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Eating on a Budget

How to tighten your purse strings without having to tighten your belt!

Good food. It’s a student’s best friend, but it can seem like a distant memory when you’re digging into your 3rd plate of beans on toast in as many days. It can be tricky to get into a routine and figure out what you enjoy cooking and, more importantly, eating, but once you do it’s worth it. Being happy with what you’re eating is achievable, and it doesn’t have to cost as much as you might think.

If you’re planning on living in halls in your second year, then you also have the option of having two meals a day provided for you, by choosing catered accommodation. The thought of never having to cook is tempting, and a nice reminder of home; where food just magically appears in front of you. It can be especially enticing if you’re not a great cook yourself, and the thought of eating pasta every night for the next year doesn’t sound that thrilling. Catered accommodation can actually dish out some great food, and is maybe £20-30 more per week than self-catered (Ash, 2012). However, this comes with the constraints of allocated time slots for your meals and most of the time only includes 2 meals a day, leaving you hungry at lunchtime.

Being self-catered allows you to work around your own schedule, plus the chef knows exactly what you like. Having to buy your food can be daunting and it can be pricey, but with a little practice it’s easy to stick to a budget. The biggest tip I’ve learnt is probably to actually avoid the offers. Don’t get me wrong, bulk buying is a great way to save money - if you’re a family of four. When you’re just feeding yourself, you really don’t need to buy that extra pack. Sure you’ll get more for your money, but do you know what’s cheaper? Not buying it. Stick to buying what you’re actually going to use, and trust me, most of the time you’re not going to use it before it goes off. The only time buying in bulk for one person is acceptable is if it’s something that isn’t perishable, or something you can freeze and just defrost when needed. Although you do have to be mindful of how much freezer space you will actually have when sharing with a house of other students. Freezer space is precious.

It’s a well-known tip that supermarkets discount food that is about to go out of date in a desperate attempt to get rid of it before it has to be binned. Although the timings of the discounts vary, the biggest discounts will occur in the evenings, just as supermarket desperation sets in. If you’ve found an item that hasn’t been discounted yet, but is due to go out of date that day, bring it to the attention of a member of staff. They may have been waiting to discount it until later, or they may have simply not noticed it. Either way, it never hurts to ask – but remember to do so with a smile. Discounts are often at the discretion of the staff member, so being friendly goes a long way.

Another way to save money at the supermarket is to arm yourself with coupons before you go. Using coupons may not be that popular, but it’s definitely making a comeback and when it’s saving you money, you’re not going to care about the grumbling of customers behind you. Last year, a 16 year old made it onto the news because of his insane savings. Here , he managed to get a Christmas dinner for 4p. Yes, I mean 4 pennies. If you don’t mind doing a bit of preparation, this website shows a list of coupons and tells you where they’re valid and how long is left until they expire.

Aside from coupons, cut back on your spending by opting for cheaper items. I know it’s pretty obvious, but it’s easy to think that an extra £1 won’t make much difference, but when those all add up it can make a huge difference. We’re students. We are renowned for our ability to live off Sainsbury’s Basics or Tesco Value range, and that is something to embrace. Honestly, there are certain budget items that I prefer to the brand names. Sainsbury’s basic chocolate digestives are practically life changing and they cost a fraction of the big brand packets. There are even lots of rumours (albeit, unverified) that supermarket own brand and big name brands use the exact same products, the only difference being the packaging at the end of the process and how much they charge you. There’s a forum where you can read more about it here.

Another thing to do before you get to the supermarket is to decide how much you want to spend, and then make a realistic shopping list from that. This way, instead of adding 6 bags of Doritos and a bottle of vodka to your list, you’ll put what you actually need first and then if there’s any money left over you can treat yourself. If you still don’t really trust yourself around certain things though (I’m looking at you, Ben and Jerry’s) then you can be strong and just take cash. If you’re budget is £20, then leave the card at home to resist temptation. The sweet, chocolate-y temptation.

This leads onto the next tip, which has been said so many times before but only because it is so true – avoid shopping whilst hungry. Whenever I go in hungry, no matter how much self-restraint I try and show, I will end up eating a packet of cookies and half a pie by the time I get home. You end up buying things that you would not have otherwise bought, and that are ridiculously expensive. Of course, in your desperate state you would be willing to take out an additional loan just to have some of those freshly baked cookies that are always staring at you when you enter the supermarket, but once the hunger has subsided, you’ll wish you’d avoided them. It’s simply because it’s money that you could have spent elsewhere, and money spent on the small task of keeping you alive (food, rent, bills, boring stuff etc.) never seems like it’s going to as good use as it would be on a new pair of shoes or a few drinks. Really, what’s more important?

If you’re shopping at places like Lidl or Aldi which don’t supply bags for free, make sure you have them with you. It doesn’t cost much to buy them (around 6p for a large plastic carrier bag) but you will feel so bitter every time you’re in the queue and realise that you have to pay again for something that you have hundreds of at home. If you do find yourself without a bag and manage to realise before you’ve filled up your basket, you can always go to a nearby shop and buy something small (that you still need and would have bought anyways) just to get a few plastic bags for free.

