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How much does the average college student spend on food?

December 08, 2018

Calculating how much an average college student spends on food can be a little difficult as meal plans, students, and colleges vary greatly. The good news is that food is an expense that you can creatively budget for, despite the fact that most college students are forced to buy a meal plan at least for the first couple of years of school. In addition to college meal plans, students also spend money on groceries and off-campus eating out. This additional food-related expense must be taken into account when budgeting for food at college. Here are a few things to consider when thinking about meal plans, groceries, and eating out.  

College meal plan consideration

The average is $4,500 for 8-month meal plan - though this number can vary greatly depending upon the school. Often, for the first year or two, it is mandatory for students to select a meal plan and this becomes a fixed budget item in terms of college expenses. When selecting a meal plan at college it is helpful to keep a few things in mind. The food that you purchase out with friends or between meals also needs to be considered as you create your additional budget for food. Many students may forget about this additional food budget since they will likely spend more of their meal times in the cafeteria and not out at the local pizza joint, especially in the first couple of years. A few things to keep in mind while working to select the most appropriate meal plan:

  • Consider your classes and schedule. It’s common for students to not eat at the cafeteria for every single meal. Many students skip breakfast or lunch or grab something small to go in between. If you are the type of student who thrives on the structure of your life and plans around three square meals a day, you may want to consider the highest tier meal plan.

  • Consider your housing situation. Are you living in a typical dorm-style room? Or are you going to be residing in a suite area with access to a kitchen? There are other off-campus apartment housing options or you may be living with family still. If you are going to have access to a kitchen, then you may actually want to consider a lower tiered meal plan and prepare more of your meals at home in your dorm suite kitchen.

  • Consider the actual cost per day for food. For example, based upon the average $4,500 meal plan that offers 3 meals per day, you are paying $18.75 per day in food with your meal plan. Calculating the actual cost can help you see more clearly where you can save. While $18.75 may not be too high for some, if you are frugal and plan meals accordingly, you may be able to get away with a lower meal plan (or none at all if it is not mandatory) and make budget-friendly grocery choices to lower the cost of your per day meal. Playing with the numbers is necessary to really see what you are working with. Note that according to the the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average single person spends less than $4,000 for a full year of food - significantly less per day than the average college meal plan.


Considerations for an additional food budget

If you decide not to purchase a meal plan or are subsidizing your mandatory college meal plan with an additional food budget, then it is helpful to think about what you will need to allow per month for this part of your budget, which is slightly more variable than a meal plan that will be a regular part of your tuition bill. Taking a look at the range of estimates on the USDA website will help you see what portion of your budget is best to put aside for food costs.

An individual college-aged student will spend approximately $163-367 monthly according to the USDA cost of food at home. The USDA website provides different costs for men and women and also provides four levels of estimates: thrifty, low-cost, moderate-cost, and liberal. These categories are not definitive making them helpful as a starting point. When considering your additional food budget, here are a few other things to keep in mind. The great news about this is that you can be flexible and there is always wiggle room to save if you are thoughtful and creative.

  • Consider the four USDA categories for a starting point. Utilize the chart to find your exact age, your gender, and then decide on a starting point (the thrifty, low-cost, moderate-cost, or liberal level).

  • Consider coupons! Just because you are a college student does not mean you cannot benefit from coupons and loyalty programs! In fact, there are many money-saving apps that can help you find lower-cost food alternatives, locate sales, coupons, and local deals.

  • Consider organizing meal prep time. Experiment with meal preparation ideas to save money and time. Planning budget-friendly meals ahead of time will certainly help in organizing and preparation. By planning ahead you will have time to consider coupons, find the best deals, and stay within your planned budget.

  • Consider inexpensive, multi-purpose kitchen gadgets. Items such as pressure cookers, crock pots, hot plates, and electric tea kettles will help make whipping up a healthy and frugal meal quick and painless.

  • Consider eating out expenses and work to keep them low. Most college students will spend much of their social time at restaurants and at food-related parties, events, or gatherings. Many will forget to budget this into their food budget. One option is to keep “eating out/social” expenses as part of your entertainment budget. Another option is to add a little extra and/or plan accordingly knowing that these events will likely take the place of some of your meals.

With many factors to take into consideration when budgeting for food in college, it is easy to become overwhelmed. Planning ahead will help you get the most for your money and navigate the sometimes tricky world of mandatory meal plans or the sentence of ramen noodles for every meal. With a little research and organization, you will be able to eat well, save money, and feel fulfilled in every sense of the word.