Back to school means back to budgeting! The student life can be tough when finances are tight and with campus parties, fast food restaurants and late nights of studying, proper nutrition often falls to the bottom of the priority list. It is still possible though to eat healthy even when funds are minimal!
Make a Budget
The student budget is tight, I know! I was a student, too. It’s important to know how much you’re working with so you know how much you have for healthy groceries. The only way to know how much money you have to work with each month is to make a budget. This can be a rather daunting and stressful task, so give yourself a lot of time, pour a nice cup of tea and take a deep breath.
First, write down all of your fixed costs for the month (tuition, rent/mortgage, utility bills etc.) and then all of your estimated costs (transportation/gas, activities etc.) and compare these numbers with your take-home income (either from student loans, scholarships and/or part-time job income). The amount you have left over is what you’re going to work with. Since food is a necessary cost, it can eventually be worked into your ‘fixed costs’ when you know you’re spending close to the same amount on groceries each month.
It’s impossible to pick a number out of the sky for the amount you think you should spend on groceries each month, so look back through your online banking, old grocery receipts and take-out/restaurant receipts and reflect on how much you have been spending on food each month. Have you wasted any food that you’ve bought in the past? Have you thrown anything out? How much have you spent on dine-in or take-out from restaurants in the past month? Once you have thought through this, set a goal for how much you are going to spend on food each month. Keep in mind, it may take you a few months to get into this habit so try your best but also have patience with yourself.
Make a Meal Plan
Every Sunday I write down a weekly list of what we’re going to eat every day for breakfast, lunch and dinner and then post it on our fridge.
I wish I did this while I was in school because it allows me to easily budget for the groceries we need and it also saves me time. After a long day at work, rather than coming home after a long day at work and sitting around trying to decide what to make for dinner, I can look at my meal plan on the fridge and start cooking right away.
To create your meal plan, dedicate some time to look through cookbooks, websites, food blogs, Pinterest (the resources are endless) to find recipes you want to try. This activity is time consuming at first but it is worth your energy. I consider it a self-care exercise because I am taking the time to plan a week of nourishment for my body while taking care of my finances at the same time. While making your list, consider making a lot food for dinner to ensure that you have leftovers for lunch the next day. Also, try to dedicate at least one night a week as a ‘leftovers/clean the fridge out’ night. This will save you money and if you’re busy studying, it will also save you time.
After you’ve completed your list, go through our cupboards, pantry and fridge and write down all of the ingredients you need to buy to ensure you are fully prepared to cook for the week and you don’t have to take quick trips to the supermarket. I find the more quick “just need to pick up one ingredient” trips I make to the supermarket throughout the week, the harder it is for me to track what I’m spending and the trickier it is to stick to my budget.
How does this process save you money? After you know what you’re going to cook all week, the grocery list that you make can ONLY consist of the ingredients that you need.
Stick to Your List (Shop with a Smoothie)
Since you are dedicating time to create a well-planned grocery list of the ingredients you need, when you are shopping, stick to your list! It’s easy to buy impulse items especially if you’re hungry, and often this is when the unhealthy treats make their way into your cart. I like to shop with a smoothie if I think I’m going to get hungry mid-shop. This allows me to remain focused on my task while sipping on something delicious at the same time!
Don’t be a Grocery Store Snob
I love health food stores. When I walk in to Whole Foods or any other health food market I am completely in my element and I feel like a child in a toy store. I will be honest with you though, I do the majority of my grocery shopping at regular grocery stores. Since I live in Canada, I shop at The Real Canadian Superstore 99% of the time. This store is not nearly as beautiful as specialty food markets, but they offer a great selection of organic produce and everything else I need to create the dishes I want to create for half the price. Just like restaurants, I consider shopping at a health food store a treat and I don’t do it often.
