If you’re a college student trying to save money by opting out of a campus meal plan, you might find yourself splurging on pizza when your meager work-study paycheck arrives and then subsisting on ramen noodles the rest of the time. To keep up with the demands of class, work, and other activities, your body needs better fuel. Here are six ways to eat healthier even when you’re strapped for cash.
- Learn to cook.
Basic meal prep is a lot easier than it might seem. Even if you live in a dorm, you usually have access to a shared kitchen, and if not, you can whip up plenty of delicious recipes with nothing but a mini-fridge and microwave, from overnight oats and salad in a jar to crunchy kale chips and stuffed sweet potatoes.
Save dining out for special occasions and cook for yourself the rest of the time. While fast food may seem like a better deal, it rarely is. You can make a burrito bowl for half the price of Chipotle. You can even beat the price of McDonald’s dollar menu and probably create a tastier burger in the process.
- Have a plan.
Take the time to make a budget so you can work out a meal plan to fit it. Retro Housewife Goes Green recommends checking the weekly flyers for the grocery stores in your area and building your meals around what’s on sale. When you go to the store, have a list and stick to it.
To avoid impulse buys, don’t shop when you’re hungry. If you know you’ll buy more than you intended, find out if your grocery store allows you to place orders online and pick up your groceries at the curb at no additional charge.
- Shop strategically.
Dave Ramsey points out supermarkets are designed to encourage you to spend money on things you don’t need. Shop around the perimeter of the store in the produce, meat, and dairy sections and avoid the interior aisles full of junk food in brightly colored packages. When you are shopping the aisles, look high and low for cheaper options, as the expensive brands are typically at eye level.
Ramsey recommends swearing off brand loyalty, as most generic or store brands are indistinguishable from their national counterparts and significantly cheaper. Purchasing pantry staples like dried beans and rice in bulk can save you money, but always double check the unit price. Buying more a perishable item than you can eat before it goes bad is always a waste of money.
Produce is cheapest and freshest when available locally or at least in the same hemisphere. If a fruit or veggie is out of season, buy it frozen, which is almost as healthy. Better yet, buy a lot when it’s in season and freeze your own.
- Cook from scratch and cook by batch.
When you’ve got three exams to study for and two term papers to write, it’s tempting to reach for the Easy Mac, but that convenient, single-serving packaging will cost you, and the artificial flavors and preservatives won’t do your health any favors. With a little planning and access to a freezer, you can do better.
Root and Revel recommends purchasing raw ingredients to make simple recipes and cooking large batches on the weekend, half of which you’ll eat during the week and half of which you’ll freeze so you’ll always have a meal ready to eat when your schedule gets hectic. Invest in single-serving containers that are freezer-, oven-, and microwave-safe like Pyrex dishes.
If you live in an apartment with roommates, Jamie Cattanach of The Penny Hoarder suggests splitting grocery costs and dividing and conquering the kitchen chores: “Try having each member of the household make a cheap, but delicious, batch meal at regular intervals throughout the week.
When purchasing ingredients, steer clear of pre-chopped veggies, bagged salads, and pre-cooked chicken strips, as you’ll pay a premium for prep you can easily do yourself. Buy whole food and use it all; shred your broccoli stem into a slaw, turn your chicken bones into broth, and add your carrot tops and celery leaves to pesto. Don’t forget to check the bargain bin; bruised apples make great applesauce, and blackened bananas are perfect for banana bread.
- Use coupons the right way.
Most of the coupons in the Sunday newspaper will only save you money on name brands, which will still be more expensive than store brands, and processed junk foods you’ll be better off avoiding. However, there are ways to use certain coupons to your advantage. Sign up for grocery store loyalty cards to receive digital coupons on store brands you can combine with sales prices. If there are certain brands you’re attached to, follow them on social media and watch for exclusive offers and coupon codes.
Cash Cow Couple explains how to add more savings with grocery reward apps like Drop that give you cash back for shopping at certain stores and apps like Ibotta, Checkout 51, Mobi, and SavingStar that give you cash back for buying certain items (not all offers are brand-specific). Walmart’s Savings Catcher will also reimburse you for items you could have gotten cheaper elsewhere.
- Pay with the right credit card.
Marketwatch reports that more credit cards are offering cash back rewards on grocery store purchases. Sometimes you can stack rewards by earning cash back on all purchases plus additional cash back on purchases from certain stores. If you have more than one credit card with rewards, you can switch to the second card when you reach the spending cap on the first. However, remember that paying with a credit card is only a good deal if you are paying off the balance each month and not going into debt.
How do you eat a healthy diet on a shoestring budget? Share your tips in the comments.