College Student Eating Survival Guide (Until Spring Break)

by Maggie Wells on 7 March 2008 29 comments
Photo: iStockPhoto

Spring Break is around the corner but your non-existent budget is blown. As a college instructor, I see this every semester: panic stricken faces looking up at me. And it isn’t about the paper they haven’t turned in yet, it’s about not having budgeted their semester well. I was a student for seven long years. Here are a few tricks of the trade I learned. Take notes my students, and swallow your pride.

How will you survive the next few weeks until you go home to Mom and Dad with a car full of laundry and a scheme to get them to help you out until the end of the semester? Getting a job or second job will take too much time and effort away from your studies—you don’t want your grades to go south. Odds are your rent or dorm is paid for but you do need to eat…

Eating seems to be a major expense for college students not on some sort of meal plan. And even students that are on meal plans, often find they underestimated. There are other ways to eat.

•Make friends with your professors and get invited over for dinner. My friend Jennifer and I survived countless poor Friday nights by getting invited over for dinner. We stuck together and would make sure we could bring a friend--- since there are lecherous professors out there, bringing a friend helps keep everything on the up and up and you get a free meal and possibly wine or beer too.

•Art openings. You are in a college town! There are bound to be a few art openings. Find out when they are and attend. Many times galleries in an area will team up and have a bunch of openings on the same night. This way you can walk a few blocks and hit wine, bottled water, cheese, fruit, and veggies dipped in dressing at a few places so you won’t look like you are hovering over the food necessarily.

•Collect recycling. Honestly. One of my college apartments was next to a grocery store and I saved all my family’s recycling to put in the machine out front which would spit out coupons to use in the grocery store. Even today when my husband and I take in recycling we sometimes collect about $9-11 dollars worth of free groceries for our troubles.

•Work that bakesale for that cause you kind of care about. There will be leftovers and if you sample before hand you can make recommendations.

•Check out conferences and meetings on campus. 9 times out of 10 your college will put out a little catered spread at various functions on campus for people who are attending to have a snack. Dress a little nicer than usual. Odds are they aren’t going to know that you aren’t one of the attendees and they’re just going to dump that make your own sandwich tray or take it home to their family anyway.

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•Open houses. Hungry on Saturday and campus options all closed? Head into the community. Granted the food will be similar to the art openings but beggars can’t be choosers and it’ll at least be fresh. Dress nicely, talk about being pre-law or pre-med and how that house will make a great starter home.
•Date someone in culinary school. My sister was the queen of dating culinary academy students. In the first four years she lived in San Francisco I don’t think she ever paid for a meal. Ever. In every kitchen in town she seemed to know someone who would at least get her and her date a complimentary appetizer. Later as a bartender, she received comp drinks from other bartenders. Even if you aren’t going to date the culinary student, by all means flirt. They work in some pretty nice kitchens and that’ll be a great switch from eating wine, cheese and grapes from the open houses and art shows.

•Speaking of flirting and desperate eating in college situations. You can always scrounge up a few pennies for coffee at a coffeeshop. Go in late at night. Be kind to the waiter or waitress. Smile. You might see a free piece of pie. I am forever grateful to the guys at the Apple Pan in Westwood down the road a piece from UCLA. Thanks for feeding me!!!!!!!

Plan for the future:

•Think about getting a part-time café job when you get back from spring break. You can survive well on just about day old anything. Your café won’t be able to sell those day old bagels or quiche but there isn’t anything wrong with them.

•Tell your grandparents to buy you gift cards to grocery stores that are near your school or to put money on your meal card for the next semester. They don’t know what to buy you for your birthday anymore—this is a great solution for them to help with college and for you not to have to wear that ugly sweater they were going to buy you.

So look at all those solutions and you didn’t have to even dumpster dive! Mom and Dad would be so proud of you. Any graduates out there with more food advice?

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Guest's picture
Lynne

These are great. I think I used almost all of these during college. But for the more adventurous among you, there is another trick I and my fellow "po' college kids" used to get through those hungry days. Dumpster diving and/or begging.

This can come in several forms. My favorite was just going to the back door of restaurants just after close and asking. Get someone sympathetic in the dish room and you can score some pretty awesome meals that were about to become trash. You can also go to bakeries and donut shops a few minutes before they close and ask for what they are going to get rid of. Places that make fresh baked goods each day are just about 100% guaranteed to throw those things away, and sometimes health codes prevent them from giving them to shelters. Their almost-trash can be your dinner. This could also work at the school cafeteria, if you get friendly with a worker there.

The more extreme version would include going through already-trashed food. Lots of places, though, will throw away food still in packages (i.e. loafs of bread from those bakeries) or at the very least, separated from non-food. The Dunkin Donuts near where I went to school would put all the donuts in a bag at nine pm and put them out back. At about 9:05 my friends and I would go grab that bag, and have a free few dozen donuts. Sometimes there would be an onion bagel in there, which would ruin everything, but it's a risk you take.

