10 Wacky Ways To Eat Cheap In College

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As a counterpoint to outrageously expensive meals, how about some stupid, unethical, and somewhat scary stories about how I ate on the cheap while in school? Note that I don’t do any of these anymore. (Unless left alone for more than a month, then I regress…)

1. Bringing Ziploc Bags the Dorm Dining Hall. You know you’re not supposed to, but when you’ve just spent all your money on a fancy date, you bend the rules. Our dining hall was pretty much a buffet and I would make entire sandwiches and put them in ziploc bags for later. Cost of lunch: 6 cents for the bag.

2. Crash Random Student Association Meetings. “Why yes, I would like to join the Society of Hypercompetitive Brainwashed Kids (Pre-Med Society)! I too studied for 54 hours straight for that O-Chem midterm. Ummm… the flyer mentioned free pizza?”

nalgene.gif3. Buy a Nalgene bottle. Sure they cost $8, but you look cool. And now you don’t have to buy bottled water at $1 a pop.

4. Do your cheap takeout research. I knew exactly where to get some cheap Chinese food with a minimum of 1,000 stomach-filling calories for under $2.

5. Do your cheap grocery research.

  • Did you know that you can usually find some sort of steak on sale at Safeway for about $4. Look for multiple pink ’50 cents off’ stickers. Discolored meat doesn’t mean it’s spoiled, they fake the color anyways! Add soy sauce and rice, and that’s a protein and carb-packed meal.
  • 1 lb. bag of spaghetti = $0.69, Jar of spaghetti sauce = $1.50. That’s two meals right there!


6. Two words every college student knows: Top Ramen. Another two words? Easy Mac. Oh the sodium-filled memories… Everyone knows how to “dress up” their cheapo food too 🙂 I usually just went for bagged frozen veggies for the Ramen, and used hot sauce for the Mac. (Taco Bell and KFC hot sauce packets last indefinitely…)

7. A lot of university departments have automatic coffee machines now, where you just hit a button and coffee shoots out. Some aren’t that well attended. I’ll leave it at that.

8. Bargain with your local convenience store. This is from a friend. He used to drink Red Bull every night to study. At $2+ a pop from the corner store, it was pricey. We had no car for warehouse club trips. So he bargained with the store owner (who knew him well by now), and bought a huge case for less than the grocery store charged.

9. Pre-party before clubbing. Hey, another use for that Nalgene bottle!

10. Steal your roommate’s food. I’m just kidding about this one. You never steal your roomates’ food!!!! I still hold grudges about this. (Yes, I’m talking about you, Steve!)

I know, I’m a bad, bad person. If it makes you feel any better, I do donate money to my Alumni association 🙂

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  1. HAH that is pretty good. Espically for me being in college an all… Sometimes my school has fast food eatiers come onto campus and advertise their food via free giveaways. It is pretty nice actually

  2. PLEEEEEASE tell me you really meant to say “Mac&Cheese” instead of “Easy Mac”. Now I know it isn’t really expensive, but Easy Mac IS expensive compared to the regular Mac&Cheese – you pay extra for the “Easy” part. Quick check on online grocers puts Easy Mac at $3.39 for 6 3/4 cup servings, versus $1.09 for 3 one-cup servings of Kraft Mac&Cheese. Even when you add in the cost of milk and butta, the Easy costs way more.

    When I graduated college and got a real job, I vowed to never buy Domino’s Pizza again.

  3. Our motto when buying food in undergrad (3 years ago) was not to buy any food that cost more than $2 a pound. Also don?t forget to buy buy buy when stuff goes on sale. Spaghetti sauce on sale for a buck a jar? Why not buy 100 jars?

  4. Yikes – bringing back some scary memories. A common meal with my engineering school buddies was going to a local pizza joint late at night and getting their extra (or abnormal) pizzas when they closed for something like $1 a pizza. Those were the days.

  5. I have a friend who is the apotheosis of frugal. In college, he got a job running taste tests, and got a lot of food that way. In graduate school, I used to try and make meals out of seminar cookies and the attendant juice boxes, but after one fateful day, I could never smell or look at a cookie again. Then I decided, life’s too short to eat bad food. If you cook for yourself from scratch when possible, and eat only a little meat, you can make excellent meals for very little money. Another thing: Top Ramen has trans fats, and everybody should avoid them, though there are other brands that don’t. Like the Pinto, “no amount of trans fats are safe.” In particular they are linked to cardiovascular disease, which means you could loose lots more money in the long run. Look for partially hydrogenated oils; the “0% trans fat” logos are often just a rounding trick. If you are in college, buy a hot pot, a pan, and a good knife and use real noodles. Oh, one more thing, there are cooking classes at a local adult center here that are $35/quarter. You learn to cook AND eat a meal a week for 9 weeks, for $35 TOTAL. It’s a great deal!!

  6. how about happy hour!
    usually lots of free food.
    buy one beer and drink very slowly

  7. But with Easy Mac you don’t need a stove, which is great for dorm or any other situations where all you have is a microwave 🙂

    Trader Joes has some pretty good Mac & Cheese in a box.

