If you are in the habit of eating out alone for convenience, it is simple to replace those meals with ones you prepare at home. On campus, you can still eat with your peers even if you brown bag your lunch. You could try to replace social eating out with hanging out with your friends in less expensive venues from time to time, or skip dinner and join them for the next activity.
When you have influence over where you eat out, choose less expensive restaurants. When ordering, pay attention to prices and consider ordering less expensive entrees or replacing an entree with an appetizer, soup, or salad. Skip or order fewer appetizers, drinks, and desserts. Take your leftovers home to replace a second meal. You could also choose to frequent restaurants that offer student discounts or accept coupons or discount gift certificates.
Often, grad students are inexperienced with cooking and think that they don’t have time for it. The student who eats out frequently for convenience and buys prepared foods from the grocery store has great potential to reduce his spending on food by starting to cook and prepare his own foods. Students already experienced with cooking but looking to take it to the next level may find additional savings with batch cooking and meal planning.
As a beginner cook, you should start slowly with learning various techniques and recipes so as not to become overwhelmed. Try to master only one recipe at a time and choose simple recipes that involve a small number of ingredients and no difficult techniques. Cooking doesn’t always have to involve elaborate dishes or adding heat. To make this process seem less intimidating, think of it as food preparation or food assembly rather than cooking, e.g., salads, sandwiches. You also don’t have to eat something different for every meal out of the week. Having a few recipes that you rotate through for each of breakfast, lunch, and dinner, can take the pressure off of masting new recipes while still giving you some variety.
Batch cooking can be a major time-saver for busy students. Batch cooking is when you cook more than one meal at a time, which enables you to eat leftovers on subsequent days and spend a comparatively small amount of time reheating the food. You will likely have to be amenable to eating the same or similar meals multiple days in a row if you are cooking just for yourself. Freezer cooking is a form of batch cooking in which you freeze the meals you have prepared to be eaten weeks later. Batch cooking is also a frugal choice because you can spend less money on food by buying in bulk and using the ingredients you buy fully, and you will be less tempted to eat out for convenience if you have food already made.
Meal planning can be valuable for reducing impulse purchases and waste. To meal plan, you simply decide what you will eat for each meal during a week or month, assemble a shopping list with only the food you need for the plan, and buy and eat that food. When you meal plan, you can make sure that you are buying exactly the right amounts and types of foods so that extra ingredients neither build up nor go to waste. Meal planning and batch cooking work very well in concert.
How to spend less money on groceries is one of the most well-trod frugal subjects, so there is an abundance of resources available online to help you. In general, the more value you add in the cooking process, the less you will need to spend on the food itself. Many students enter graduate school without knowing how to cook, but it is a skill that will help reduce the amount you spend on food enormously.
There is a wide range of prices available at different types of retailers on the same or similar food items. Specialty grocery stores like Whole Foods are likely to be more expensive than discount, warehouse, or ethnic grocers. You can even buy from local farmers or check online retailers for low bulk prices. If you are willing to devote the time, keeping a price book will help you determine which groceries to buy at which stores at certain times.
Create a grocery list before heading out to any retailers and stick to it once you’re there. You can cultivate your list throughout your week using an app such as Our Groceries. A complete and firm grocery list gives the simultaneous advantages of eliminating impulse purchases, minimizing food waste at home, and preventing last-minute trips to the store for forgotten items.
Buying Less Processed
You are likely to stretch your dollar further by buying fresh base ingredients and constructing your own dishes. The classic suggestion here is to “shop the perimeter” of the grocery store, which generally tends to include the produce, meat, dairy, and bakery sections, and to buy few items from the interior of the store, which is where the more expensive products are housed.
Couponing has been recently popularized by shows like “Extreme Couponing,” which has resulted in both heightened interest and criticism. The more organized and comprehensive your couponing system, the more savings you can potentially realize. However, some are critical that couponing is time-consuming and does not facilitate buying healthy, non-branded items.
Substituting Out Expensive Food
Depending on your dietary preferences, you may try to substitute lower-cost foods for higher-cost foods. Normalize the cost of the food you eat by the calories, macronutrients, and/or micronutrients you receive from it. One common suggestion in this vein is to eat less meat because meat is quite expensive; instead, seek our lower-priced sources of protein.
It is often possible for grad students to feed themselves for free for at least a couple meals per week, should they want to defray costs in that area. Grad students who are food insecure also have university- or government-sponsored options to feed themselves for free.
Universities offer free food frequently at events to incentivize attendance or to show attendees appreciation, such as at seminar series, workshops, and conferences. Opportunities will be most plentiful for first-year students and near the start of the school year. If you plan to attend such an event, the free food can often replace a meal on that day. If there are leftovers, ask if you can take a second box or plate for a meal later in the day. It is also possible to create meals from the leftover food from catered events that you didn’t attend, if it is made available to non-attendees. Being on the right email listserv or having the right personal connection can alert you to these opportunities before the free food is nabbed by other students.
Many restaurants offer free or partially free meals for promotional reasons, such as for your birthday or for signing up for a mailing list.
Some graduate students may be able to apply for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) if they meet the citizenship, work, and income qualifications. This program provides a certain amount of money each month into an account that you access with a specialized debit card. The money can be used toward eligible food in grocery stores and other retailers. Each state runs its own program, so you will have to check directly with your state to determine your eligibility.
You can also score free food by dumpster diving, if you are adventurous and it is legal where you live. This form of dumpster diving is when you recover perfectly good food that has been discarded, generally by grocery stores and institutions. About 50% of food in America is wasted. Most people who dumpster dive do so as part of the larger food rescue movement, but a side benefit is that you can feed yourself partially or completely (freeganism) without paying any money. Of course, you have to have a certain constitution to employ this method, and it is advantageous to learn from an experienced mentor.
Food spending is one that students often turn to when they want to free up money for other areas of their budget. While a certain amount and quality of food is a necessity, for most Americans much of their food spending is a ‘want.’ There are several approaches a grad student can take to spend less on food while still meeting needs.