I cannot tell you how many times throughout my college years I would respond to shopping invites and dinner dates by gently reminding my friends I was a baller on a budget. When you have limited income, the bare essentials are food, shelter, and gas for your car — but you would be surprised by the cutbacks you can make on food costs by implementing small changes.
Of course, some of these are rules we’ve heard over and over, but I also want to throw out some other lesser-known tactics I’ve personally put to the test.
The 2 Golden Rules
Rule No. 1: Never go grocery shopping when you’re hungry. You probably have a small budget and cannot possibly buy ALL of the food that looks good to your hungry eyes and belly. You’re also more likely to buy something that is fast and convenient because you want to eat it immediately. Fast usually lies hand-in-hand with unhealthy (think frozen pizza or lasagna).
Rule No. 2: Fast food is bad food. No… not to the taste. BUT if you are on a budget and have a high dependence on fast food, the outcome will bite you. The cost of buying two or three meals a day will not only drain your wallet but also leave you full of starchy, carby, sugary foods and you will only be left craving more.
These are just the basics I wanted to touch on because they are valid points and not to be overlooked. However, this next section might seem a bit more creative than most. If you are brave, broke, or desperately tired of Ramen Noodles, I challenge you to actively consider some of these as options.
Brave, Broke, Or Desperate…
Alright, time to confess the first go-to of mine: Lunchables. Don’t laugh. Those cracker and cheese and turkey/ham packs are cheap and can easily replace a meal on the fly. Better yet, I love the protein packs (you can find them now in the Lunchables section). They have a variety of packs with different flavors of cheese, meat, and nuts. Healthy, fast, and cheap. Even if this is just a snack on the run, at least it isn’t a bag of potato chips and a Coke!
The best part about these little packs is that they keep you pretty full. The higher the protein, the longer your energy lasts. Foods high in carbs and sugars tend to give you a rush and are followed by a crash. Then your body craves more food to negate your crashing energy levels.
Small Budget, Big Appetite
For anyone doubting my experience in the small-budget-big-appetite department, I’ll tell you a bit about my background. For a time in my life, I made about $60 a week at my part-time job. (I worked while I was in school so my hours to work were limited and my wages were minimal).
Talk about budgeting. I knew where every cent of my money would go before I even cashed my check. It was times like these that I employed the potato tactic. If you think about it, potatoes can stand alone as a meal — whether it be regular potatoes you load up with cheese and drizzle with ranch dressing, or sweet potatoes you can sprinkle with brown sugar and butter. Either way, you can easily buy a big bag of them and pop one in the oven or microwave for a very cheap meal.
While I don’t recommend living solely on a diet of potatoes, it’s an excellent filler meal until your next pay day. Plus, a bag of potatoes has a pretty good shelf life, so you can space out your Hobbit meals in-between better fare.
From The Pantry To The Freezer
A lot of frozen food is fatty food, but it doesn’t have to be. Frozen food can be our friend too. If you’re busy but try to maintain some semblance of a healthy lifestyle, it’s often a struggle. I’m not saying Ramen Noodles are a bad thing, but I will tell you, they get old quick. And on top of that, they lack a lot of nutrition we could get through equally cheap food options.
This is why it’s important to find a balance. Hopefully the college student/young adult budget will only be a season in your life and you can buy all the healthy and fresh produce you want in the future. Until then, we can compromise.
Put Some Pep In Your Prep
A cheap and healthy option to compromise is meal prepping. Some people really dislike the idea of “meal prep.” The perception is that only health nuts or workout buffs do it. While it does have its nutritional benefits, it can also really help your budget. Buying in bulk and cooking it all in one sitting saves time and money.
If you go to the store and buy a bag of frozen fish (tilapia, mahi mahi, swai), for example, you will pay about as much for that bag of frozen fish as you might a single fast food meal. Go home, cook the fish, season according to your preference, and I guarantee you will have enough protein for the entire week of lunches and maybe even dinners — depending on how big of an eater you are.
For a side, I like to accompany my protein with something green. This is where frozen veggies come into play. The steamable bags of frozen veggies are a staple. One bag costs between $1-$2 and contain several servings. I personally like broccoli or green beans, but there are any number of frozen veggies in the freezer section. For an entire week’s worth of lunches, you’ll be spending roughly $15-20 for both a protein source and a green veggie compared to the $5-10 you would spend daily on a fast-food lunch.
Keep in mind you’re not limited to fish; you can do the exact same thing with chicken or beef. The key point is simply to look for one main source of protein that can be bought in a large quantity, and pair it with a veggie — or rice and quinoa, which are also super cheap and can almost certainly be cooked in bulk. Pinterest is chocked full of recipes for meal prepping. Don’t be afraid to get creative with it!
Chopped – Home Style
If any of you are familiar with Chopped on FoodNetwork, you may appreciate this next wacky suggestion. I hate to waste anything. So picture it: Sicily, 1922…(Just kidding! Please excuse any Golden Girl references you may find in my pieces.) Anyway. Picture it: I would come home, look in my refrigerator, close it sadly, look in my pantry without success, and go back to the fridge in hopes that I had overlooked something the first time.
It stinks when there are no obvious choices for a meal, but some days I would play a little game of Chopped at home – minus the stocked kitchen, judging panel, and three other competitors. The goal was to use what I had without spending a dime. This time, the winning prize would be a full meal made from the random foods or products I found in my little apartment kitchen.
As a girl who likes a challenge and thrives on creativity, this ‘survival tactic’ was actually pretty fun. I remember I once found a bag of rice, a bag of black beans, and a carton of chicken broth. I tossed the rice in the crockpot and let it soak in the broth. I cooked the beans and added them on top of my finished chicken/rice mixture. It didn’t look great, but it didn’t matter. It tasted just fine and I was pretty proud of my resourcefulness.
A Girl’s Gotta Eat
By this point, I hope we have all developed a mutual respect for our fellow broke girls. It is only under this assumption that I’ll ask you not to judge me on this final piece of advice: Go on a dinner date. I am not saying go solely for a meal, but if you have the opportunity and the guy is nice, what do you have to lose? Best case you’ll hit it off and possibly find your Mr. Right while also getting a meal in. Worst case, he may not be “the one,” but at least you go home fed. Being young, single, and on a budget has its share of difficulties, so you may as well make the best of the opportunity when it presents itself. Mind you, I also do not suggest ordering a lobster and steak as the poor guy who asked you out is probably as young and broke as you, so be respectful.
Food For Thought
I am in no way an expert, I simply have experiences of my own and coped in these ways. I hope you will find some food for thought in this piece (pun fully intended), or at the very least, I hope you are entertained by my real-life shenanigans. To all the broke girls out there – may you blossom into women with bright futures and fully stocked pantries.