College is a time of a lot of firsts, and many students find themselves struggling with a budget. Food costs can quickly add up! Learn how to make a grocery list for college students on a budget with this easy step by step guide.
College students navigate a lot of firsts. From moving into housing without mom and dad to paying bills for the first time independently, budgeting can be difficult if you don’t have experience. One of the areas many college students struggle is with food expenses.
While the costs can vary greatly from state to state and student to student, the average college student is spending over $500 a month on food alone! For individuals on a limited budget, this can begin to add up fast.
No matter if you have a meal plan or not, you’ll find yourself at the store often for food and snacks for your dorm room or apartment. However, if you aren’t used to grocery shopping you might be feeling a little lost on what exactly to get at the grocery store (and especially what to buy to save money while still eating the things you love).
Learning how to create a grocery list for college students on a budget is a skill that will help you not only save money now, but save more money in the future, too!
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Why is a Budget Grocery List Important?
You’ve probably heard the advice to never go grocery shopping while hungry. The thought is that if you’re hungry, you’ll grab more than you need and can truly afford.
The same is true for going to the grocery store without a shopping list. Think of a shopping list as a tool to help you save money. A college student grocery list helps you stay in budget, meal prep more easily and make sure you don’t forget an item that you really needed. By mapping out what you need in advance, you’re able to come up with a shopping plan quickly and easily.
The easiest place to get started is with a paper pad like this that you keep on your fridge or cork board. You could also get one like this that has most of the most common grocery items listed. You can grab fun magnets like these to make it more your own!
Throughout the week, write down the items that you are running low on/ have run out of or want to get at the store the next time you go. Having this paper grocery list in an easy spot makes it easy to add to. If you aren’t big on paper lists, just use your phone!
How to Create a Grocery List for College Students
Before we dive into a sample grocery list, it’s important to note that every person’s needs are different. The options included in this article are a general guideline. You do NOT have to add these items to your grocery list if you don’t want them or just don’t like them!
However, it’s also worth mentioning that some of the items (like pantry staples) are things that I recommend having on hand just in case. The worst feeling is having a light night craving and realizing you’re missing one very important ingredient!
The easiest place to start when it comes to creating a grocery list for college students on a budget is to take inventory of what you already have. If you live in a small space (like a dorm room), it’s helpful to have one place where you keep your food. A small shelf like this is a great item to keep things organized and in a place you can easily grab what you need.
Next, think about how you want to organize your shopping list. Many experts agree that the best way to organize a grocery list is by the sections in your grocery store (like Produce, Meat, Canned Goods etc). Don’t forget about snacks! You’re more likely to grab fast food when it’s been a long day and there’s nothing to quickly grab at home (which increases the amount of money you’re spending on food).
Do you have a meal plan? Find out what you can take with you from the dining hall. Many schools allow students to grab extra food items, like apples or muffins. These free food options make a great snack or quick breakfast and help you save money, too.
Tips for Grocery Shopping on a Budget
Just because your income is limited during college doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice healthy food and a healthy lifestyle! Read on for a few tips to help you save on groceries.
Use a Grocery List
Easy meals don’t have to cost much money, and making a grocery list in advance will help you make budget-friendly choices. Check out the items that are on sale before you go, and see if you can substitute any for the meals you wanted to make.
For example, if you planned on making chili but the ground beef isn’t on sale, consider substituting ground turkey or ground chili if it’s less expense.
Be sure to also take a look at generic or store brand items. Many times these options are much cheaper but are just as good as the name-brand items. Look for discount coupons at your local grocery store too.
Don’t Shop When You’re Hungry
While we talked about this one earlier, it bears repeating! When you go grocery shopping while hungry or hangry, the entire store will look good for you. You’re much more likely to go over your budget. Be sure to go grocery shopping on a full tummy, or eat a snack or meal before you get there.
Use Cash Back Apps to Save More
Have you heard of Ibotta? It helps you save even more money at grocery stores, retail shops and even online. Just scan your receipt to get cash back on items you are already purchasing!
Split Expenses with Roommates
If you live with roommates and eat the same food, consider splitting the costs. Many items, like spices, snacks, toilet paper and paper towels end up being shared when people live in the same household. Talk to your roommates and see if they are interested in splitting the cost of these items.
Be sure you don’t just assume that your roommates will want to share the cost, and be sure to be clear about the items you purchase with your own money that you don’t want you roommates eating.
Use Leftovers for Other Meals
You don’t have to eat a full meal at once. Save the leftovers and repurpose them with simple recipes. That Mexican dinner from the night before can be a yummy breakfast the next day heated up with some eggs and wrapped in a tortilla. It’s a great way to stretch your food budget further.
Sample Grocery List for College Students
Below is a sample college student grocery list. There are a lot of options to choose from, but these are all items that are relatively inexpensive. Choose a few from each category as you build your own grocery list, and don’t forget to take into account the limited space and budget you have.
Choose a variety of foods that you enjoy. Remember that items like fresh fruit have a shelf life!
Fresh fruits & veggies you will eat that week (like bananas, strawberries, grapes, cucumber, broccoli, etc)
Fruits and vegetables with a longer shelf life (potatoes, sweet potatoes, apples, oranges)
Fresh fruits (e.g., apples, pears, oranges, bananas, grapes, etc.)
Fresh vegetables (e.g., spinach, broccoli, cucumber, onions, potatoes, etc.)
Vegetables you like
Milk (almond milk, regular milk, soy milk- what do you prefer?)
Cheese (like slices and cheese sticks)
Keep in mind what your freezer can actually fit. If you buy too many frozen items you won’t have space to fit them all.
Ice Cream or popsicles
French fries or tater tots
Frozen meals that can be microwaved
Frozen fruit or vegetables
Frozen cooked chicken strips
Be aware of what you can safely store in your space, as raw meat needs to be stored at a safe temperature. If you only have a mini fridge, fresh protein might not be a good idea.
Lunchmeat/ deli meat for sandwiches
Animal protein (like chicken breast, ground beef, pork or seafood)
Breakfast protein (like bacon or sausage)
Vegan protein (tofu, tempeh)
Peanut butter and jelly
Red pepper flakes
Italian seasoning blend
If you enjoy cooking, the following items are great ones to have on hand for when you need them. These items have a long shelf life too.
Soap or body wash
Shampoo and/or conditioner
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Final Thoughts on Building a Budget Grocery List for College Students
College is a time of learning who you want to be as an adult. Don’t let a limited income set you up for financial struggles down the road by consistently spending too much on your grocery bill. By working to budget and purchasing food that fits into that budget, you’re learning skills that can serve you for years to come.
Many adults struggle with a food budget. A basic college grocery list should include the items you need and want, but be created with a tight budget in mind. Try to avoid unnecessary items. With a little planning in advance, it’s absolutely possible for poor college students to still enjoy a healthy meal.
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