Eating Cheap as a College Student

With the constantly rising cost of tuition, having to pay rent, buy expensive textbooks every term, and many other expenses, most college students don’t have the luxury of spending a lot on their meals. Although you won’t necessarily be eating like a King (or Queen), it is definitely possible to maximize your dollars and spend on meals efficiently. You’d even be surprised as to the quality you can get for the price. Here are some tips to eating cheap as well as a list of some very cost efficient foods that are easy to prepare.

#1 – Buy Generic

Most people can’t tell the difference between name brand and generic foods. As a result, it’s usually not worth it to spend more on virtually the same item. Safeway offers Safeway Select, Target has Archer Farms and Market Pantry, Costco provides Kirkland Signature, Walgreens sells their self-named brand for various items. These are just the most prominent generic brands; many other stores sell their own as well. If you’re curious, there’s a comprehensive list here, though it’s usually easier to just to see in store:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Store_brand#United_States

#2 – Buy Bulk when Possible

Warehouse stores like Costco and Sam’s Club offer significant discounts since they sell products in larger quantities. If you know that you will be repeatedly buying the same item, make an effort to buy it in bulk. You can often find a friend who has a membership to avoid getting one just for yourself.

On a smaller scale, stores like Safeway will discount the price of items like milk if you buy 2 at a time. Usually you can find a friend who also needs the same item and just buy it together.

#3 – Eating Individually vs in a Group

If you live with other housemates, you can choose to buy and prepare food on your own, or take turns cooking for everyone. Eating together is not always possible due to conflicting schedules, but if possible, it can be cheaper and easier. It can also introduce more variety into your meals. This way, you can also share ingredients and have more options since they can get reused in multiple dishes.

#4 – Eating on Campus

Most campuses have a form of dining commons available. These are usually targeted towards freshman so there on campus housing will subsidize the cost of their meal plans. If this is the case and you live on campus, then the dining commons are extremely cost efficient and convenient. Some families with multiple siblings at the same school will get the largest meal plan possible for their child living on campus so that they can get meals for their siblings. Of course this only works at schools that are setup this way.

If you have classes and can’t go home around meal times, you’ll need to pack a lunch a head of time or eat whatever’s offered on campus.

A lot of student organizations offer events and activities with free food. It’s usually pizza or something similar but this is a good opportunity to learn about their group and enjoy the hospitality.

#5 – Farmer’s Market

These often sell fruit, vegetables, and local food for a lot less than grocery stores. You’ll also be supporting local farmers and the smaller scale production generally leads to more natural and healthy foods.

#6 – Fast Food

Fast food is known for being cheap but it’s obviously not the healthiest option. When you do have fast food, you can always get water instead of a soda. Sides like fries and onion rings are usually good value. Also look for coupons in local advertisements and weekly specials.

#7 – Restaurants

Eating out in general is not cost effective, but you can save when you do dine. Again, you can just get water instead of a drink, avoid the desserts, and if you have leftovers, always get it in a takeout box. That way, you can heat it up and finish it later in a future meal.


These are some of the most cost efficient foods to prepare that are incredibly easy to make:

Rice

Rice is one of the most cost efficient foods available. It provides carbohydrates and goes with any food. Buying a large sack can last you for quite a while. Simply measure out the grains into a rice cooker, wash them off in water, add about the same amount of water as rice, and then let it cook. Brown rice can be healthier than white rice, but remember that you will need to change how much water to add. You can even make fried rice as well.

Stir Fry

Vegetables and meat can be easily prepared by stir frying them. Just get a pan, add some oil, then add your items in and let it cook. You can add a bit of salt or pepper for more flavor. Good foods to stir fry include cucumbers, broccoli, onions, beef, and peppers.

Pasta/Spaghetti

A box of spaghetti or pasta should only cost a few dollars. Simply boil water in a pot using the stove and add your spaghetti or pasta. Put some spaghetti sauce in another pan on low heat and you get a bag of frozen meatballs and cook them in the oven or microwave.

Chicken, Eggs

To make chicken, you can marinate them ahead of time or just prepare it on the spot. Cut off the fat and put them into a ziplock bag with some pepper, soy sauce or teriyaki sauce, and mix them. Line a tray with tin foil and place the pieces of chicken on them for the oven. If you don’t have time for preparation, you can always buy a rotisserie chicken from the grocery store that’s ready to eat.

There are many ways to prepare eggs depending on your preference. I prefer to put some oil on a pan, crack an egg and let it cook. Then I add some salt and then later soy sauce. Scrambled and steamed eggs are also options.

Burritos/Quesadillas

Fry a tortilla and add whatever ingredients you happen to have. This is similar to a stir fry but just wrapped up and easy to eat.

Sandwiches

These are a classic for a reason. Bread, especially wheat or multi-grain, provide a lot of essential nutrients. From there you can add your preference of meat like ham, turkey, salami, or roast beef. There’s also peanut butter and jelly or tuna.

Hot Dogs, Sausages, Corn

Put these into a pot of boiling water and allow them to cook. For the hot dogs, you can add chili, onions, or just ketchup onto a bun.

Salads

This one’s pretty self-explanatory. You can get a bag of salad or just make your own and add some salad dressing and croutons. Lettuce, tomatoes, celery, carrots, whatever you have available. Throw in some chicken to make it more filling and balanced. Fruit salads are also easy and refreshing.

Frozen/Microwavable Foods

These foods are the most stereotypical things to eat as a college student. If you’re getting ramen, you can pour it into a separate bowl and add your own vegetables or meat and some sauce. Other options like TV dinners, frozen pizzas, and Hot Pockets are available but keep it in moderation.

Drinks

Most people aren’t drinking nearly enough water as they should be, plus it’s free so there’s no reason not to. If you drink coffee, avoid going to the expensive Starbucks or similar shops and make it yourself at home. Getting a blender can be a good investment as smoothies can be made with fruit, ice, juice, and/or yogurt. This is much cheaper than going to Jamba Juice. When buying milk, going in the morning and looking for the ones at the back of the freezer can yield the containers with the furthest expiration date.

Snacks

Avoid getting individually packaged snacks and look for the family size boxes. Often times, stores will put these on the higher shelves so you miss seeing them. Look at the number of servings and ounces in the boxes to calculate which size is the best deal for the price. Even online stores like Amazon often have good deals of bulk snacks online. These opportunities will usually be posted on http://slickdeals.net.


With so many possibilities and room to experiment, eating cheap is not altogether difficult. Just stay conscious of how efficient the foods you buy are and be creative. Sites like http://www.poorstudentscookbook.com provide great recipes but require more work and skill than the ideas written here. There are literally hundreds of other sites and blogs specializing in cheap meals on the internet. Look around and see what interests you and maybe you’ll end up posting your own favorites.