Shop the Bulk Section
All dry ingredients (rice, lentils, beans, flours, nuts, oats, buckwheat, etc.) can be find in the bulk section of the grocery store for a significantly less expensive cost than when sold in the package. If you’re like me and keep your house quite tidy, you don’t want small little bags of loose ingredients all over your cupboards, right? Easy fix! Just save all the glass jars that you get from pasta sauces, peanut butter, tahini, jam, etc. wash them and use them as canisters! They’re actually quite adorable in the pantry.
As I said earlier, I always dedicate a day or two during the week to a leftovers day. The student life is a busy life and the greatest treat to come home to when you know you have a long night of studying ahead of you is a meal already prepared, waiting to be warmed up. You will avoid spending money on take-out food this way, too!
Pack a Lunch
When creating your meal plan and grocery list, plan to make portions large enough that you can take a lunch to work the next day. This is where most people end up spending a lot of unnecessary money. Now don’t get me wrong, I love to dine-out at restaurants as well, but if you’re trying to eat healthy on a budget, going out for lunch or dinner should be a treat not a daily experience. Once you’re in the routine of meal planning and cooking often throughout the week, your lunches will be equally as tasty and you will look forward to them!
Vending machines are not only full of unhealthy food but they’re cash grabs, too! If you stop by a vending machine once a day and purchase a bag of chips or a chocolate bar, you’re spending at least $1.75 per day. All of these small actions and decisions don’t seem like much at the time but that small daily price totals to at least $35 per month and at least $440 per year on junk food! Avoid this by bringing carrying fruit, nuts, granola or a smoothie in a jar to satisfy your peckish needs.
Eat Everything You Buy
All of the steps I’ve listed lead to this main message: eat everything you buy. If you’ve created a meal plan of everything you want to eat for the week and then a grocery list of all of the ingredients that you are going to need for your meal plan, by the end of the week your fridge should be empty. I do all of my grocery shopping on Sunday and by the following week on Saturday our fridge is so empty that sometimes breakfast on Sunday morning can be a challenge. Buy what you need and eat all of it!
Eliminate Take-Out Coffee
It’s super easy to fall into the habit of picking up a coffee on the way to class or studying in a coffee shop, but this is also the easiest way to overspend. Make your coffee at home in the morning and take it with you in a travel mug. Just as I suggested adding up all the bills that you’ve spent on groceries and restaurants for the month, I challenge you to also do this with your coffee receipts. The first time my husband and I did this we were absolutely shocked by how much money we were throwing away at Starbucks and other coffee shops. It really adds up!! If you love special, yummy drinks give yourself a coffee allowance of $5.00 per week and don’t allow yourself to exceed that budget. You’ll be amazed at how quickly you notice the difference in your bank account.
Recipe: Sunday Soup (best leftover soup)
2 Tbsp coconut oil
- 4 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 onion, chopped
- 4 organic potatoes, washed, cubed (I like to leave the peel on the potatoes)
- 2 carrots, peeled and chopped
- 1 can of chickpeas, rinsed or 2 cups of dried chickpeas cooked
- 2 Tbsp peeled, grated ginger
- 2 Tbsp red Thai curry paste
- 2 Tbsp cumin
- 2 tsp red chili flakes
- 1 cup split red lentils, washed
- 4 cups vegetable broth
- 2 cups coconut milk, reserve a few teaspoons for garnish
- ½ tsp coconut flakes, toasted
- In a large saucepan, heat the oil.
- Add the garlic and onion and allow it to sizzle for a few minutes, until the onion is soft. Make sure to not overheat the garlic, if it starts turning brown, the oil is too hot!
- Add the potatoes, carrots, chickpeas, ginger, curry paste and spices. Stir everything together and cook for 2 minutes.
- Add the lentils and vegetable broth. Cover the pot with the lid and cook on low heat for 45 minutes, until the lentils are soft.
- Add the coconut milk and stir. Cook for ten more minutes.
- Serve soup with a drizzle of coconut milk, a drizzle of olive oil and toasted pumpkin seeds.