How to Save Money on Food in College

By Jennifer Coates · January 17, 2024 · 9 minute read

We’re here to help! First and foremost, SoFi Learn strives to be a beneficial resource to you as you navigate your financial journey. Read more We develop content that covers a variety of financial topics. Sometimes, that content may include information about products, features, or services that SoFi does not provide. We aim to break down complicated concepts, loop you in on the latest trends, and keep you up-to-date on the stuff you can use to help get your money right. Read less

How to Save Money on Food in College

When you start paying for your own food in college, one of the biggest shocks is just how expensive it can be — especially these days, thanks to high inflation. But what if you could save money in college without settling for boring boxed mac and cheese? While it can be a challenge to keep up the same standard of living as when you were living at home, you don’t have to completely alter your lifestyle. What follows are some essential shopping and dining hacks that will help you eat well during your student years without breaking the bank.

How Much Do College Students Spend on Food?

When you consider how much college students spend on food these days, it’s easy to see why you may be chronically short on cash. The average cost of food per month for a college student is $670, according to the Education Data Initiative. To break that number down further: Students spend, on average, $410 a month eating off-campus and $260 a month on meals cooked at home.

Of course, how much a student spends on food in college will depend on where they go to school (prices are higher in New York City than Florence, Alabama, for example), and how much they eat out versus cook at home. You might spend significantly more than the average, or you may be able to get away with spending a lot less.

💡 Quick Tip: You can fund your education with a low-rate, no-fee private student loan that covers all school-certified costs.

11 Ways to Save Money on Food in College

11 Ways to Save Money on Food in College

Despite rising food costs, there are ways to cut your food bill and still eat well. What follows are 11 tips for how to save money on food in college.

1. Plan Out Your Meals

Living on a budget and saving money in college comes down to good planning. Once a week (maybe Sunday morning), sit down and decide what meals you’ll eat during the week. There are a lot of meal-prepping and budget recipe blogs online that can give you ideas. Once you know exactly what you’ll be cooking, you can come up with a detailed grocery list of everything you’ll need. As long as you don’t stray from the list, and you won’t end up exceeding your college student grocery budget.

Of course, things may come up at the last minute, but do your best to work your way through the meal plan.

2. Create a Food Budget

Learning how to budget in college is a critical part of having an independent and successful college experience. Here’s how to come up with a college student grocery budget:

•   Add up your total monthly income. Include any money coming in from a part-time job, parental support, loans, and other financial aid.

•   Subtract your essential living expenses. For example, this might include housing, utilities, internet, transportation (such as gas, train tickets and bus fares), and insurance (such as health, rental and auto).

•   Decide on a maximum college student food budget. Based on your findings, decide how much you can realistically spend on food each week, including groceries and eating out.

•   Track your food spending. To make sure your food spending stays within budget, you might start tracking your food spending with an app on your phone. Some budgeting apps, like YNAB (You Need A Budget) are free for college students; others, like Goodbudget, EveryDollar, and PocketGuard, offer a free basic plan.

3. Set a Limit on Dining Out

Eating out is the biggest monthly food expense for college students without a campus meal plan, running around $102 per week, according to the Education Data Initiative.

Even grabbing coffee on (or off) campus every morning can add up — just one Starubcks tall drip coffee ($1.85) a day costs $462.50 a year. If you brew your own ($0.62 per cup; $155.00 per year), you can save $307.50.

That doesn’t mean you can never go out for meals and treats. You might choose to eat out with friends on Saturday nights, for example, or grab a special coffee drink on Sunday mornings.

Recommended: 10 Money Management Tips for College Students

4. Start Couponing

It may sound old school but using coupons can help you spend significantly less on groceries in college. You might start by signing up for your favorite store’s loyalty program. This will give you access to digital, store-sponsored deals. Then stack up more deals by clipping coupons from the weekly circular in the mail, and saving them for your next grocery run. Before you hit the store, go online: You can often find good coupons at sites like,,, and It’s also worth checking manufacturer’s websites for offers on items you buy regularly.

5. Buy Generic or Store Brands

Reaching for a popular brand of food generally means spending more money. To grocery shop on a budget, consider going with the item’s generic or store brand counterpart. Consider: At Target, a 20-ounce bottle of Heinz ketchup runs $5.49, while the store brand equivalent is $1.59. While shaving a few dollars off your bill may not seem like much, saving a few extra bucks on 20 items can add up.

Also keep in mind that many generic products are manufactured in the same factories as your favorite name-brand products. Some generic products are, in fact, exactly the same as name-brands but with a lower price tag.

6. Buy in Bulk

Some foods cost significantly less when purchased in larger quantities. And you can take advantage of bulk pricing even if you are shopping for one — just freeze what you don’t need. For example, if you see a two-for-one deal on bread, cheese, or meat, take advantage of the savings and freeze the extra item. You can also cash in on bulk savings for items that last longer, such as cereals, oatmeal, rice, and pasta. This tip for saving money on food can also lead to fewer trips to the store, saving transportation costs (and time).

7. Learn How to Cook Healthy, Budget-Friendly Meals

Buying a box of ramen for a couple of bucks may seem like the cheapest meal for college students, but it could end up costing you in the end. It doesn’t have much nutritional value and likely won’t fill you up, so you may end up eating more. A better strategy: Learn how to cook a few simple, healthy meals that focus on veggies and whole grains and make (costlier) lean meat the “side.”

