How to Spend Less Money on Food in College

How to Spend Less Money on Food in College PizzaWhen you need to study, a protein bowl can be the brain food you need to stay motivated. After you ace a tough interview, you might treat yourself to ice cream. And when a friend is feeling under the weather, you might make them cookies or soup to comfort them. However, food spending can really eat a large chunk of your college budget if you’re not careful. On average, college students spend $670 per month on food, which includes groceries, a meal plan, and eating out. Keep reading to learn how to spend less money on food in college.


How to spend less on campus

Between your meal plan, the campus smoothie joint, and late-night library snacks, the cost of eating on campus can add up quickly. Luckily, a little planning and research can help you stay within your food budget. Here are some strategies to reduce your food spending on campus.

Compare meal plans

Students who live on campus are usually required to have a meal plan in the dining hall. Before the start of the semester, you’ll receive information about your meal plan options. Take time to compare the plans, and choose the one that makes the most sense to you. For example, if you are a commuter student who only dines on campus once per day, a smaller meal plan might be suitable. On the other hand, if you are a student athlete aiming to build muscle mass, a larger meal plan might be more fitting. Don’t be afraid to reevaluate your meal plan each semester to see if it’s still the best choice for you. 

Watch for events on campus

Paying attention to events at your college is a great way to score free food. By keeping an eye on social media posts or flyers hanging around campus, you can spot announcements for club meetings, guest speaker sessions, or cultural celebrations that might offer complimentary snacks or meals. While getting involved on campus may lead to a full stomach, it can also help you meet new people and expand your college network. Attending events with free food is a simple yet effective way to save money on groceries while making the most out of your college experience.

Pack snacks for class

Although grabbing a quick snack from the campus convenience store or a vending machine before class is inviting, paying the extra money for items that are $1-2 cheaper at the grocery store can begin to add up. Bringing snacks from home can also help you make healthier choices and avoid the temptation of the sugary processed foods from the vending machine. Plus, your stash of snacks can come in handy during long study sessions or when you need a quick energy boost between classes. By keeping snacks and a reusable water bottle in your backpack, you can not only save money, but also have better control over what you're consuming. 

Actually use your meal plan

Using your meal plan at the beginning of the semester may seem exciting, as it saves you from having to cook. However, as the semester continues on and the menu repeats, it can become challenging to motivate yourself to go to the dining hall. You may start to choose delivery or dining out with friends more frequently, forgetting that your meal plan is already paid for. Luckily, there are ways to get creative with the available ingredients. For example, you could try adding grilled chicken to a salad or transforming a sandwich into a wrap. By thinking creatively, you can enhance your dining hall experience and maximize the value of your meal plan.


How to spend less on food at home

When you first start cooking– especially if you are cooking in a communal dorm kitchen or a shared apartment kitchen– it's best to keep it simple. Making your own meals can be costly, so here are some tips to help you save money on food while cooking at home.

Start planning your meals

When you leave meal decisions until the last minute, you might not have the correct ingredients or may waste valuable time deciding what you want to eat. This may cause you to leave and buy food instead. Planning your meals in advance helps you create a shopping list and gives you time to purchase any extra ingredients needed. Consider setting aside a free day, like Sunday, to meal prep for the upcoming week. Developing a weekly meal plan will decrease the need to order out because if you have taco supplies on hand, you're less likely to make a trip to Taco Bell. Plus, having your meals planned in advance can give you peace of mind and reduce your food waste. 

Freeze your leftovers

While the chicken noodle soup you made for supper last night was probably delicious, chances are you are not looking forward to eating it for four more meals in a row. Freezing your leftovers is a great alternative to letting the meal go to waste in your fridge after a few days. By storing them correctly in the freezer, you can savor your meals later in the month, saving time and money on preparing another dish. Freezing your extras can also apply when buying in bulk; Simply remove the portion you will eat right away and properly freeze the rest for another day. 

Don’t order delivery

Although it is tempting to stop by a fast-food restaurant or order pizza with your credit card, making your own food can help you save money. Homemade dishes, though less convenient, are typically more budget-friendly than other options. They might also be healthier and offer more satisfaction than a drive-through burger from down the street. However, if you must order food, consider picking it up from the restaurant instead of having it delivered to your dorm or apartment. This way, you can step off campus, enjoy some fresh air, and save on delivery charges and tips.

Simplify your coffee

Buying your coffee at a fancy coffee shop each morning can put you in a good mood until you realize those purchases are draining your wallet. To cut costs, you can reduce the number of times you purchase your caffeinated beverage each week or seek a more affordable alternative to your current drink of choice. However, the most budget-friendly option is likely making your coffee at home. Not only does this save you money, but it also lets you customize your drink to your liking. You can experiment with various coffee beans, brewing techniques, and flavors until you discover the ideal combination. 

Host a weekly dinner

In your journey to spend less money on food, you don’t have to experience FOMO by staying home. In fact, you might have a friend or several friends who would love to start a weekly dinner gathering– all you have to do is ask! If your friends or roommates are on board, you can rotate cooking duties or choose a potluck-style approach. You’ll get to experience the fun of cooking while bonding with others. Additionally, you can control your portions better, tailor the recipes to your preferences, and reduce your overall costs.


