15 Ways to Save Money on Groceries in College

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Last Updated on October 6, 2023 by Alexandra Markin

With so many ways to save money on food as a student, lots of those tips originate in the grocery store. Maximize every shopping trip by incorporating these simple ways to save money on groceries in college that will help put you ahead financially.

This post is the second segment of a three-part series to help you save money on food as a student:

How to Save Money on Groceries in College

Most students try their best to save money on food, but that comes at the expense of potential study time.

When you attempt to save money on almost anything, it usually results in a time vs. money tradeoff. This is especially true when it comes to grocery shopping and food prep.

As a prime example, that bunch of carrots aren’t going to cut themselves. You’ll need to wash the carrots, peel the carrots, cut the carrots and store the carrots in a container that you’ll eventually need to wash, dry and put away. While it’s cheaper to buy the bunch of carrots rather than a bag of ready-to-eat baby carrots, you need to decide what’s worth it and what isn’t.

Everyone comes from different backgrounds, and what’s worth saving money to one person won’t be to another. No one wins on everything, but if you incorporate at least a few of these tips the next time you grocery shop you’ll help put yourself ahead financially.

1. Have a List

Never set foot in the grocery store without a list.

To save shopping time, organize your list strategically: group items together by where they’re located in the store. For example, group refrigerated items together, produce items together, and items that are in the same isle (pickles, oil, vinegar, hot sauce, etc.).

2. Don’t Shop Hungry

Even if its just an apple with a handful of nuts or a bowl of leftovers, have something in your stomach. This will stop you from making impulse purchases on ready-made junk food like chips or pre-made snacks, saving you money and unnecessary calories.

TIP: Keep protein or granola bars in your bag for emergencies (like having to eat one in the grocery store parking lot!)

3. Grocery Shop Close to Home

During our college days, time is at a premium: every spare minute could be used for studying. Factor in your time when you go shopping, especially with the cost of gas these days if you drive to get groceries.

If the cheapest store (Walmart, Aldi, Trader Joes, Lidl, Superstore) is a 40-minute round trip, it may not be worth it. Any savings could potentially cancel out when you factor in commute time.

No store will have the best price on everything 100% of the time.

“Remember that time is money.”

Benjamin Franklin

Most times it’s better to shop closer to home. Pick a grocery store near you and keep an eye on their sales.

Keep in mind that “expensive” stores can change over time. If Whole Foods is close to you, you’re in luck: they’re now pretty comparable to other grocery stores since Amazon acquired them in 2017, and I’ve found you can score some great deals during their sales!

Whole Foods Market at Kensington High Street in London, UK

4. Check Store Flyers Before You Go

Before you head out, check the store’s current flyer and see if you can adjust your shopping list.

Grocery stores are tricky though. Not every item on sale that week is listed in the flyer. You’ll need to walk around scouring the shelves while resisting the temptation to load up your basket with yummy-looking snacks.

5. Get on the Grocery Store’s Email List

Sign up to get notified of flash sales, upcoming savings events and special weekly deals.

We’re all busy. It’s easy to forget to check the flyer or remember that the new week’s sale starts today. Being on the store’s email list will give you an automatic reminder while providing you access to bonus savings others won’t be aware of.

When you see your favourite store pop into your inbox, actually open the email and read it!

6. Sign Up for a Savings/Rewards Card

Almost every store has a savings or loyalty rewards card you can sign up for.

Make a permanent card spot in your wallet and download the store’s app to access bonus saving rewards and a digital copy of your card should you ever forget it.

TIP: Sticking to one store’s points program will net you free stuff faster than always shopping across multiple grocery loyalty programs.

7. Watch for Deals

Stock up on non-perishables when they’re on sale, and plan your meals by what’s on sale this week.

If it makes sense, take advantage of deals like BOGO (Buy One, Get One). BOGO deals have many variations, such as “buy one, get one 50% off” to “buy one, get one free.”

However, beware of BOGO deals, especially on produce or foods that spoil quickly. A bag of 8 hot dog buns on a “buy one, get one free” event only makes sense if you have a plan to use all 16 buns in a week. You could freeze the extra, but they don’t last forever and buns take up precious freezer space. Throwing out your freezer-burnt buns is the same as throwing out money.

BOGO for two cans of tomato sauce may make much more sense for you.

8. Buy in Bulk

Buying in bulk saves a ton of money for things you eat all the time that can be stored without spoiling: oats, tomato sauce, nuts, pasta, rice, peanut butter, frozen fruit, etc.

Warehouse stores like Costco can be worth it for even a single person depending on your purchases. Among other things, I buy at Costco for my peanut butter and frozen fruit that I have in my smoothie every morning. It’s much cheaper than buying a smaller amount for more money at another store.

