A lesson in study abroad finance from yours truly – eating
This is Part 4 of my series, “50 Ways To Save Money While Studying Abroad”. I love both food and money, which is unfortunate seeing as doing the first means spending the second. While keeping food costs in check can be tough for the average college student, it can be even tougher for study abroad students as our budgets our usually much tighter and our schedules a lot busier. Not to mention, eating out at restaurants (which takes a big chunk out of your wallet) is an important way of experiencing local foods. So how can we afford to eat solid meals that actually taste good without breaking our bank accounts?
1. Avoid eating out at restaurants
This has to be the number one tip in any post about eating on a budget; however, since restaurants and the food they serve are often a big part of local culture, never eating out is pretty unreasonable. Keeping that in mind, could mean once a week for some students, and once a month for others, but the point is to avoid the habit of eating at a restaurant, especially a fast-food restaurant, on a daily basis. By doing some easy math, we can see that eating an $8 restaurant mean 4 days a week, 4 weeks a month, over a 4 month period (or up to 9 if you’re abroad for a year), comes out to about $500.
-Note: This isn’t quite true for every country around the world. In China for example, it’s just as cheap if not cheaper (not to mention more convenient) than shopping and cooking on your own.
2. When you do go out to eat
Although, as study abroad students, we essentially have to dine out every once-in-a-while in order to fully experience foreign culture, there are plenty of ways to keep money in your wallet even when you’re dining out:
- Ask for a take out container when the waiter brings your meal, then divide it up into halves – 1 for now, and one for later.
- Look for lunch menus, daily specials, or all you can eat deals, and compare prices and portions with the regular menu.
- If you’re in a group, have everyone order a different appetizer in place of the more expensive entrees, then pass them around so everyone gets a taste of each dish.
- If you do go to a fast-food restaurant, stick to the dollar menu.
3. Plan and stick to a grocery budget
The tip that just won’t go away (and for good reason) – stick to a budget. First, set aside a certain amount of money you’re willing to put towards your grocery bill. Next, plan out your meals ahead of time, at least 1 to 2 weeks in advance, so you save yourself from having to make trips to the store every other day. When writing your list, check to make sure you don’t already have some of the ingredients stored somewhere. Finally, take a calculator with you and add up everything as you go, almost guaranteeing you stay within your budget.
- Note: Don’t shop on an empty stomach. Food always looks better, even food you don’t need, when you’re hungry. Eat a little something at home, go to the store with your blinders on, get in, and get out.
In every country I’ve lived in (America, Scotland, and China) or traveled to, all grocery chains have had a customer loyalty program. I’ll admit I usually sign up for the card and from then on just unconsciously swipe my card at the check-out, but it pays off to take time and learn about incentives and bonuses like member’s only pricing or shopping hours, double coupons, birthday/holiday bonuses, and general store discounts. Some people complain about getting junk mail from these programs, but the savings are there, and in a semester, your home address will be back in the U.S. and you’ll never see a flyer from Tesco again.
- Note: Don’t forget to sign up for loyalty programs and membership cards at restaurants as well.
5. Buy store brands in bulk
Two tips in one means twice the savings (maybe). When I was 5, I thought the world was coming to an end when my Cheerios didn’t come in the yellow General Mills Box. I’ve learned, and my ways have since changed. Try and stick to generic or store-brands, which have the same taste but a lower price tag than the brand name equivalent. Better yet, buy store brands in bulk. Keep excess pastas and cereals in storage containers, and packaged vegetables in the freezer (if you have access to one) for a longer storage life.
6. Shop like a local
Grocery stores aren’t the only option, and even with discounts, coupons, and smart shopping, they’re not the cheapest either. Search out local vendors and markets in your area. Farmers markets are a great place to stock up on fresh fruits and veggies, you’ll be able to find every just about every type of local herb, spice, and sauces at ethnic marts, and you and your friends can pool your money together to have fresh foods delivered from local organic farms. This is a great way to eat healthier, and keep in mind the people that shop at these markets are the life of the community you live in – getting to know them is a good idea.
Cooking Cheap Meals
7. Cook it yourself
Avoid pre-packaged meals and cook yourself. Yeah, they definitely save you time, but they don’t necessarily save you money. You end up paying the cost of someone else prepping, cooking, portioning, and packaging your meal, which . If you buy the ingredients separately and cook the meals yourself, you’ll probably be able to eat the same food for half the price. By cooking on your own, you’re also able to determine exactly what goes in to what you’re eating, making them much healthier, and if you use different herbs and spices, your meals will have more flavor too.
8. Use one pot or pan
- One-pot dishes (crock-pot or oven): I’m a huge fan of slow cooked meals. You can load them up with a ton of veggies and other healthy fillers, which means you can spend less money on meat. Because slow-cooking takes 6 to 8 hours, you can buy cheaper cuts of meat since even tough cuts get tender. It’s also an awesome time saver – some quick prep, into the crock-pot or oven, then set it and forget it.
- Stir-fries: Stir-fry is another great cheap, healthy, and time-saving meal. Prepare all of your veggies, meats, and broths when you have some spare time on the weekends, then store them in the refrigerator or freezer. Because the cooking time for stir-frying is so short, you can make your meal on the day you plan to eat, as opposed to cooking in bulk and storing individual portions.
- Note: Don’t have access to a full kitchen? Check out this site for a great list of meals you can make on a hot plate, with recipes for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and everything in between.
9. Cook in bulk
If time is something that’s holding you back from cooking your own meals, try cooking large batches of food when you have spare time on the weekend, then portion them out into containers or plastic bags that can be put into the refrigerator or freezer. This way, when you’re in a rush during the week, getting in a solid meal is just a mater of reheating and eating. This is also a great way to keep those ingredients you bought in bulk from sitting around on the shelf or in the fridge forever.
Desserts and Treats
The easiest way to lower the costs of desserts is to stop buying them altogether. For those of us with a sweet tooth, however, that’s not a realistic option, so here are a few things you can do to soften the economic blow. First, skip the bakery if you can, since baked goods are usually marked up 100-200%. You’re best bet is to buy the basic ingredients and bake it yourself, with ingredients for things like oatmeal cookies still being on the less expensive side. You can also skip the baked goods, and go for something healthier like yogurt, fruit, and homemade popsicles.
- Note: Check out this recipe from Frugal Dad for “Chocolate Chip Parfait“.
A little prep and planning ahead of time can go along way in saving you money when it comes to both cooking and eating. Be creative with what you have to work with – a lot of cooking here in China is about taking a couple of staple foods and turning them into a bunch of different dishes using a variety of herbs and spices, sauces, and cooking techniques. Take advantage of your unique situation to explore all sorts of foods and flavors – cooking authentic local dishes is not only a great way to save money, but to immerse yourself in a bit of culture as well. And if you’re still freaking out because you have no idea how to cook at all, take a look at “Perfect One-Dish Dinners” and “How to Cook Without a Book” to get you started.
Check out the rest of the posts in this series:
If you have any other money saving suggestions, questions, or comments please feel free to leave them below and I’ll get back to you!