How to Spend Less Money on Food in College supporting imageHow to spend less on food at the grocery store

Since transitioning from high school to college, you likely had to increase your grocery budget. While your spending habits may be different, that doesn’t mean you have to break the bank. Here are some ways to cut your grocery bill down in college. 

Make a list

After checking your fridge and cupboard, you might realize you're low on four ingredients: yogurt, rice, peanut butter, and chicken. If you just rely on your brain to remember, by the time you get to the store, you may forget some or all of what you needed. As you wander the aisles trying to remember, you'll likely be tempted by items not on your list. This is why buying groceries with a list is essential. You can jot down a list on paper, in a notes app, or use a small marker board on your fridge to keep track of what you need. Having a list and sticking to it will save you time and money when grocery shopping. 

Grab a grocery basket

If you know you’re only going to the grocery store for a small list of items, choose a grocery basket instead of a shopping cart. With a basket, you’ll likely be more mindful of what you’re picking up. As you place each item in the basket, it will get heavier, and having to carry the weight of the items can serve as a gentle reminder not to add anything you don’t need. 

Shop at a good time for you

Although managing a class schedule with breaks can be difficult, there are ways to turn it into an opportunity. For example, you can take advantage of the break between your 9am and 1pm classes by going to the store. The grocery store is usually less crowded during this time compared to peak hours when people are getting off work. Planning your shopping trip at a good time can help you avoid feeling rushed. This extra time will allow you to carefully examine and compare nutritional ingredients, expiration dates, and prices, helping you get the best deals for your body and wallet. 

Try the store brand

At the grocery store, many people choose name-brand food items because they’re most familiar with them or assume they’re higher quality. In reality, people often purchase name-brand items just because they are placed on more visible shelves. In many cases, store-brand products offer similar quality at a lower cost. Retailers, like Trader Joe’s or Aldi’s, offer store-brand items that are comparable to name-brand options, if not better. Choosing to buy generic store brands not only helps you save money, but also opens up the possibility of finding new favorites that could become staples in your pantry.

Shop along the perimeter of the store

Skipping the middle aisles on your next shopping trip may sound unusual, but it can actually save you money at the grocery store. Because staple items like milk, eggs, bread, fruits, and vegetables are along the walls or in the back of most grocery stores, you may find yourself strolling through the many aisles of tempting junk foods to get to them. You can avoid the urge to spontaneously add those extra items to your cart by walking around the perimeter of the store.


How to spend less on food at restaurants

After a long day at school, it can be difficult to find the energy to want to prepare a meal at home. While you shouldn’t indulge in takeout or delivery too often, it’s perfectly okay to do it every now and then. Here is how to spend less when you do choose to dine out. 

Use student discounts

When you’re not feeling up for cooking, your student ID can come to the rescue. Many restaurants or stores offer discounts for college students, which can save you money when you don’t have time to cook or just want to satisfy your Chinese food craving. Not all restaurants offer student discounts, so you’ll need to find out which ones near you offer them. On a bright note, your student ID doesn’t only reduce your meal’s cost, but it could also save you money in other areas, like movie tickets, travel, and insurance.

Hit up restaurant specials

If you must eat out, try to go at the times when restaurants have promotions. Whether it be Taco Tuesdays or half-priced appetizers on Thursdays, you can share good food with your friends at a lower cost. Simply knowing when the local restaurants are having specials can save you money. You can usually find coupons online, on social media, or in your email inbox. Oftentimes, you can also clip coupons from the Sunday paper–if you’re feeling old school and have a subscription to your city’s newspaper.

Download loyalty rewards apps

Many stores and restaurants have developed apps to make it easier for customers to earn rewards and discounts. By downloading the app of your favorite coffee shop or local restaurant, you can enjoy the perks of being a regular patron. These apps often provide exclusive discounts, special offers, and even free items as a way to show appreciation for your store loyalty. Downloading loyalty rewards apps can help you save money on the food items you’re buying anyway.

Split portions with friends

If you head to a restaurant that is known for having generous portion sizes, you could offer to split your entree with a friend. By doing so, each of you will get to enjoy a portion at half the cost (and maybe even have leftovers). Similarly, when your friend group craves pizza, opt for a pizza with toppings that everyone enjoys and divide the cost. This approach caters to everyone's tastes while keeping the total bill affordable. The next time you're out with friends, consider pooling resources and sharing dishes for a more budget-friendly dining experience.


Cutting down on food costs is just one of the ways to save money in college. Given the importance of eating, optimizing your food budget is a smart decision. Plus, the benefits of building better money habits in college could last way beyond graduation. Whether you’re preparing a protein bowl, indulging in ice cream, or delivering soup to a friend in need, keep these money-saving tips in mind to reduce your food expenses while in college.



🍔Not tracking your food spending can be harmful your budget. Check out the other Common Budgeting Mistakes (and How to Fix Them).

📑After optimizing your student budget, make sure you're putting your best foot forward when studying. Read 7 Study Tips for College Students Preparing for Finals.