Lastly, I've had amazing luck panhandling for change. If you are honest and not trying for the pity dollar, you'd be surprised. I used to walk around downtown and ask people for beer money. People were generally so amused with my telling them what I was "really" going to use the money for, I frequently got upwards of $5 at a time, sometimes $50 or more from one person.

Good luck, and don't be afraid to get creative when times are tight! You're talking about keeping food in your belly here. Don't be too proud.

Maggie Wells's picture

My husband did a good deal of dumpster diving on Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade---he swore by it.

Margaret Garcia-Couoh

Guest's picture
terri

I love the Apple Pan!

Guest's picture
Guest

You could also go to car dealerships on weekends for free hot dogs and such.

Guest's picture

Sams and Costco always have those nice people handing out samples. Don't have a card? Don't fret. Do a little research--in my state, anyone can buy alcohol with or without a membership card at one of these places. Just point at the booze and go for it. Also successful: "I was parking the car for my (mom, GF, roommate.)" Or you can get a one-day "lookaround" card--they give these to you free at the customer service desk in the hope that you'll swoon over the prices and fork over $35 so you can buy twelve dozen cheapo bottles of spaghetti sauce. You can go in by the exit door looking preoccupied and mutter something about leaving your driver's license at the checkout.

The good pickings are on Saturday, BTW, and the place is an absolute zoo.

Guest's picture
Guest

I used to work for a computer school. On a regular basis, we'd advertise in a local tech rag that we were having an open house with pizza and pop. We probably got an equal number of people wanting to check out the offerings as wanting to eat the pizza.

Guest's picture
Guest

part time waitress/cook job. Many people get into food service cause they're hungry and find a career.

Guest's picture
Guest

I worked in a hotel all through college and ate pretty good. Just make sure you work in a full service place. We had to pay for anything that had to be cooked, but salads were free. Also chips and salsa make a pretty good meal too. Also lots of free coffee and tea. If you happen to land a job at a limited service place, you can survive nicely on bagels and cream cheese and yogurt.Also lots of guests will grab you something to eat when they go out. Many of them have large expense accounts and don't mind adding an entree to their bill for you. (This works really well when you are super extra nice to those long term guests.)
A smile goes a long way! :0)

Guest's picture
Olivia

One of the four roommates worked as a closing waitress part time in a natural foods restaurant. She brought home everything they had planned to toss. We ate like princesses.

Guest's picture
Guest

You could get a job...

Julie Rains's picture

(as Margaret mentioned, work can interfere with studies) but I also loved free food! You brought back some nice memories. I went to school in the South (Bible belt) and the churches all offered free meals at the beginning of the fall semester. I went to them all -- the Protestants had home-cooked covered dish dinners while the Catholics served hot dogs and beer. All were good. Watch out for cults but enjoy genuine hospitality when you can.

Guest's picture
Barbara

I've had friends come over for dinner because they couldn't afford anything else and end up offering to do things in return. The best was the friend who offered to come walk my dog twice a week when I was out of the house all day and couldn't afford daycare at the time. In exchange for being able to be productive at my job all day, I was happy to buy a little extra food and feed her at dinner!

Guest's picture
Mario

When I was in college, I regularly invited friends for dinner, sometimes up to 8 people. I almost always made some spaghetti with tomato sauce, nothing fancy, but lots.

With 3 friends, I started making this a habit: Cooking for more people= less cost for each one. We took turns, each one was hosting once a week. One of my friends had significantly richer parents than the rest of us, so he always made the fanciest stuff. He didnt mind, we enjoyed it. Someone would bring beer or wine, someone sometimes an additional salad or dessert. It was great, only cooking once but having four different meals each week.

Also important was the aspect of saving time. Since I worked after school, usually until 9 pm twice a week, I only showed up for the food at my friends place. The ones that had time would show up earlier, help cooking and already warm up the party.

I know most of you dont think it saves that much in money.. its certainly not free, but the social aspect of it was great, it saved me a lot of time and cooking for friends once a week is definitely more fun than preparing dinner for one each evening.

Guest's picture
Kate

I'm a professor. I am broke. I have a family to feed too and they live on my piddling salary. I love my students but cannot feed you. As much as I'd like to.

Guest's picture
Kate

I'm a professor. I am broke. I have a family to feed too and they live on my piddling salary. I love my students but cannot feed you. As much as I'd like to.

Maggie Wells's picture

I take out 2 students per semester to lunch. But I had about six in my day that took care of me on a regular basis. Margaret Garcia-Couoh

Guest's picture
Jaime

2 words: ramen noodles!