    Abnormal pizza for a $1… awesome!

  8. excellent advice. i do about half of these things regularly!

  9. $8 for a Nalgene bottle? Buy a knock off at Meijer for $2.49.

    Top Ramen? Maruchan is $0.10/pack at my local grocer. That’s like 10 meals for $1.00.

    And I agree with Tim, regular boxed macaroni is the way to go. Two weeks ago I got 6 boxes of Kraft Mac&Cheese for $1.57. One can be a meal for one person. You can’t beat that.

  10. Me and my wife when we travel like to stop at Sams club or Cosco to eat the sample food. Thus we don’t have to pay for lunch at a restaurant. They always have fresh food, with juice and dessert. We stay there till we are full. And as they are around the country we always make it a point to map it out wherever we go.

  11. Independent George says

    Pfeh. Anyone can eat for cheap; it takes skill to eat well on the cheap. Those bags of generic mixed frozen veggies (GMFV) are a godsend. Each of these recipes consist of 3 steps, and cost less than $2 per serving.

    Ramen + Soy Sauce + sesame oil* + GMFV. (1) Boil water (2) throw everything into water. Optional step (3): beat in one scrambled egg to the water before adding the noodles.

    Sesame oil’s relatively expensive, but you should never use more than a teaspoon at a time.

    Pasta + Olive oil + chopped garlic + GMFV. (1) Cook/drain pasta (2) Heat olive oil, garlic, & GMFV in pan (3) add pasta to pan. It’s even better if you manage to swipe some imitation grated parmesan cheese product from the dining halls.

    GMFV + chopped onions + Rice. (1) Cook rice (2) Heat GMFV & onions in a pan (3) add rice. Now you have vegetable fried rice. Scrambled eggs/meat optional/artificial meat products optional.

    Those are just the basics. You’d be amazed at how many variations on those themes are possible once you come into some real money and can afford actual ingredients.

  12. CheapoBastardo says

    I worked at the food court on campus therefore ate all my meals there. Another cheap/unethical thing I used to do was when driving long distance..I bought a drink at one mcdonalds and used it as a refill along my journey.

  13. Jim your my hero… I admit that I love the samples but thats taking it to a new level.

  14. Nalgene bottles and ziploc bags are life savers! 😀

  15. Hey, you can cook regular boxed Mac&Cheese in the microwave, I do it for the kids all the time – the Kraft stuff even used to have directions on the box for it.

  16. For six years in college (two grad), I was sustained on a variety of self-made bagel sandwiches. At the dining hall, I’d buy a plain bagel for $.80, and then LOAD it up with stuff from the toppings bar — lettuce, honey mustard dressing, tomatoes, pickles — until it was overflowing. Pretty filling for under a buck. And then, of course, bringing in your own can of soda ($.18, if you get them on sale).

  17. Special Ed says

    I have a co-worker that has a filing cabinet drawer with drink cups from all the local eateries. Buy a meal and pull the cup out for a re-fill. ( I don’t do this)

    In college (many years ago) we would push the cart around the supermarket and eat off the shelf. May not be feasable with cameras in today’s supermarkets. (I don’t do this anymore)

    I also got a job at a pizza joint. People would be surprized at how long you can live on nothing but pizza.

  18. In college in S.F my friends and I used to make “Octofish”-because it could be made 8 different ways.

    Basically, get a bag of Generic Mixed Frozen Vegetables (-$2), a bag o’ rice ($1), and a can of tuna fish ($.50) some salt and pepper and you can feed about 6 people for about $.75 per serving.

    Breakfast can be had on the way to school by putting 50 cents into the newspaper machine and pulling out 10 of them and selling them all on the subway or bus on the way to school. The $4.50 profit makes for a nice breakfast-or one cup of Yupster coffee at Starbucks.

  19. i like the mcdonalds cup thing. that’s pretty smart.

    Over summer school, they hosted a lot of summer camps for high school students at my university. The camps included free meals. Because of these camps, half the dining halls get shut down for normal service. Then they are open only to the camp kids at limited hours throughout the day. Even though I am 23, I apparently pass for a teenager. Once I figured out what was going on, I did my best to blend in and eat as much free food as possible.

  20. Jim:
    You are my hero also on Sam’s free sample. I was eating free sample and without shopping card one day. Two people asked me: are you ok? Have you ever been questioned?

  21. most of these ideas are idiotic or simple enough for a third grader to figure out in his first semester of college. don’t scam soft drinks from chains, just wait in line for your food you didn’t order, then take it and walk out, while the person who ordered isn’t paying attention–they will get their food, but so will you if you’re quick. also–dumpster dive, share food with your friends so they feel obligated to feed you as well, lower your standards, go without cable, ditch the cell phone and get a landline if you can, don’t ever drink in bars unless there’s a good reason (sundays) and date people who know you’re broke and wont refuse the ass because of that.

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