Food is one of the best things in the world. Not only is eating a basic necessity for survival, it also can and should be immensely enjoyable. However, food can also be one of the biggest killers of your wallet. Don't get me wrong, I love food as much as the next person (in fact I'm enjoying a bowl of pasta right now while writing this). But I know that if managed poorly, food could cost you thousands every year. It's important to learn how to budget for food while still in school and “not yet in the real world.” Regardless of whether you're in high school or university, saving money on food is not a daunting task and can actually be fun. Plus, the long term benefits are worth it: learning how to save money on food as a student will translate to huge successes down the road as an independent adult.
Importance of Saving
Before we hop into exactly how to save money on food as a student, let's tackle a simpler question. Why save at all?
To answer that question, I propose another question: do you want to work until the day you die? If you're answer was anything other than “yes of course,” then saving is of importance to you.
Nowadays, pensions are becoming increasingly rare. What this means is that companies no longer take care of you after your time with them is done. You work, you get the money. You don't work, you get nothing. In a world like this, the only way to sustain yourself in retirement is to save.
Let's say you want to live in retirement comfortably. Your target number is $60,000 every year. Most people retire at the age of 60 and live until the age of 85.
Let's do some basic math:
- 85 – 60 = 25 years of money to support yourself in retirement
- 25 x $60,000 = $1,500,000
- $1,500,000 = 1.5 million dollars = a heck ton of money
Also, this is just for retirement. We still haven't factored in the cost of a house, or your university tuitions, or your kids university tuitions, or the price of a car, or any other expense in life.
The idea of this is not to scare you, but rather to make you aware that living is expensive and therefore saving is crucial.
How Much Money Can You Save on Food
At this point in time, you might be thinking: “Ok fine, saving is really important. But how can a few meals make a difference?”
The answer comes in 2 parts:
- Meals out that are overpriced AF
- Compound earnings
Everyone knows that eating out is expensive, but just how much is it costing you? Let's find out:
Let's say you are a regular high school or college student and eat out around once a day. Some days you grab a simple sandwich (around $10 including tax) and other days you opt for a fancier full meal (conservatively around $20.) If we take an average of that we get $15 spent every day on food (and this is only one meal per day.)
Again, let's do some quick maths:
- $15 every day on food
- 30 days in a month
- $15 x 30 days = $450 / month
- 12 months in a year
- $450 x 12 months = $5400
Over the course of a year, you would be losing $5400 to food. Over the course of a regular 4 year long term in either college or high school, that would be $21600!
That money also isn't taking into consideration opportunity cost. For example, what if instead of eating out you decided to invest your money into the stock market?
Historically, the stock market has returned around 10% annually so let's use that metric.
Using a compound interest calculator we can determine that in 4 years, your money could have grown to $26,190.28.
The difference between positive $26,190.28 and negative $21,600 is $47,790.28. That's almost $50,000! Saving on food makes a difference.
How to Save Money on Food as a Student
What I'm suggesting is not to cut out eating altogether. Instead, I'm proposing a smarter way of still enjoying your food while saving tons of money.
How? A little bit of cooking skills and a whole lot of buying in bulk.
Buying in bulk is by far the easiest way to save money on food. Let's take a simple $12 chicken sandwich for example. $12 is the price you would pay at most restaurants, but let's break that down and see what happens when we buy in bulk. (By the way, these are all Walmart prices)
- Loaf of bread = $2.47
- Chicken breast = $11 per kg
- Entire lettuce iceberg = $2
- 3 tomatoes = $4.5
- Entire jar of mayo = $4.5
- Entire pack of bacon = $5.5
This would total to around $30. Here you might yell “AHA that's more expensive than the $12 for the sandwich!” But take a closer look. You only need 2 slices of bread, 100g of chicken, a few leaves of lettuce, some slices of tomato, a dab of mayo, and one or two bacon strips to make a chicken sandwich. With the total of all these ingredients, you could feasibly make over 10 chicken sandwiches at the cost of $30! That's literally $3 per sandwich: $9 LESS than the restaurants.
When you buy in bulk, you save tons. You might be thinking, ok but how can I make these. Well below you'll find 3 easy meals that are cost-efficient, give you your nutrients, and will sustain you for at least a week each. This isn't a cooking blog so bear with me on the recipes, but do take note of the extreme savings that happen when you buy in bulk.
Beef Rice and Veggies
Inspired by one of my co-workers, this dish is super simple and super cheap. Not only that, but you can make loads of it at a time, so it's also great for meal prep.
Here are the ingredients you'll want to buy in bulk:
- Ground beef: $10/kg
- Rice: $12/bag
- Frozen mixed veggies: $3/bag
These ingredients should be enough to last you at least two weeks if not more.
Here are the steps to making them:
- Cook the rice
- Warm up some olive oil over a frying pan and fry up some (if not all) all of the beef
- Season with salt and pepper and other spices
- Either keep the beef in and add the veggies or take it out and add the veggies
- Cook until done
- Pack your lunch with equal parts rice and beef & veggies
- You're done!
Roasted Chicken, Bread, and Salad
This is a meal which I actually saw my boss eating. It's super efficient and honestly takes even less steps than the beef with rice.
Here are the ingredients you'll want to buy in bulk:
- Whole Barbeque Chicken: $12
- Baguette of bread: $2
- Big bag of salad: $3
And if you want to make things interesting:
- Block of cheese: $10
There really are no steps to making this. Either keep these ingredients at home in the fridge or at school. (I personally leave my ingredients in the office.) When you need to, slice off a bit of the chicken, slice off a bit of the bread, and pour some salad out of the bag. Boom, full meal. If you're like most people, this is perfect. It's an easy solution which requires no cooking whatsoever, yet can save weeks worth of food money.
Sandwiches have been around for a long time, and for good reason. Easy to make, easy to pack, and customizable, sandwiches are also a huge money saver.
Ingredients (even though you already know this):
- Loaf of bread: $3
- Your choice of filling (meat or avocado or pb&j or whatever you want): $10/lb (around)
- Any condiments: $5 per bottle
Everyone knows how to make sandwiches so I won't lay it out below. The point is that there are SO many ways to buy in bulk and save on money. And it doesn't have to get boring either. You probably have a freezer in your house so food won't go bad which means that you can alternate between these 3 meals and only eat the same meal twice every week. Better yet, plan out 7 different meals which you can buy in bulk and you will NEVER have a repeat meal in the same week!
Get Out There and Start Saving!
There you have it. Buying in bulk and being a little creative is all it takes to learn how to save money on food as a student. It might sound daunting at first, but once you start, I promise you won't regret it. That's not to say that you shouldn't ever eat out. I have nothing against indulging yourself every once in a while. But, the more you save by buying in bulk, the more money you will have leftover to eat out with! It's a win-win situation!
So, you've been shown the benefits of saving. You been shown how much of a difference it can make saving on food itself. And you've been shown exactly how to do it! What are you waiting for? Get out there (or stay inside because of COVID and do it online) and go buy some ingredients in bulk! Your stomach and your wallet will thank you.
Thanks for reading about how to save money on food as a student! I hope you learned something from the post and feel motivated enough to apply some of it. To learn more about how to invest your savings, head over to this post here. For more about me, head over to this link here. Finally, if you want to get exclusive updates and tips, drop your email in the “get updates” box (might have to scroll up a bit)! Let me know your thoughts, suggestions, or money-saving recipes in the comments!
Jeff is a current Harvard student and author of the blog Financial Pupil who is passionate about learning, living, and sharing all things personal finance-related. He has experience working in the financial industry and enjoys the pursuit of financial freedom. Outside of blogging, he loves to cook, read, and golf in his spare time.