7 Tips for College Students to Save Money on Food

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  • Planning ahead will set you free -- and save you money.
  • Embrace store-brand foods when possible; they're often better than you might expect.
  • Take advantage of free food from events and clubs at school when you can.

There are ways to cut your food bill and still eat well.

The increasing cost of living is impacting everyone, and that includes college students. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics' Consumer Price Index Summary noted in September 2022 that the cost of food as a whole was up 11.4% over the previous year, with grocery costs up 13.5%. And digital education blog, My eLearning World, recently calculated that during the 2022-2023 school year, college students can expect to pay an average of $294.06 on groceries and $369.36 on eating out per month. That's an average monthly total of $663.42. This is a significant sum, but the good news is that there are ways to save money on your food spending that don't involve living on ramen noodles alone.

1. Plan ahead -- and don't shop hungry

It's not usually a good idea to go to the grocery store without a list. When I was a college student two decades ago, I relied on paper grocery lists (and in fact, I still do now; I am old and set in my ways). But these days, you can use a variety of grocery list apps. Your phone's notes app is also a great place to build a list.

And make sure you don't go shopping if you're starving. Eat something first so you don't end up veering off your list to chase down every delicious-looking thing that crosses your path. (I am speaking from experience here.) Avoiding those impulse purchases can help keep some of your hard-earned cash in the bank.

2. Sign up for a savings card and check out the weekly store flyer

Nearly every grocery store offers a discount card, and these are worth signing up for to save extra money. You can also look at the weekly sales ad, either in paper form or likely on the website or app for your local grocery store. When something nonperishable that you buy often goes on sale, stock up.

3. Consider a cash back credit card

Some of the best credit cards for students offer cash back, and all can help you build credit, making it easier for you to accomplish your financial goals in the future. There are even credit cards that offer higher percentages back on grocery spending, but many of these are targeted to people with higher credit scores, which may not be you yet, if you're new to credit.

4. Try the store brand

If you haven't been on your own for long, you might be seeking out the same food brands you grew up on. I did too, and I'm a little ashamed to admit that I only recently tried my grocery store's in-house peanut butter, and not only is it just as good as the big brand I grew up on and bought for years, it's about 50% cheaper. This switch may take some trial and error; I've had some store brand items that were terrible, but most are fine. And all are generally less expensive than the big brands.

5. Go vegetarian (at least some of the time)

Meat is expensive, and the way it's produced is often terrible for the environment. So if you can plan for at least a few meatless meals every week, you'll save money and be doing your part for the planet.

There are a lot of high protein meatless options these days. I hate to mention peanut butter again, but there's a reason why the peanut butter and jelly sandwich is a classic -- it's cheap, delicious, and filling. Another great staple to keep on hand is frozen edamame, or soybeans. You can microwave them, they're tasty, and they're a great add-on to that college staple: ramen noodles. (I never said to avoid them completely, just that you can probably manage more variety in your diet with these tips.)

6. Rely on technology

There are several great and useful food apps out there that can help you score less expensive groceries and other food items. The bonus here is that you might also be helping to prevent food waste, as some of these apps partner with stores and restaurants to make sure excess food gets sold. According to the nonprofit organization Feeding America, 108 billion pounds of food gets wasted every year. So this is a win not only for your personal finances, but for reducing waste too.

7. Seek out free food on campus

OK, this one isn't a practical everyday tip, unless you intend to roam your college campus in search of cold pizza leftovers from faculty get-togethers. But an awful lot of campus events offer free food. At my school, for example, there were semi-regular barbecues on the quad where I could score a free hot dog or cheeseburger.

You also might be able to join a club or academic program that offers free food occasionally. One of the best free meals I ever had as an undergrad was the annual Honors Program dinner, which featured free Chinese takeout -- and the organizers ordered a ton, so we all got to take home leftovers.

It's both scary and exciting to be on your own for the first time, but feeding yourself is one of those grown-up responsibilities that will probably make you wistful for the free (to you) dinner at your parents' house, at least occasionally. This is also a good time in your life to learn how to budget and account for your expenses. Try a few of these tips and eat well for less money, while you study hard.

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