No matter where you go to college, there will always be ways to spend lots and lots of money on unnecessary things. Sure, living in Chicago or New York or Los Angeles may make it easier to head down to the Magnificent Mile, Times Square or Rodeo Drive and spend thousands of dollars of your parents money on things you don’t need (people don’t actually do this, by the way). But there are frozen yogurt shops, Panera Breads and plenty of other chain (and local) restaurants and coffee shops that sell you food or drinks for way more money than you need to be spending on your college budget.
While it’s okay to go get that Mac n’ Cheese in a Bread Bowl (yes, they do that at Panera) once a month or so with your study group, it’s definitely not okay to go every single Monday in between one of your classes. It’s not good for you or your wallet. So, now how do you avoid doing this on your own time so that you can occasionally say yes to those really freaking annoying girls who ask EVERYONE to go get fro-yo or Starbucks with them every single time you have a class with them twice a week? It’s much easier than it seems.
1. Use your meal plan as much as possible. Your parents are probably paying for this and honestly, it’s a deal. I go to a school that doesn’t require a meal plan for most of the students who live on-campus because all except one of the dorms have full kitchens and for those students it adds several thousands of dollars onto their Housing bill that doesn’t need to be there. If you’re in that situation or don’t have a very extensive meal plan, this one may not be for you but don’t worry, dining halls aren’t all they’re cracked up to be most of the time anyway.
2. Shop for your own groceries. If you live in a more traditional dorm, the most you might be able to have is some cereal, granola bars and maybe a few microwavable items in your dorm but you still want to stock up on as much as you can.
There are tons of grocery stores that are cheap and sell good quality stuff (Target and Wal-Mart are getting more and more into the grocery world and they’re everywhere. Plus, who doesn’t have at least one Target gift card sitting at home?). There are national chains (Trader Joe’s is my personal favorite) and local places (which are usually great because they have super low prices but don’t always have that one brand of Organic Just Nuts and Berries energy bar you like).
If you have your own kitchen or access to a communal one, use it. It may seem like having your own kitchen and therefore no meal plan or a limited one may be an excuse to go out every night of the week because you have a class that ends at 5:30 and you get home so tired and you have no time to make food but it’s not. Stop doing it. Instead, look up one of the thousands of super easy apartment living recipes online and make yourself something that you can eat all week or switch off days with your roommate(s). Maybe one of you makes dinner on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays (you can definitely eat out or eat frozen and quick on Saturdays because let’s be honest) and the other cooks on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Or maybe you just cook Mondays and Wednesdays and she cooks Tuesdays and Thursdays. Either way, try and eat at home as much as you can because it’s cheaper and better for you.
3. Grab that super easy and fresh salad from your grocery store instead. This is where my love for Trader Joe’s comes in handy. I’m a theatre student which means that when my classes end at 5:30, I usually have less than an hour to grab dinner before heading off to rehearsal until 10:30. That means that I don’t really have time to eat what most people would call a “real meal” and since there’s a Potbelly, Five Guys, Subway, Jersey Mike’s, and a few local but equally as expensive and not-so-good-for-you places within five minutes walking distance, a lot of my peers go to those places and end up spending between $8 and $15 for dinner each night which is honestly ridiculous on a college budget.
So instead, I head to the Trader Joe’s which is just as close as all of the fast food restaurants and grab a salad or wrap or soup (we have a microwave in the basement of the theatre building) and spend less than $4. There’s also a Jewel-Osco (which I’ve only recently discovered is a regional thing) which would have similar prices for something like that. It would have been easy for me to spend lots of money on that Potbelly sandwich but if I did that every night, my bank account would shrivel up and die because even though I do have a job, I can only work 3 days a week because of my school and rehearsal schedule and that means that I honestly can’t afford to live like that. Plus, I probably would gain that freshman 15 that I’ve avoided so far.
4. Don’t go to that fair or festival that you see happening every single weekend. In Chicago and other moderate to large cities, there are often big events going on like “Taco Fest” or “The First Annual Food Truck Rally” or “Oktoberfest” or “Chipotle’s Cultivate Fest” and while all of those things sound yummy and delicious, remember that you’re going to be spending at least $5 at each stand or booth or truck and that you’re going to want to go to multiple stands or booths or trucks because they serve small portions so that you’ll spend money at each stand or booth or truck. Maybe choose one of these fests every once in a while because it’s a good experience to have a mind-blowingly delicious taco on the street in a hip neighborhood but it’s not a good thing to do every weekend. When you go to a food festival, there’s rarely anything you can do that won’t cost you money. Maybe try swapping those out for a Carnival or Art Fest or Swap Meet or other type of Festival or Large Event that there are things for you to look at or listen to without spending lots of money.
5. Be smart. Budget yourself, don’t just spend money because you know you have it in your bank account because that only works until you don’t have it in your bank account anymore. I’ve already had friends who were forced to go home for the weekend so that their parents could give them more money. Don’t do that. It’s embarrassing and your parents might not be willing to do it.