part of your bill refers to the ‘meal plan’ offered by your college. Meal plan options vary by school, but almost all of them offer 20 or 21 meals per week, roughly three meals per day. At a typical cost of $3,000-$3,500 per year (again, this is for only 8-9 months out of the year), this works out to around $10-11 per meal. In terms of cost, that’s more than it costs to get fast food…for every meal. Every day. And oftentimes, the food isn’t much better than fast food, either. The lines for the best stuff are usually longer, too!

Most schools will offer a plan with fewer meals per week, at a lower total cost for the semester. The fewer meals you eat on your school’s meal plan, the less you’ll pay … but if you do the math, you’ll probably find that you’ll pay even more per meal; $12-13 is common.

Eating at the dining hall for $10 or more per meal is strikingly similar to eating at an inexpensive restaurant for every meal. If that’s too expensive for your parents, older siblings, friends, or other people who work full-time and pay their own bills, then it’s certainly too expensive for you as a college student.

Infuriatingly, schools often require students to live on-campus and/or to get the 21-meal plan for the first year. Nothing like getting you used to maximum convenience, in hopes that you’ll continue to pay more for the privilege. When people develop such bad habits, those habits can be very difficult to break later on. If your school requires you to live on campus or get the most expensive meal plan, then you’ll have to obey, but you can still plan ahead for how to save money for the rest of your time in school.

What’s the best deal?

In order to make the most money, colleges (and the vendors that serve them) rig the system to convince people to get the most expensive meal plan, either out of laziness (‘I eat three meals a day, so I’ll get the 21-meal plan’) or out of trying to get the best value (‘well, the 21-meal plan is the lowest cost-per-meal, so it’s the best deal!’).

But they’re counting on value-seekers to forget something else: Even if you get the lower-cost plan, you’ll probably eat more than two meals per day. To get a better picture of your actual cost per meal, you should also figure out what you’ll typically spend for an off-campus meal.

For example, you might buy a loaf of bread for $1.00, a pack of bologna for $1.00, and a bottle of mustard for $2.00. If you eat bologna sandwiches for lunch every day, that averages out to about $0.30 to $0.40 per lunch. That’s a whopper of a discount over the $10 per meal in the dining hall, and there’s no lunch line in your room, either!

You probably don’t want to eat the same thing every day, but my point stands: It costs a lot less for a sandwich and mixed veggies for a light lunch, or cereal/Pop-Tarts for breakfast, than eating at the dining hall would ever be.

Another common practice for college students is to attend specials at local restaurants. Restaurants in college towns often have a night where college students get a special discount on food (often pizza or wings). Sometimes, you may want to join your friends for such a night on the town. It’s a good way to get away from campus for a few hours, and to enjoy something a little different than your usual fare. Again, you can usually eat your fill for less than the school’s meal plan would cost.

So what should I do?

My advice is to get the meal plan with the lowest overall cost; supplement this with food you keep in your dorm or in your apartment. Also keep some money available so you can afford to restock your food, or to get those $1 wings on Friday night.

  • Be sure to keep some ready-to-eat food handy in your room. I’m partial to Pop-Tarts and Wheat Thins for this purpose; others may prefer granola bars, pretzels, or something else. If your parents are willing to buy some for you; great! If not, it’s still a good way to get a quick, cheap bite when you’re short on time.

  • You should keep some food that may require a bit of preparation. Ramen noodles are one of the most common foods that college students eat, because you can often get them for around 10-20 cents per package. I like making various kinds of sandwiches, which are easy to transport and can be eaten almost anywhere (as long as you don’t make a mess).

  • Cereal (with milk) is a good way to have a little something to eat before your first class. Don’t be suckered into paying top prices for the highly-advertised name brands; you can almost always save money on off-brand products that taste the same or by using manufacturer coupons.

  • Frozen vegetables are a good way to eat something healthy without requiring lots of prep, and fresh fruit like bananas, apples, or strawberries are also convenient, tasty, and good for you.

  • Take stock of what you eat at home. If there’s anything you can’t live without for 16 weeks, see if you can get it somewhere on campus. If not, perhaps you can schedule a weekend or two to come home, and ask your family to make it for you during those times.

You’ve probably noticed that many of my suggestions will require a microwave and/or a refrigerator. It is wise to coordinate with your roommate(s) as to who will bring each of these. You can find a new microwave for less than $50, and a mini fridge goes for about $100.

I’d argue that even if you have to bring both a fridge and a microwave yourself, it’s still a worthwhile buy, if you can get at least four years of use out of them, because they’ll help you save a lot more than $150 per year.

Before you buy a new fridge or microwave, ask family members if they have old hand-me-downs that you can use. Remember, as a college student, your first priority should be to save money and minimize debt, not to have the nicest stuff. Once you’re out of school and hopefully making a nice salary, then you can worry about the quality of your fridge.

Making your own meals is also good practice for the real world, where you will likely not go out to eat for every meal. It may be a bit of a hassle some days where you’d rather sleep in, but it will save you a bunch of money. And the less debt you build up during college, the sooner you’ll be financially free!

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This guide was published on July 10, 2015, and last modified on July 10, 2015.

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