Cooking with your housemates is a tricky one; it seems like such a great idea, but in reality it doesn’t work out. You think you’ll finally be able to take advantage of those shiny multibuy offers and share the cooking load with someone else, but it doesn’t always work out that way. When you’re cooking for one, you often have enough left over to save for a meal the next day. Believe me, this is amazing. It means no cooking the next day and you feel like a genius, but unfortunately, that doesn’t happen when you’re splitting with other people. You’ll soon find yourself secretly counting how many mouthfuls you have in comparison to everyone else, and convincing yourself that you’re being robbed. Plus, nothing can beat the heartache of coming home, expecting to find that last slice of pie sitting in the fridge, just awaiting your arrival, only to find that someone else has beaten you to it. I assure you, bitterness will ensue.

Besides, you will all have very different schedules, so finding the time to cook and then sit down and eat together rarely comes easily. There’ll always be at least one fussy eater – it may even be you – but it makes shopping and cooking so difficult that I would really advise against it. Too much confusion comes from shopping together and it can end up being more expensive because you try and keep everyone happy. However, there are some items that I would strongly advise you buy as a household. These include things that everyone will need and use such as foil, cling film, oil, toilet roll, washing up liquid etc. Of course, this doesn’t mean you can’t use multibuy offers with your housemates. If something you want is buy one get one half price, buy one for yourself and one for your housemate and just split the cost. You’ll both end up having paid 75% for it and everyone’s a winner.

Ordering your groceries online is really simple, but I wouldn’t recommend having your groceries delivered on a regular basis due to the delivery fee. If you’re planning on a big shop full of heavy items then most supermarkets offer discounts for first time shoppers. You do normally have to spend over a certain amount (normally around £50) but you could put your order in with another housemate and split the discount. This Facebook page always has great offers or glitches for both online and in store - and it’s not just for food – they post about clothes, events, technology etc. so it’s a good page to check out if you’re in the market for anything.

Cooking for yourself means that you get to eat whenever and whatever you want, and you may even come to enjoy it. Having said that, there will always be a day where you’re rushed off your feet and you have no effort left to cook anything, which is where cooking too much and then freezing individual portions of whatever is left is a lifesaver. It’s difficult to get the portions of cooking for one just right, so avoid it by making enough for two and your future self will be your biggest fan. It also means that you could take this for lunch the next day if you’re not going to be at home. Making your own lunch is so much cheaper than buying it pre-made. Michael, a material science student at the University of Cambridge, says “If I'm going into the department all day, I always like to take my own lunch rather than buying anything from a cafe or shop. It's cheaper and if you make your lunch the night or morning before when you're not so hungry, I find you'll prepare something better for you than if you're buying something on an empty stomach!”.

Eating healthily can be a struggle when those frozen pizzas are on offer, but quite often, healthier options can work out cheaper in the long run. Michael says “Sometimes the healthiest foods are among the cheapest! Having said that, meat can be quite expensive but I think it's important to include in your diet. Tinned fish is a great way to get protein reasonably cheaply, and it's quite good for you too. Simple vegetables like carrots, potatoes, peas, tomatoes (yes I know it’s a fruit) etc. are all really cheap and can be super tasty if you put a little effort into preparing them. I'm also a fan of tinned beans and pulses - they're really cheap, really good for you and make great salads. Porridge oats are also really cheap and yummy for breakfast (or any other time of day), cheaper than almost every breakfast cereal and if you just top it with some fresh fruit, better for you too!”

Often, the “classic student diet” is actually down to, dare I say it, laziness. Not being used to preparing your own food combined with a hectic workload can lead to students just not bothering. Ian, who is studying acting at London College of Music shared that this was exactly what led to him ending up in hospital due to a poor diet consisting of “bread, processed ham and Guinness, a lot of Guinness”. He says “This had nothing to do with financial issues regarding not being able to afford good food. It was sheer laziness. It is a lot easier and less time consuming to cook a Lidl pizza in 10 minutes”. Ian says he agrees with what Michael has to say, and has since started eating a much healthier diet “Fruit and veg is cheap! If there is a market, go to it! A weekly shop for your five a day will be as cheap as two pints on a Friday night (well, if you are buying a pint in London)”.

Cooking for yourself is great practice for, well, life. The ability to successfully feed yourself is a skill that you’re going to have to learn at some point, so why not now? Learning how to do it on a budget is oddly satisfying, and helps you appreciate your money so much more. A little treat every now and then is of course encouraged, but it tastes so much better when you know that you’ve earned it!

References:

Ash, A. Students: who will cook your meals? Available: http://www.theguardian.com/education/mortarboard/2012/aug/13/students-consider-catered-meals

Lewis, M. Supermarket Shopping Tips. Available: http://www.moneysavingexpert.com/shopping/cheap-supermarket-shopping

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