6 Savvy Strategies to Ward Away College Hunger and Avoid Overspending


Back in 1996, I was a partial scholarship private college student with the “gold” meal plan. Despite having access to food almost anytime I wanted, I often went hungry. Why? I was a horrible planner, a bit bad with my time, and I really had no knowledge of food savings strategies. Here are 6 things I finally learned about how to get more from your very limited college food budget.

Know how much your meal plan (really) costs.

Unless you were my good friend “Hacker” — with a full-ride scholarship and grants coming out of his pajama drawer — most of us private college kids had a $20,000+ a year college loan to look forward too. This didn’t cover the meal plan (which ranged in cost from $1,000 to a few thousand dollars). Assuming you could get a Stafford loan or some private funding to pay for your café dollars, this is still a fairly pricey investment. At the 3.5-5% interest rate that many of us paid on those loans over a period of 10-30 years, that’s a pretty hefty lunch tab!

Why am I stressing this? While many of my friends opted to ditch Taco Night at the caf to grab a bucket of chicken from the nearest fast food place, they didn’t realize that those uneaten tacos would some day have to be paid for, and at a nice little interest accumulation, as well. You thought buying burgers on a credit card was stupid; passed-over tuna casserole on a government loan is even more ridiculous, if you ask me!

Pretend the vending machine doesn’t exist.

Even after taking a heavy workload both semesters of my freshman year, I still managed to work 15-20 hours a week at a local daycare center. That money was hard-earned, but easily spent. The biggest consumption of my funds came from that evil vending machine that greeted me on the way in (and out) of my dorm lobby several times a day. Crunchy Cheetos, Peanut M&M’s, and a bag of unpopped popcorn were my weakness, and at 60 cents a pop (which was high then, believe me), my cash was hard to hold on to.

Had I any financial sense at the time, I would have begged a ride from a buddy and gone to the nearest dollar store. The mega-packs of all those junky delights were about $2 for 6, making easy savings if I was willing to plan for it. (Remember that vending purchases don’t issue receipts, show up on your credit card statement, or get written in your check register — making them evil for your budget. It’s best to stay way, completely.) And I won’t even tell you how my diet suffered from the easy access of those nutritionally-worthless foods.

Make friends with the food service workers.

I’m not suggesting that you pretend to buddy up to anyone, in hopes of scoring free food. What I am saying is that it pays to know the people who work at the school cafeteria, since many of them are fellow college students. In my case, I was great friends with a few of the evening workers, and this was to a huge benefit. I could easily find out if they were a little lean on the sirloin steaks that night (giving me the edge to get in line early and grab them before they were all gone), how awful the chicken parmesan really was, and whether the ice cream machine would be working that evening.

(It all may seem trivial to you, but when a college kid is literally sprinting between classes, hoping to get the biggest bang for their cafeteria buck, these are important tips to eating better and filling up fast.)

Cook with a group.

The cleanest place in my dorm room lobby was the kitchen. It was hardly ever used, except for when the weekly Dungeons & Dragons group got together. While I won’t pretend to know what they were doing (I’m not a fan), I did know one thing: They made an awesome meal when they met. Whether it be a pot of chili, a couple pans of lasagna, or some Mexican dish that made the entire dorm building drool, these kids could cook — and they did so on a budget. While it was impractical for me to plunk down dollars on a couple of pounds of ground beef, 3 cans of chili beans, 2 cans of tomatoes, a fresh onion, and spices, it was not inconceivable for 6 students to do so as part of a group effort. There was no need to store the food (as they bought it fresh right before the meeting), and there were never any leftovers to deal with. These kids figured out the joy of combining resources and doing something as a group, and they ate way better than I ever did.

Shop sales for the holidays.

