Student Budgeting: Dining Out, Making Meals, and Saving Money

The summer is always a great opportunity for college students to sublet or rent their first apartment after a year or two on campus.  Many parents also see the summer as a great opportunity to subject their college-age children to cruel life lessons –  severing financial ties and seeing how we fend for ourselves for 3 months. Doing so will “build character” and “help them learn responsibility” and “keep them from doing fun things.” It’s not difficult to cut back on your spending at bars or clothing stores, but here are some tips for managing one thing you can’t cut out of your budget: food.

Avoid Dining Out: It’s easy to fall into this trap, especially when you’re as helpless and awkward in the kitchen as I am. But there is no quicker way to eat into your already humble paycheck than to eat out every day because you “don’t have time” or “aren’t in the mood” to cook. Even if you can find a place to get meals for under $10 after taxes and tips, it will probably not be the best option for your health.  Buying in bulk from places like Costco or even just buying from a grocery store will be cheaper than dining out. That may mean that you’ll be that guy rolling to lunch with your coworkers carrying Tupperware, but that’s just a sacrifice you have to make to save money.

Learn the Basics of Cooking: My mother had cooked almost everything I had ever eaten in my life before college. Really my only specialty was Ramen, and I made pretty good Bagel Bites as well, but neither of those really count. If you’re dining out instead of making your own food, you’ll be below the poverty line more quickly than you can imagine. Have someone who knows even a little bit about cooking show you the basics. If you’re as desperate as I was, you may want to start with omelets and quesadillas; if you’re a little more adventurous, learn about cooking your own meat and vegetables. There is a learning curve to cooking, but once you can make food that you actually enjoy eating, you will be able to more easily fight the urge to dine out and curb your poor student budgeting habits.

Seek Some Variety: This step is the most intimidating. If you’re coming into your first apartment with absolutely no knowledge of how to cook (like I did), it is easy to get stuck in a rut and just make the one thing you learned how to cook for every meal. When I first started cooking last summer, I got so used to making pasta that I probably ate it for 75% of my meals. If I had 4 meals a day, that meant that the only thing I would eat all day that wasn’t pasta with marina sauce was the bowl of cereal I would have in the morning.  Because I am a resilient youngster with the metabolism of a racehorse, I am fortunate enough to have not been killed by this diet. It is important to get a variety of nutrients in your system, even if you find it difficult to mix up your cooking habits. It is possible to hit a number of food groups by making simple dishes. If I make pasta now, I will also have a salad, grapes, and milk at the very least so I don’t die of malnutrition. Ah, the trials and tribulations of student budgeting.

Beg for Mercy: Now, in my second summer of living independently, I am fortunate enough to have my parents pay for my groceries. I made the argument after last summer that I was so bad at cooking that I was actually a danger to myself and those around me. If I can’t afford to buy fruits and vegetables, I will literally eat pasta every meal of the day. If your parents are as concerned as mine were, they may accept this as a valid argument.  That’s when you really start saving money.

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