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How to Make a Food Budget in College

Between studying and partying, it’s easy to forget to set money aside for food. Unless you wanna eat ramen and pizza rolls for the next four years, now’s a perfect time to learn how to budget.

by Jubilee Baez
Sep 17 2018, 7:00pm

Illustration by Lia Kantrowitz

Welcome to the VICE Guide to Life, our imperfect advice on becoming an adult.

It’s your first week on campus and you waste the money you saved from your summer job on a new wardrobe, dorm decor and bottles of vodka to hide under your bed. You even leave some money aside to spend on a fun weekend with your newfound college friends. But when you look in your fridge Sunday morning, you’re confused. This is the moment you’ll realize mom and dad are no longer there to stock the fridge. It’s a job that has unwillingly been bestowed upon you and, unfortunately, setting money aside for food can feel as foreign as a vegan eating at a steakhouse.

To avoid staring at an empty fridge, it’s time to learn how to create a food budget. It's easy to eat cheaply if you’re eating off the dollar menu at McDonald's or making ramen every night. But if you want to actually enjoy your food, you’ll want to mix things up a bit.

The money you’ll receive from work study, a part-time job, or your parents might work out to about $500 per month. A good rule of thumb is to spend about half of that on food and the rest on things like your cell phone bill, school supplies, transportation costs and clothes. So that leaves you with $250.

When creating a budget, it’s important to separate wants and needs; you need to buy that biology textbook; you don’t need to buy tequila shots at the bar. If you’ve paid for all your necessary expenses and still have money left over from your budget, then by all means, go out and have a good time, you deserve it.

How to make a food budget

If you’re budgeting $250 per month, try to stick to $50 a week and use any extra for fun stuff like booze and snacks. So how do you break down that $50 a week to make sure you’ve got enough to last? If you’re on a meal plan, you only need to pay for a few meals yourself, so $50 is more than enough. In fact, you might want to save as much of that as you can to, say, pay off your student loans early or take a trip during spring break.

But if you’re not on a meal plan, you’re going to have to figure out how to stretch your funds. And let’s face it, there may be months when you spend too much on meals out and need to save on everyday food.

When cooking or preparing meals inside your dorm, one must-have item is a microwave; without one, you’ll be stuck eating cold ramen. Other items like a toaster oven, coffee maker, and even a fancy rice cooker are super convenient to have but if you live in a dorm, keep in mind that these items may not be allowed because they’re considered fire hazards. (You don’t want to be known as the resident pyromaniac). If you don’t live in a dorm, you can find cheap coffee makers for less than $10 and a toaster oven for less than $20. Other items you’ll probably need are cutlery such as forks, spoons, knives, and a can opener which you can find at your nearest 99 cent store.

With that in mind, you can make things like overnight oats, if you want a quick breakfast. For lunch, you can enjoy some “Instant” mac & cheese in a mug. Other recipes that are dorm-room friendly, cheap and delicious are 5-minute vegetarian burrito bowls and microwave nachos. Believe it or not, you can even microwave rice in your microwave. Here's a recipe from the Food Network explians how.

Each recipe requires 5 ingredients or less, not including optional toppings, and you can find each ingredient for relatively cheap (a gallon of milk will only cost you about $4). You most likely won’t have time to cook all your food from scratch so set aside at least $60 of your $250 budget for prepared foods like cereal and cans of Chef Boyardee and some cheap chinese take-out (yum). It’s important to keep your grocery list simple so you have money left over for a fun night out.

If you’re shopping for some basic staples, your food list will look something like this:

Loaf of bread $3
Milk (Gallon) $2
Tortilla chips (13 oz.) $4
Elbow pasta (16 oz.) $1.39
Salsa (15.5 oz.) $3
Shredded cheese (8 oz.) $2.29
Tuna fish (four 5-oz. cans) $4
Chef Boyardee ravioli (four, 15-oz. cans) $4
Old Fashioned oats (42 oz.) $4
Lucky Charms cereal (10.5 oz.) $3
Rice (5 lb.) $4.89
Refried beans (16 oz.) $1.50
Grape jelly (32 oz.) $2.09
Honey (12 oz.) $3.59
Green tea (16 tea bags) $4
Pizza rolls $3
Total: $49.75

Stretching your food budget

You most likely will have a college meal plan paid for by financial aid or loans. At my college, every week you'd have 17 (of 21) meals covered under your meal plan so that's at least two meals per day already paid for. If you’re already paying for it, you might as well use it instead of splurging on groceries at your nearest Costco.

You’re probably going to be stuck with a roommate, and if you’re friends with them, asking them to split the grocery bill will help you keep a few extra bucks in your pocket. In my college dorm, my roommate and I had one fridge so we’d often eat each other’s food. When it was time to stock up on groceries, we’d split the bill in half.

If there are items that can be shared (like milk, bottled water, juice, etc.) then ask your roommate if they’re willing to put money towards those items; maybe they buy the milk and you buy the juice. You can also split the bill when you want to order take out; order a large pizza (always order the bigger pizza to get more for your buck) and tell your roommate to throw a few bucks your way.

Say yes to free food

When you have the opportunity to take free food, don’t pass it up and don’t waste food either. I went to State University of New York, Morrisville, where we had a buffet style dining hall. I’d take fruits, cereal, milk and all sorts of things back to my dorm so I wouldn’t have to pay for them during my grocery trip. If you have a dining hall that allows you to take home small items like these, never pass up the opportunity. Also, if you eat a meal at a dining hall but don’t finish it, take it home with you! There’s nothing better than remembering you have leftovers in the fridge.

Shop for deals

Lastly, pay attention to deals or sales at your local supermarket. Pick up the local supermarket circular where you’ll find sales on particular items or do a google search to find sales near you. My first two years of college, I could spend $300 for groceries just for myself and it was because I’d look at items on a shelf and just throw them in the cart. I’d also throw out coupons given to me while I was checking out. I soon realized my carefree mentality was not cost-effective so I started scanning shelves for sale items, bought items from cheaper or generic brands and I actually started saving my coupons.

Use leftover money for the fun stuff

After you’ve paid for groceries and necessities, it’s time for a night out in the town. But before you go, make sure you plan ahead so you don’t accidently spend a whole week’s budget on a single night.

One trick I used in college was to only bring cash with me and leave the credit and debit cards at home. If you only have a set amount of money in your pockets, you’ll only spend the money you brought with you. I’ve seen people max out their credit cards after buying rounds of drinks for everyone at the bar, after they’ve had one too many. If you are planning on going to a bar or restaurant, go during happy hour! It’s better to find happy hour specials during weekdays because they’re usually cheaper.

College can be a fun, but expensive time in your life. As long as you plan ahead and stay within your budget, saving money for food will be the least of your worries for the next four years.