16 Smart Ways to Save Money on Food as a Student

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Last Updated on March 8, 2024 by Alexandra Markin

Being a student can be a financially challenging time in our lives. Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic and a subsequent rise in inflation, food costs much more today than it did just a few years ago, making it even more important to find ways to save money on food as a student.

Like traditional college students living on campus, the cost of food is a concern for online students as well. However, we don’t have the option of getting a fixed cost meal plan card and eating as much a we like, whenever we like – we’re 100% responsible for feeding ourselves.

From planning, shopping, prepping and storing, this post will share 16 tips on how you can save potentially thousands of dollars a year on food while still eating healthy during your time as a student.

#16 blew my mind so much that I still take advantage of it when I’m near campus!

This post is the first segment of a three-part series to help you save money on food in uni:

16 Ways to Save Money on Food as a Student

1. Make a list

One of the easiest things you can do to save money as a student is to keep a running grocery list and stick to it. As soon as you run out of a staple item, write it down.

You can keep an ongoing paper list on your fridge or use a digital version kept on your smartphone’s notepad app.

To save time (and money from getting distracted while wandering the isles), organize your list by where the items are located in the grocery store. Group refrigerated items together, produce items together, and items that are in the same isle (baking ingredients, spices, pasta and pasta sauce, etc.)

Never set foot in a grocery store without your list and a plan.

My food shopping list on the iPhone notes app.

2. Shop Your Cupboards

Before heading to the grocery store with a long list, shop in your own cupboards.

Reach way into the back to see what you have, and what needs to be used before it expires. I guarantee you’ll be surprised at what you find.

Do the same for your fridge and freezer.

3. Keep Your Food Stock Organized

Keeping your cupboards, pantry, fridge and freezer clean and organized will save you money because you’ll always know what you have and what needs to be used. Think zero waste.

I clean my fridge once a week, freezer every two weeks and pantry and cupboards every month. This way you aren’t doing everything at once, making it easier to keep on top of things with our busy study schedules.

4. Investigate Cash Back Credit Cards

A smart way of earning extra money for food without any effort is by using a cash back credit card.

This type of rewards card pays you a cash percentage of every dollar you charge to it.

When it comes time to use your cash rewards, you can either request a cheque payment or use your accumulated amount of cash back to pay down the balance on the card. Either way, it’s free money you can put towards your food costs.

If you have good or excellent credit, some cash back cards even offer a higher percentage on every dollar you spend on groceries.

If you want to improve your credit card management skills, read the post Essential Credit Card Tips for University Students.

5. Learn to Cook

As a busy student, I know that cooking takes not only time, but energy you could be putting into your studies instead.

However, if you really want to save the maximum amount of money on food as a student, you need to cook most of your meals at home.

If you don’t know how to cook or only know how to make a limited amount of meals, you’re not alone. We all have to start somewhere.

Here are 4 of my favourite recipes you can start with that take very little skills or cookware:

  • Breakfast: Overnight oats (this doesn’t actually require any cooking – just combine all ingredients in a jar).
  • Lunch: Mediterranean chopped salad (homemade dressing is no effort to make). Easily top with protein of your choice.
  • Dinner: Cashew garlic pasta (this is perfect for one or two people. I mix in cooked sausage to mine).
  • Something sweet: Healthier peanut butter balls (tip: keep a bag of these in your freezer for when a sweet craving hits).
One of my favourite student breakfasts – overnight oats topped with frozen fruit and walnuts.

6. Meal Prep in Advance

Planning and preparing your meals in advance saves time and money.

Many of us spend more money on food than we than should because when we’re hungry, we’re hungry NOW. This often translates into ordering from a food delivery service or grabbing fast food all because you have nothing prepared.

Don’t want to eat the same thing for 5 days? Try meal prepping every 2 or 3 days instead.

7. Make Freezer Meals

Freezer meals are a kind of meal prep. Cook large batches of your favourite meals and freeze them in individual portions or enough to last 2 meals, such as dinner and then lunch the next day.

Curries and soups freeze extremely well. I have lived on this saucy halibut and cauliflower curry recipe for years and you can always find it in my freezer. I usually swap out the halibut for chicken or sometimes just omit it altogether, and always add a can of coconut milk.

Before any of your fruit or veggies go bad, freeze them! Frozen veggies are great in soups, and frozen fruit, kale or greens are perfect to throw in smoothies.

Tip: Freeze cooked rice in individual portions and pop in the microwave when you’re ready to eat!