However, like BOGO deals, buying in bulk doesn’t make sense for everyone or every type of food item. If you’re working with limited space (apartment living) or an extremely limited budget (student loans), buying in bulk may not be an option.

TIP: If you or someone you know has a Costco membership, you can do a large shop and split both the cost and the groceries with friends or family. This works for BOGO deals too – find someone to share with!

9. Include More Plant-Based Meals in Your Diet

Meat, dairy, cheese and seafood are some of the most expensive items in the grocery store, but you can help counteract the cost by incorporating more plant-based meals in your diet.

As long as you don’t buy the processed meats, cheeses and frozen meals, including plant-based recipes in your weekly meal plan will save you money on your grocery bill. Stick to the staples of pasta, beans, lentils, grains and vegetables and add proteins such as tofu, tempeh and seitan (wheat gluten).

An entree size plant-based salad loaded with grains, nuts and veggies paired with an oil or tahini-based dressing can be quite satisfying.

10. Buy the Store Brand

Store brands offer the same product for a lower price over name brands such as Heinz, French’s, HP and thousands of others. It’s an easy way to lower your grocery bill.

I find it hard to distinguish the difference with items like ketchup, beans and diced tomatoes. When buying dips and sauces, sometimes I even like the store brand variety better than the name brand.

TIP: If you’re worried about taking a risk and wasting money on a store brand you may not like the taste of, rest assured: some stores are so confident you’ll love their products that they offer a full money back guarantee. Look for the disclaimer on the back of the label!

Save-on-Foods offers a “FULL MONEY BACK GUARANTEE ON WESTERN FAMILY™ PRODUCTS”, as listed on the back of their ketchup bottle.

11. Stock up on Frozen Fruits and Vegetables

Bags of frozen fruits and vegetables are usually cheaper than buying fresh produce, so stock up.

While it doesn’t make sense to use frozen vegetables in every recipe, swap fresh for frozen wherever you can. Think frozen mixed vegetables a in stir fry, frozen corn and peas in shepherd’s pie and frozen kale or edamame in homemade ramen.

TIP: using frozen produce saves massive amounts of time during meal prep!

Frozen kale is a quick and easy low-cost option to use in homemade ramen.

12. Investigate Cash Back Grocery Apps

If they’re available in your country, cash back apps like Checkout 51 and Ibotta can earn you cash for every grocery purchase.

These apps work by uploading a photo of your receipt and earning cash back based on their shopping requirements. Cash out when you reach their payout threshold!

It may not add up to a lot, but every dollar counts.

13. Avoid Ordering Groceries Online

In a world where convenience rules, online grocery shopping is gaining massive popularity – but with a hefty price tag.

Most grocery stores charge more online for the exact same food item you would buy when shopping in store. Delivery charges, fuel surcharges and multitude of other hidden fees will push your bill much higher than you anticipate.

Ordering through services such as Instacart is pretty much like getting Door Dash for groceries: someone goes to the store, picks your items off the shelf and delivers them to your door. Not only are the items themselves more expensive, but the added fees are ridiculous. I tried Instacart to purchase groceries from Real Canadian Superstore as a price experiment and was horrified at the fee total on $50.10 worth of groceries!

A screenshot of the fees on my Instacart online grocery delivery order.

Ordering groceries online will only save you time. If you’re seriously trying to save money, I recommend doing this only if your circumstances absolutely require it, and shop around before you order to compare prices and fees.

14. Check Your Receipt

We’re all human, and technology is great until it isn’t. Pricing mistakes on grocery bills happen much more than you think.

The register could show a different price than in the flyer or on the shelf, or the cashier could forget to scan their code that gives you the advertised price.

Don’t zone out at the checkout. Make it a habit to watch the register and review your receipt before you leave. If you walk out of the store and can’t remember the total you paid less than 60 seconds ago, it’s a sure sign you need to pay more attention to your spending.

15. Bring Your Own Bags

Some countries, provinces and states no longer give out grocery bags for free. You might have to pay anywhere from $0.10 to $1.00 for a bag if you forget to bring your own.

Some countries, like Canada, have gone a step further and banned the use of single-use plastic grocery bags, which is even more reason not to forget your reusable bags. Trying to carry a paper bag full of groceries with no handles is a challenge!

This is a prime example of how not being organized costs you money.

Save Money on Groceries in College – Summary

You don’t have to sacrifice your body for your bank account by eating ramen noodles everyday. College students can still eat healthy without breaking the bank by always making a specific grocery list, shopping store sales and stocking up.

Be kind to yourself while you implement your new routine to save money on groceries while you’re in college. It takes a bit of practice to get your grocery bill down, but once mastered it’s a lifelong skill you’ll always have.

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