Guest's picture
Julie

there is always someone with money on their dining card...you just have to become friends with them.

Guest's picture
Shelby

When my hubby and I were in college, we had a few friends that had jobs at different eating establishments. One worked at McDs where (at the time) we could go in and order a shake and she would fill a bag full of food for us. We had another friend that would bring us undeliverable pizzas. (GPS mapping probably ruined this one) and another friend who managed a BK and would invite us in for whatever we wanted. We only had to help some of them with their homework : )

Don't forget that your local food shelf will likely help you as well.

We made it thru without starving to death, and now we can give back to others in the same boat! I just sent a young friend of mine money via Western Union. He had 3 cents in his pocket and I just got a very generous bonus from my employer. I would not be able to sleep at nite knowing my friends didn't have food to eat when I had plenty.

Pay it forward!

Guest's picture
Guest

A lot of kids at my school are on food stamps. As long as you live off-campus and have some sort of job you can get them. Plus, we're in a low-income area (Western Maryland) so a lot of stores deal with them. I also work at the school's cafeteria, so I get a free meal every shift I work. Any tips for affording rent in college lol?

Guest's picture
Guest

here's an idea:rice and beans goes a long way.

Guest's picture
Cindy

Sign up with restaurant email and birthday clubs. A lot of places not only give you free food on your birthday but just for signing up. Here is a list I've compiled with links to over 100 restaurants that give you free stuff on your birthday:

http://www.ehow.com/how_4518275_that-give-free-stuff-birthday.html

Guest's picture
Terry

Since when do open houses feature food of any sort?

I've been to a few and never saw any hint of food...not even for a mouse.

Guest's picture
Terry

Shelby said:

"We had another friend that would bring us undeliverable pizzas. "

Ah yes, that was my favorite part about delivering pizzas.

Occasionally we would get a "bad order" (typically a crank/hoax call to deliver a pizza to an apparently legitimate but nonexistent address). The address sounded good so we took the order but when the driver got there, discovered the street number didn't exist and there was nobody to accept and pay for the pizza.

Guest's picture
JM

My job is to watch for college students trying to get "free eats" instead of paying. The sad part is we are always in need of workers, say in the dish pit, mopping floors, etc. that would only require an hour or two and includes a free meal and a paycheck. Unfortunately, after many years in the business I have come to the conclusion that most would rather "steal" than work.

Guest's picture
Guest

I've worked at a couple of universities, as well as attending one. I'm always peeved when I walk past students who are standing outside smoking, talking about their great weekend (seeing a band and getting drunk - at the very least), then complaining how they're broke.
Smoking and drinking are expensive. Spend your money (wisely - use coupons and buy things on sale. You're never too young to start) to buy food first. Get a job. Try campus jobs. They're often designed to work around class schedules. And in every department I've worked in, the people have always looked out for the students by bringing extra food, etc. Some have even been able to grab house-sitting jobs in the process. There's no reason for a young, healthy person with no kids, mortgage, car payment, etc. to be on food stamps because they don't have time for a job. Save that benefit for folks who really, truly need it.
"Donating" plasma works, too. If you go the max number of times a week, you can get a couple hundred dollars a month, plus free immunizations. I've done it myself in a pinch.
Panhandling? Uh-uh. There's always a better way.

Guest's picture
Guest

We went to car & trailer lots. They often had free hotdogs, soda & chips. We just wandered around, asked questions, etc. Some dealerships have popcorn everyday. Costco was another favorite. There is a local hardware store that often has coffee & doughnuts outside the door, and hot cider & cookies inside! Check the events pages in the newspaper (on online) and you will often find things where free food is available. For us, it was a personal challenge to see how many meals we could eat without having to put out any money.

Guest's picture
Guest

As a music student I used to attend or perform in A LOT of concerts and recitals. Every recital had a reception after and most concerts did as well. I would attend recitals and concerts on weekend and have at least 2 meals a day for free! The concerts and recitals were free as well (for the most part). It was educational, inspirational and provided meals for my weekends. Besides I was already in the music building practicing most of the weekend anyway, I just had to walk over to the recital hall.

Guest's picture
Guess who

I can't believe this article, much less some of the commentary. Stealing? Begging? Fraud? Welfare? It seems maybe the writer and the respondents should postpone their scholarly aspirations and spend a few months studying ethics and character develop.

Before you commit to your studies, review your finances. Make sure you have enough money to see you through. Make sure you can be self-sufficient. Get a job and save! Live below your means! Do not go into debt! I know several individuals that will spend 15 years post graduation paying off their student loans.

Self reliance equals self respect. To live in debt is to live in shame, without dignity. It may be difficult, it may be hard to live honestly and without resorting to unscrupulous behavior, but in the end, you will enjoy a more fulfilling and enlightened life.