8. Aim for Zero Waste

Using what you have before it goes bad and getting creative with leftovers contributes to the money you can save on food during your time as a student.

Use stale bread to make breadcrumbs for use in meatballs, as a casserole topper or breading for chicken or tofu strips.

Crispy Baked Tofu Nuggets made with homemade breadcrumbs instead of store bought panko breadcrumbs.

9. Make Your Own Dips, Sauces and Dressing

Rather than having a fridge full of expensive condiments for every cuisine, you can make most of your own dips, sauces and dressings from scratch.

Try this easy sweet and sour sauce recipe with only seven ingredients to pair with your tofu or chicken nuggets. It’s my favourite sweet and sour sauce over any store bought brand!

10. Try a Meal Prep Service

Different from ordering groceries online, a meal prep service includes the exact ingredients needed to prepare a specific meal for a specific number of people, delivered right to your door.

For some students, this method of meal prep might actually help them save money over the long run despite the seemingly higher cost compared to grocery shopping yourself.

There are a multitude of reasons for this:

  • You’re raising a family with young children and can’t easily leave the house.
  • You don’t have great skills in the kitchen (yet!) and need some guidance that isn’t searching internet recipes for hours.
  • You’ve taken on a large course load and don’t want the hassle of planning meals and then shopping.
  • You want to control your portion sizes to counteract all the sitting you do while studying.

This method doesn’t work for everyone. However, if you have good intentions by grocery shopping but finding yourself often not cooking and throwing out a lot of perfectly good food that has gone bad, you may want to give meal prep services a try.

Some of my favourite meal prep service companies:

MONEY TIP: If you’re a Rakuten USA or Rakuten Canada member, you can earn cash back when you order from HelloFresh and Daily Harvest. It’s yet another way to earn more free cash to help you save money on food as a student.

11. Drink Water

Drinking plain water is both healthier and cheaper than buying bottled beverages.

If you don’t like tap water, invest in a water filter or add slices of lemon, lime or oranges.

12. Make a Plan to Save on Beverages

While drinking water is great, once in a while we all want something different.

Make a point to buy bottled beverages ONLY when they’re on sale. Being prepared and keeping a stock in your fridge for when the craving hits saves you from running out and buying full priced drinks.

13. Cut Out (or Down on) Alcoholic Drinks

There’s no way around it. Alcoholic drinks of any kind are expensive, whether you order them at a restaurant or buy a bottle of wine to drink at home.

Ty to cut down and drink something else instead. You can put flavoured sparking water in a champagne glass to feel fancy and satisfy your craving for something fizzy.

Alcohol can also have hidden food costs. Think that takeout you need on the way home from the bar or the greasy fast-food breakfast you crave the next day – both of these cravings increase your student food budget.

Tip: if you really crave a beer but want to save money, there are several companies that make really decent non-alcoholic beer you can buy at your local grocery store. It’s half the price of regular beer and will keep you focused when you really need to be studying!

14. Hit Up Happy Hour

Because we’re all human and nobody is perfect, the least we can do is plan to save in advance when we want to go out to a bar or restaurant.

Happy hour is a time of day when restaurants offer a selection of food and beverages for a reduced price. It’s usually midday from 2-5pm, or late night from 9pm to close.

Dining at restaurants and bars during happy hour not only saves you money on alcoholic drinks, but on a selection of appetizers and entrees as well.

15. Don’t Use Food Delivery Services

Food delivery services such as DoorDash, Uber Eats and Grubhub are designed for connivence only, and they come with a hefty price tag.

If you want to save some serious money on food as a student, skip these altogether and delete the apps from your phone. It’s tempting to take the easy road, but doing so comes at a high cost.

16. Take Advantage of Free Food on Campus

Many universities host free dinners on campus. These are often community events, meaning they aren’t just for students – anyone can join.

Even online students can come to community dinners. Book a free ticket (so they know how many people to expect) and bring your own bowl and utensils. If there’s a lot of food leftover they’ll let you load up your container and take home a free meal!

I’ve attended several community dinners at Agora Cafe on campus of The University of British Columbia and the food has been delicious!

Look up these events on a campus near you to get a free meal (or two!) and make some new friends.

Save Money on Food as a Student – Wrap Up

Now that you have some ideas of how you can save money on food as a student, master each of these tips one by one and see how much your food costs decrease!

If you found this post helpful, sign up for my email list below and follow me on Instagram to join our online student community!

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