Alongside housing and tuition, food is one of the biggest parts of a college student’s budget. Takeout and delivery meals can quickly eat into your finances (pun intended) if you’re not careful, so here are our tips for how you can spend less money on food in college.
How to save money at restaurants
Look for deals
Many restaurants and takeout businesses in college & university towns will offer weekly deals and discounts for students. Keep an eye out for these and remember the ones you like, then plan to go out for meals on the nights these specials are happening. You’ll save a few bucks while still getting to enjoy the experience of going out to eat with friends.
And if you have a favourite spot, see if they have a loyalty card or program available. You can often get rewarded with a free or discounted meal after a specific number of visits.
Avoid paying for friends
Treating a friend to a meal is a wonderful act of kindness — providing you’ve got the money to do it. In a situation where everyone is trying to budget, however, repeatedly covering for that one person who always forgets their credit card at home will quickly lead to a low balance in your chequing account (not to mention slight resentment towards a friend),
So, it’s best to pay individually when out with a group. Ask the server up front if they can split the bill. That way, you’ll avoid the awkward “well, I didn’t have a drink and you had the surf-and-turf” conversation. If you’ve made plans to eat with a cash-strapped pal, suggest a cheaper option to make everyone happy. Or use points/rewards you have accumulated on services like Ritual, UberEats, or Skip the Dishes. Also, know that if you’re using the right credit card, it can help lighten the burden.
The best way to save money on restaurants and takeout, however, is to avoid them as much as possible and prepare food at home. Here are some of our tips to make the most of your home-cooked meals:
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Cooking at home can save money
This one should be a no-brainer, but if you’re able, cook the majority of your meals at home. Not only will you save money, but you’ll probably be eating healthier (and avoiding the dreaded freshman 15 as well). Here are some tips to make the most of your home-cooked meals:
If you're looking for cheap and easy food to cook in college, dedicating even one or two days a week to vegetarian/vegan meals will save you money. Fibre and protein-rich legumes like beans and lentils make a decent substitute for meat and are much cheaper to buy. Plus, they’re non-perishable, so you can purchase them in bulk and keep them on the shelf for a long time.
Plan your meals
Meal planning is one of the most efficient ways to eat cheap and healthy, and there are tons of websites online with great recipes for batch-cooking on a budget (Budget Bytes is a great one). If you can, take some time on the weekend to prepare ready-made meals for the week — your wallet and busy schedule will thank you.
Use themes to make it exciting (and challenge yourself to try new foods, too). For instance, travel the world and spend a week cooking French cuisine like beef bourgogne or French onion soup, then go to Japan and make sushi or tonkatsu. Consider pickling cabbage and carrots, slicing up other vegetables, and putting them into tupperware to make food quickly when you’re rushing around to classes.
Freeze food for later
No one likes having to throw out unused food. Provided you have easy access to a freezer, you can stash perishable food items in there to keep them from going bad and costing you money. When you’re ready to use them, thaw them out safely and give them a new life.
Of course, cooking and eating meals at home requires regular grocery shopping. While the grocery store is full of temptations, there’s also tons of opportunities to spend wisely and save. Here are some of our tips:
How a college student can save money on groceries
Buy generic-brand products
Especially when it comes to things like non-perishables, there isn’t much difference between the grocery store’s house brand and it’s more expensive, name-brand neighbour. Whenever possible, opt for the cheaper no-name version. You can sometimes save as much as two or three dollars on a single item, and all of those savings add up.
Buy frozen produce
While everyone loves fresh fruits and veggies, you’ll get a much better value by purchasing large bags of frozen produce. They’ll keep for much longer in the freezer, and you’ll save yourself prep time as they usually come pre-chopped. Steam frozen veggies for meal prep, or pick up a second-hand blender and use frozen fruit to make smoothies. Frozen produce is still packed with nutrients, too, so you won’t be missing out on any of the good stuff.
Take advantage of deals
Many grocery stores have loyalty programs and rewards cards. If you shop at No Frills or Loblaws, consider a PC Financial Mastercard. When you use it to buy groceries, you’ll earn points to be redeemed for future purchases, saving you a surprising amount over time.
Type of card
10 points per $1
PC World Mastercard
20 points per $1
PC World Elite Mastercard
30 points per $1
Whether you want cash back or travel points, lounge access benefits or roadside assistance perks - there's a credit card out there that's right for you. Find it in under 2 minutes.
Shop with a plan
It’s a common piece of advice, but it’s still true: never go grocery shopping on an empty stomach. Studies have shown that you’re more likely to succumb to impulse purchases when you’re hungry. In addition, try not to bring friends along on your grocery runs. While it might make the errand more fun, you’re also more likely to buy stuff you don’t need if you’ve got someone else distracting you. Go in with a concrete list and stick to it.
Your list should be based on the ingredients you need from your meal plan for the week. Take an hour, sit down, and look for recipes online. Once you have your meals for the week, buy only what you need to fulfill them.
Pay attention at the register
While never intentional, sometimes human or system-based errors occur during checkout. Keep focused during this process, and make sure each scanned item is showing its correct price. This is even true for self-checkout machines. It’s never a good feeling to get home, look at your receipt, and realize you were overcharged for something that was supposed to be on sale.
Also, don’t be afraid to dispute incorrect charges at checkout. The cashier or people in line behind you may grumble, but it’s your money at the end of the day, and you shouldn’t be stuck paying more than you're supposed to out of politeness.
Bulk is great (unless it’s perishable)
Buying in bulk can be a great way to save, but make sure it’s not anything that will go bad in a short period. Grains or dried goods are a safe bet, but that club pack of cucumbers might not be such a great deal if you’ve only had time to eat one before the rest went bad. Think about the shelf life of certain items and your likelihood of using them before you throw them in the cart.
If you do get stuck with items that are about to go bad, get creative and come up with some solutions to save them. Maybe host a potluck where you can give those unused items a purpose in a giant salad or stew. There’s also always the option to donate items to your local food bank.
- Carry a water bottle - The costs of bottled water and other beverages can add up, so invest in a well-made water bottle and fill it up for free on campus.
- Pack up leftovers - Whether it’s from something you cooked at home or a few extra slices of delivery pizza, pack up any leftovers and use them for future meals. You’ll have a ready-made lunch or dinner while saving money in the process.
- Work in food service - If you’re on the hunt for a part-time job while in school, consider working at a restaurant or other food service business. You’ll typically get a complimentary (or at least discounted) staff meal during your shifts.
- Use a cash back credit card - A card with cash back rewards (providing it doesn’t come with a high annual fee and interest rate) can be incredibly helpful, especially if you can get a particularly high percentage at grocery stores. Use it regularly, pay off your bills on time, and you’ll save money.
Visit our student personal finance guide.
The bottom line
Figuring out your food budget while in school can be tough. Restaurants, takeout, and delivery are all incredibly convenient (not to mention delicious), but they come with a hefty price tag and are generally packed with tasty-but-unhealthy additives like extra salt, full fat butter, and sugar.
Learning how to eat out on a budget, shop smart, and batch cook will give you a huge leg up and save you money in the end. Use our tips above, and tell us in the comments below if you have any questions or ideas!