You can also lower your grocery bill by buying in-season (or frozen) produce, and adding meatless Monday to your calendar. Cheaper protein substitutes include beans, tofu, and lentils.

8. Download Apps That Offer Cash Back on Groceries

When you’re searching for ways to save money on food in college, don’t forget about all the rebate apps out there. While these apps don’t give you a discount up front (like a traditional coupon), they offer cash back for buying groceries, which can add up to a significant sum over time. You can typically register with these services for free. Depending on the app, you may need to link a loyalty card or submit receipts to receive a rebate. Some to check out:

•   Ibotta

•   Receipt Hog

•   Checkout 51

•   Fetch Rewards

•   Rakuten

Recommended: What Are Cash-Back Rewards and How Do They Work?

9. Consider Buying a College Meal Plan

Generally, students will save money by declining the meal plan and making most of their meals at home. However, that’s not the case for everyone. Off-campus dining can add up quickly. So if you tend to eat out a lot and don’t enjoy cooking, a campus meal plan could potentially be a better deal. You might opt for the lowest plan (such as seven meals per week) and then use your swipe for the most expensive meal of the day.

Another dining hall hack that can help you save on food: Bring a plastic container with you and pack up your leftovers and unused napkins that you already took (you paid for it and it will only end up in the garage.)

💡 Quick Tip: Need a private student loan to cover your school bills? Because approval for a private student loan is based on creditworthiness, a cosigner may help a student get loan approval and a lower rate.

10. Find Free Food

While it’s not something you can rely on every day, you’d be surprised at how much free food is available on campus. School groups, clubs, and organizations will often offer free food to students as a way to draw a larger crowd to their public events. Browse community boards, event flyers, and your school’s newspaper or website to learn about special events offering free food. This is one of the easiest ways to save money on food in college.

Recommended: How to Get Involved on Campus in College

11. Maximize Your Leftovers

It’s not always easy, or cost-effective, to cook for one, so you may want to cook more than you need. This means leftovers, which can help you save money on meals later in the week. While it may sound boring, you can get creative with leftovers. Making chicken one night? Shred the leftovers, add some salsa and toss it on a tortilla for lunch the next day. Or, mix it up with a little mayo for chicken salad. Leftover veggies, rice, quinoa, beans, meat, and/or seeds can all come together for a tasty Buddha bowl.

Just keep in mind that leftovers can typically be kept for three to four days in the refrigerator, according to the Mayo Clinic. After that, the risk of food poisoning goes up. If you don’t think you’ll finish leftovers within four days, freeze them right away.

The Takeaway

Food is expensive but that doesn’t mean you can’t eat well on a student budget. The key is to plan ahead; get comfortable with a few low-cost, healthy (and easy) recipes; maximize leftovers; and minimize eating out.

Also keep in mind that student loans, both federal or private, can be used to cover not just the cost of tuition and fees but also living expenses, and that includes groceries and food. If an expense is essential to your educational success — meaning it supports your basic daily needs or attendance at school — it’s likely a permissible use of student loan funds.

If you’ve exhausted all federal student aid options, no-fee private student loans from SoFi can help you pay for school. The online application process is easy, and you can see rates and terms in just minutes. Repayment plans are flexible, so you can find an option that works for your financial plan and budget.

Cover up to 100% of school-certified costs including tuition, books, supplies, room and board, and transportation with a private student loan from SoFi.


Is it cheaper to buy your own food in college?

It’s generally cheaper to buy groceries and cook at home than to sign up for the college meal plan. However, that’s not necessarily true for every student. Off-campus dining can add up quickly. So if you tend to eat out a lot and don’t like to cook, a campus meal plan could potentially cost less than buying your own food.

How much should a college student spend on groceries a month?

It depends on your budget and the cost of food in your area. On average, college students spend $670 on food per month. That includes eating off-campus ($410) and meals cooked at home ($260).

What percent of college students eat out?

College students spend, on average, $102 a week eating off-campus, according to the Education Data Initiative. They tend to eat a little over 20% of their meals out.

SoFi Loan Products
SoFi loans are originated by SoFi Bank, N.A., NMLS #696891 (Member FDIC). For additional product-specific legal and licensing information, see Equal Housing Lender.

SoFi Private Student Loans
Please borrow responsibly. SoFi Private Student Loans are not a substitute for federal loans, grants, and work-study programs. You should exhaust all your federal student aid options before you consider any private loans, including ours. Read our FAQs. SoFi Private Student Loans are subject to program terms and restrictions, and applicants must meet SoFi’s eligibility and underwriting requirements. See for more information. To view payment examples, click here. SoFi reserves the right to modify eligibility criteria at any time. This information is subject to change.

Financial Tips & Strategies: The tips provided on this website are of a general nature and do not take into account your specific objectives, financial situation, and needs. You should always consider their appropriateness given your own circumstances.

Third-Party Brand Mentions: No brands, products, or companies mentioned are affiliated with SoFi, nor do they endorse or sponsor this article. Third-party trademarks referenced herein are property of their respective owners.


All your finances.
All in one app.

SoFi QR code, Download now, scan this with your phone’s camera

All your finances.
All in one app.

App Store rating

SoFi iOS App, Download on the App Store
SoFi Android App, Get it on Google Play

TLS 1.2 Encrypted
Equal Housing Lender