My hungriest days were when the cafeteria shut down for the holidays. With over 85% of the campus vacated for the season, I was usually at school, by myself, eating from that evil vending machine. With no mini-fridge to take advantage of, I honestly believed that Ramen noodles and warm Dr. Pepper were my destiny. I had no idea of the sales that preceded each holiday season, and how it was possible to take advantage in preparation for the hungry days. While it was impractical to view ads online in 1996, now there is no excuse for a wired student to not be able to see the weekly grocery specials at their local store. Even if you don’t coupon, the weeks leading up to the holidays offer so many staple items, often at 50% savings, that a hungry kid could warm up in the microwave — or even sauté, broil, or bake in the abandoned dorm kitchen.

If you budget, (and you really should), put aside a little extra grocery money for the pre-holiday sales. You’ll be glad you did.

Work at a food business.

This is the last alternative for many, but it really worked for me. Getting employment at a restaurant, diner, or bakery is a reasonable way for many college students to fortify the food budget (and not just in earnings), and many food businesses are truly college student-friendly. While it is true that many of the chain and fast-food restaurants won’t offer you free meals (and 50% off a meal laden in calories and fat is a waste of even 50% of your money), there are healthy menu option at many establishments that are worth buying at a discount.

The best way to work the employee benefit system in your favor, however, is to work for a Mom & Pop café or restaurant and work hard to earn their respect. Many of the places I worked for in college were more than happy to let us have one meal off the menu at the end of our busy shift, and these were often the best meals I ever had. (Lobster Bisque, Lemon Ravioli, Fresh Basil-Pesto Angel Hair, and Cheese Soufflé made the college cuisine look like frozen dinners.) This was also a great introduction into the hospitality business, which, for some, can be a worthwhile career path after college.

There's no reason to go hungry at college, provided you plan a little and get over your need to feel comfortable all the time. Stretch yourself to try something new, and by all means, learn to budget! It'll be the most valuable thing you learn in college — I promise (and at far less than what you'll pay per credit hour for that American Government course).

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Guest's picture

One of the years my youngest son was in school ...
I think the only thing he ate was Burger King (where he worked part-time), mooched food from his roommates, and some of mom's home cooking. I don't think he spent a dime on food that year. Crazy Kid!!!!

Guest's picture

My college son works part time at a very nice steak and seafood restaurant and frequently eats the finest of meals that are sent back because they are over or under done. He has also extolled the benefits of microwaved brown rice with veggies and beans tossed in for protein. His food budget is $100 a month and that includes booze!

Linsey Knerl's picture

What I wouldn't have given for a mini fridge/freezer and a few bags of those steamable rice/veggies that they have in the freezer section today.  They sound like a great way to fortify a college kid for much less!  Great ideas!

Linsey Knerl

Guest's picture

When I was in school (okay, this was a bit ago, but I doubt it's changed a whole lot), there were many free or very cheap meals to be had on campus through various organizations. Many Christian organizations had free (or $1-$3) meals at least once a week. Most clubs had pizza at meetings. I'm not saying that people should join clubs or just hang out at organizations in hopes of getting free (or cheap) meals. But it's definitely worth it to take advantage of the meals that are available at groups where students have an interest.

At the Christian fellowship where I hung out a lot, I "earned" many free meals by either cooking or cleaning up from our weekly $3 lunch discussion group. When I lived there, I also had first rights to any leftovers from any of the activities we were a part of. It definitely helped subsidize my food budget.

Guest's picture

I like the point about the meal plan. If you are on the meal plan and buying food elsewhere, you are really wasting your resources.

Guest's picture

At our school, there are departmental seminars and talks several times a week, with food ranging from a few cookies to a full, catered buffet. As with the clubs, don't go just for the food (unless desperate!). But if you have an interest in the talks anyway, why not go and make a meal of it?

Guest's picture

You are so right about getting to know the food service people. When I was in grad school many, many years ago, I several times got a free steak dinner after the football team finished eating dinner at the dining hall and didn't eat up all the steaks that had been prepared for them. I guess I looked hungry.