Prize-Winning Tips to Spend Less on Food in College

It’s less than a month since most college students began their fall classes—just long enough, perhaps, for scholars to have supplemented their academic learning with a few life lessons. And based on the best responses to a ValuePenguin scholarship contest for college students, one of the most ubiquitous of those is how easy it is to fritter away money on food when you’re away at school.

As part of last year’s contest (the 2017 one is now accepting applications; see below), we asked applicants, who had to be current college students, to tell us about the non-essential purchases on which they most often splurged. The scholarship winner—from Jeffrey Wang, who studies at the University of Utah—and several other top entries—from Emily Branagan, Central Michigan University; and Erin Preaskorn, Virginia Tech—focused at least in part on food spending.

Of course, food is hardly a non-essential purchase. But our winners told us how buying too much of it outside dorm meal plans, and especially in restaurants, quickly grew into a major drain on their finances.

Emily: What is ...shocking...is the amount of money that I would spend on food...at different restaurants.

Erin: One of the subtle student expenses that I found myself spending too much money on was food. I had a meal plan that should’ve gotten me through each semester without having to add any more money.

Our winners prevailed over more than 400 other applicants, though, because they didn’t only flag problems but outlined practical, and sometimes even funny, solutions to help you or the student in your life. Here are excerpts from their food frugality tips, edited for flow and brevity—but only lightly, since these entries were very well written.

Pack a lunch—and do so the night before

A common theme was the challenge of getting to a school cafeteria in the midst of a busy day—and the cost of failure when the student couldn’t, and resorted to a buying more expensive restaurant or deli food. The frequent answer: Pack a lunch from home or your dorm fridge.

Jeff: Packing your own lunch seriously saves you so much money in the long run as it all accumulates bit by bit.

Emily: My biggest tip for packing food from home to take to school is to do it the night before. If I’m rushing in the morning to get out the door, I usually don’t have the time to throw together a meal for the day. Also, by packing a meal beforehand, I’m ensuring that I will be eating as healthy as I can...and won’t...gravitate towards foods that are pre-packaged and easy to grab, such as Pop-Tarts, packages of cookies or cakes, and chips. Eating healthy and saving money is definitely a win-win for a college student.

...then consider how you’ll carry it around

Emily: After packing a lunch, ask yourself this question: can it fit inside my backpack? If your lunchbox is too big to fit inside, try putting your lunch inside a grocery sack. If it fits, then you’re all set, but if your backpack is crammed with books and homework, I have another suggestion: To use an over-the-shoulder bag so your hands are free to carry extra things and you can even put other things inside this bag that wouldn’t fit in your backpack.

Eat on campus, even for dinners with friends

Erin: One way to get the best bang for your buck and avoid overspending is to try and eat most of your meals on campus; however, do buy some snacks for the dorm room. I encourage students to get dinner on campus when they do meals with friends. This way, the student avoids spending $15 each time they want to get food with friends.

Track spending

Erin: Students should keep track of how much they spend a day. They can easily do this through the notes app on their phones. At the end of the week, they can compare it to their budget and see if they are on track.

Emily: We spend dining dollars without a second thought. I never considered the price of what I was buying. I would buy food at the grab and go that I could’ve easily purchased at a grocery store for much less or substituted at a dining hall for substantially cheaper. I wouldn’t think twice about not finishing a meal or buying my friends food. Because of this, I ran out of dining dollars before the end of the semester, and I was not alone. It was very rare to meet someone who did not have to add money onto their meal plan. Some people had to reload 2-3 times.

What would mom and dad say?!

Emily: Another way to make sure one is not spending too much on food is to pretend that one has to explain their food purchases to their parents. For this to be most effective, I recommend carrying a small picture of one (or both) of one’s parents looking stern; that really makes the student think about the money they are about to spend. None of us want to disappoint our parents....

Don’t forget freebies

Jeff: Another option you have is participating in activities around campus. There is tons of free food available all of the time on campus. You just need to keep your eyes open and be willing to participate in different activities!

Jeffrey Wang

University of Utah

Emily Branagan

Central Michigan University

Erin Preaskorn

Virginia Tech

The 2017 ValuePenguin Scholarship

We’re now accepting applications from undergraduate students in the U.S. to our second annual scholarship competition. The prize winner will receive a $2,000 scholarship. The deadline for applications is December 15, 2017.

Apply Now

Here’s the winning entry from last year’s contest, from Jeffrey Wang, who studies at the University of Utah.

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