Freshers rejoice! We’re coming to that time of year when universities across the land welcome new students through their proverbial gates.
And what’s one of the first things a new student needs to do? Food shopping.
Research by Studentbeans.com found that meals are frequently skipped at uni. More than half the students polled had no more than £2.50 to spend on food each day. Best be prepared to make your cash go as far as possible. There are ways to save money without resorting to missed meals.
Before I started uni, I didn’t do much food shopping. As a newbie, armed with a limited budget and self-catered accommodation, I had to learn fast. In just a few weeks, I had a crash course in savvy shopping.
Shopping can be grim, but it’s got to be done. (photo by Funky64) CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
I’d like to offer what I learned in my quest to save money. Here are 15 tips to keep your bill as low as possible. You’ll be shopping like a pro in no time.
1. Don’t go in hungry
Physical and mental fatigue serve you poorly. You’ll end up buying everything in the shop if you’re not careful. Go when you’re thinking logically about grub, not when you’re primed to pick stuff up as if you’ve been starved for days.
2. Spice things up
Change flavours easily and enhance regular meals so they always have an element of surprise to them. All you need are a few herbs and spices at the ready. Pickle, chutney and sauces also enhance your cheap eats.
3. Learn a few meals to use over and over again
I recently decided–on a whim–to start baking cakes. After just a few dedicated hours*, I had a standard loaf cake recipe that I can now change to suit my mood. I can return to the same technique every time, replacing sultanas for blueberries, date syrup for sugar, and so on.
You can do this for any meal. Get a basic stir fry, salad, curry, or whatever you fancy. When you know what you like, you can do it all the time. With a few tried and tested dishes, you don’t need to think about what you’re doing any more. No more fussing and no more reliance on ready meals.
*Several hours spent over a number of sessions. Not all at once. I didn’t bake a dozen cakes back-to-back, you know!
4. Shop when the offers come out
Most supermarkets reduce short-dated stock at particular times in the day. Each place is different and some shops slash the prices while others are stingy. If you find a place with good discounts, find out when the big reductions happen and, if possible, shop at those times for cheap grub.
If you don’t know when the big reductions happen, you could be cheeky and ask. I’ve asked in the past and most staff told me straight away.
5. Shop on a strict list
List approaches didn’t work for me at uni, but it may for you. Loads of shopping advice suggests you should stick to what you need, make a list, and stick to it so you don’t pick up all sorts of other items as you browse.
Special offers get overlooked this way, but at least you won’t be tempted to go off track and spend more than you had planned.
6. Plan meals in advance
At the start of each week, spend a few minutes working out what food you want.
Setting the menu in advance is useful for several reasons:
- you won’t have to waste time thinking about what’s for dinner every day;
- buying will be strategic and not a mish-mash of stuff you may or may not get round to eating;
- it will limit the temptations because you’ll better know where you stand;
- you can plan batch cooking efficiently (see Point 7, below).
7. Batch cooking
I didn’t do this enough. Don’t make my mistake!
Cook a large dish that’ll keep you going for several meals. One cooking session, three or four meals, one happy student.
Put the portions in containers either for the fridge (if you’re going to eat it over the next few days) or freezer (if you’d prefer to space it out).
Yes, I know fridge and freezer space is a problem in many a student household. I’ve experienced it first hand. My thoughts go out to you at this difficult time…
8. Get groceries delivered
Save time and temptation by getting a delivery service to bring your food to your door.
Be prepared to spend a few quid on delivery. If the extra charges annoy you or you can’t easily spend enough to qualify, ask housemates if they want to join in. That way, large minimum orders are easier to work with and delivery charges can be split in half (or more, if everyone wants to join in!).
Remember to factor in your own time and transport costs. For instance, if home delivery costs a pound more than your bus fare, that extra pound may be worth it for the time and bother saved in the process. Many companies offer big discounts on your first order too.
9. Cook with housemates
Talking of joining in, why not team up for cheap eats? It’s not always feasible, but some students shop together and make a lot of meals as a group. It’s usually cheaper if you can manage it, but you need to be around at the same times and enjoy a similar selection of food.
If you’re one of the few who can reliably tick those boxes, you could even get a cooking rota going so you can take turns to make meals. Everyone else you know will be jealous of you and your foodie mates.
10. Go to the market
If you’re near to a weekly market, farmers’ market, or even a local farm shop, consider going for cheap, quality fruit and veg. You may bag yourself a bargain compared to supermarket prices.
Many universities have a fruit and veg sale on campus or in the SU. This is a good place to start if you want to test out something new, or if you live on campus and don’t want to carry heavy foods all the way through town.
11. Compare prices
Never assume something is cheap. Be on the lookout and keep tabs on how much your favourite foods usually cost. That way, you know when a bargain is genuine.
And just because it’s a larger pack doesn’t mean it’s better value for money. I often see bigger so-called ‘value’ packs that cost more than a couple of the smaller packs. Don’t take anyone’s word for a deal except your own.
12. Be brand fickle
When faced with ten different makes of the same food, the default decision is usually to go with the brand you’re used to.
Challenge yourself. Go for a cheaper option if there is one. Don’t be fooled by colourful packaging and fancy marketing words. Some supermarket brand versions of a product can be made by the manufacturer with a premium price product.
It’s all to play for. The worst that can happen is you’ll go back to the original brand next time.
13. Buy loose groceries
Drop the packaging. Buying loose items is often cost effective. Less waste is also an environmental plus.
I’ve heard people say that loose food feels less hygienic and that the produce may not be as high in quality. In reality, you should wash your fruit and veg, no matter how it is presented. As for quality, buying a product that has been placed in a bag for your convenience isn’t a magical sign of better quality. Presentation can deceive.
14. Find alternatives to your faves
I love chips. For years, I would buy frozen oven chips and get through a pack way too quickly. And each time I walked past a fish and chip shop…Let’s be honest, I didn’t walk past, I walked in. The lure of chips had me in a flash.
Chips aren’t the most expensive item in the world. But it’s still cheaper to buy a big bag of spuds and make them yourself.
The only thing you need to do is chop the potatoes into whatever size you want. No peeling necessary. Just pre-heat an oven dish with a bit of oil, chop the potatoes up and chuck ’em in the oven. If you’re feeling adventurous, season with a few herbs, a bit of smoked paprika, and a pinch of salt.
Cheap chips. Yum.
When you want an alternative way to make your favourite food cheap, a quick Internet search will provide loads of quick fixes.
Look, if you can make a chocolate cake in 5 minutes, there’s no stopping you do anything. Right?
15. Shop around
My friends thought I was mad, but I went to at least four different supermarkets on a regular basis. I’d rush around the one my friends were at, then dash in to the others. Luckily, the shops were all next to each other.
My task was to find all the special deals and only buy what was on offer. I regularly came back with double the shopping to everyone else, whilst spending roughly the same amount.
I wouldn’t call that mad. I’d call that determined.
It’s also the reason why I didn’t like strict lists…
What have I missed? If something worked for you and I’ve not mentioned it, let us know. Let’s get the advice out there. The more, the merrier.