For College Students

How Much Should You Budget For Food in College?

The average cost of food comparing dining halls to cooking from home and eating at restaurants.


Hungry on campus?

…A college “dorm”- made pasta dish could be an easy enough fix to a hunger problem.

Or could making a quick dash to the campus dining area for a tried-and-true chicken tenders and fries combo give you more of that instant satisfaction?

Or, perhaps, you’re feeling fancy enough for a nearby upscale, avant-garde dining eatery that boasts a visual and palatable experience that is sure to be unforgettable!

Before you decide with a gruelingly impulsive and growly tummy, first take a moment to factor in whether or not your choice actually fits within your college food budget.

If you know anything about budgeting for food while in college, you’d know that by being prepared for those stormy, uncontrolled food encounters, you eliminate the risk of putting yourself in an undesirable situation to instantly break the bank as well as your budget (all in the name of a 7-eleven slurpee and ramen noodle challenge commitment you spent your last eight bucks on).

Planning ahead with food preparation strategies, and tapping into a healthy level of frugality will motivate you to go with the more affordable food choices that pay your pockets off in the end. If you need some pointers on handling cash the right way while in college to get you started, click here for our budgeting guide.

If you’ve ever wondered how to control your college food budget without compromising hunger, look no further! In this article, We’ll cover:

  • The average cost of food per month for college students
  • What to do if you’re over budget and tips to save money
  • How to make a weekly grocery and food budget

Read on to learn how much to budget every month for food in college and feel confident while doing it!

The Average Cost of Food Per Month for College Students

Big data on college dining shows that 36% of students get their food from off-campus retail, grocery, or convenience stores, while 26% from on-campus food service facilities, followed by 25% leaning on off-campus restaurants for their college dining needs. What’s apparent is that there is a general acceptance of various food avenues by students across the board.

With 49% of college kids identifying as foodies, the dabbling between campus meals, restaurants, grocery, and convenience stores is made easy and accessible and grants them the freedom to explore different food options at the strum of a food craving.

When it comes to the amount of food per month that college students are spending, studies from the 2021 College and University Consumer Trend Report show that whether you’re consuming off-campus meals, cooking at home/inside of a dorm, or have committed to an on-campus meal plan, the costs show up regardless. Take a look for yourself:

  • College students spend, on average, $341 a month eating off-campus.
  • Meals cooked at home or in the dormitory average $206 a month.
  • A campus meal plan averages $563 a month.
  • A vegan diet cooked exclusively at home or in the dormitory averages $200 a month.

Campus or no campus meal plan, breakfast to dinner meals can be pricey and add up fairly quickly, especially for a college goer. And seeing the figures up close is even more undeniably scary.

When you think about how easily money can be spent on food, you’d realize it may have never been clearer to you than it is now. Take this scenario:

You’re in the thick of mid-semester as a sophomore and have seen a sharp decline in available funds.

You go over in your head what you could’ve spent your money on just last week again and again, and it appears that you went out to eat at several restaurants for three days in a row and even treated a friend on two of those occasions. The aftermath is this:

There are very few funds left for you to “play” with before the month closes, so you must spend very wisely and only on necessary items.

You and some friends planned to celebrate mid-year exams with a dinner party that Friday. With the limited spending money you have, you decide to cut back on drinks and do a small appetizer only. You start to regret overspending towards the start of the month on things that weren’t as important as this. Wishing you could go back in time, you decide to make smarter monthly budget decisions moving forward.

Simply put, food matters to college students. 

Whether a health freak, junk food connoisseur, meal prep enthusiast, or a devoted liquid dieter – chances are, you’ve at least reached the cusp of breaking your food budget for the month. 

If you haven’t tasted a monthly food budget plan yet, chances are you’ve gone way over the imaginary limit of your monthly food budget.

Take some time to reevaluate your college dining experience, and figure out a way to tweak it without missing a meal or relying on the 7-Eleven free slurpee day to roll back around for adequate calorie intake.

What to Do if You’re Over Budget and Tips to Save Money

When it comes to cutting food costs, consider this:

  • A Personal Budget – Think about your individual goals for saving and spending money and how much you can allocate to food each month without compromising the fixed expenses and needs. Remember, no matter how big or small the food budget is, it isn’t a fixed amount. Focus more on how that amount can work to accommodate your dietary preferences and health aspirations.
  • Your Current Diet/Eating Habits – Have you found that incessantly eating out can cause the funds to dry up? Does your high meat-protein diet drive the grocery bill sky high, as well as your cholesterol? Now might be a good time to consider parting with some foods that tend to do more harm than good. Try frequenting restaurants only on special occasions or increasing plant-based food items when grocery shopping. After some time, sit back and watch the bill (and even your cholesterol) go down!
  • Meal Preparation – Meal prepping can be made easy and affordable with a bit of hands-on research and guidance from a college friend who just so happens to be a pro at curating bento box meals.

When it comes to saving money when you fall over budget, consider this:

  • Take advantage of discounts/coupons – Who doesn’t love a good deal?! If you do, first see if you qualify for discounts with your phone and laptop carrier. Look into streaming services and protection plan promos. Some major companies like Apple offer student discounts on their products and services, and Amazon through its Prime Student service. Students can also check with their school for additional discounts on clubs, food items, etc.
  • Money-saving meals (meal prepping) – Here’s a frugal college grocery list of food items to get you started with preparing your own meals.
  • Money-saving kitchen gadgets (pressure cooker)
  • Money-saving apps
  • Dropout w/ eating out
  • Make meatless Mondays (and Tuesdays) a thing

How to Make a Weekly Grocery and Food Budget

Using the budgeting tips from above, map out your weekly grocery list by:

  • Considering foods you enjoy eating (including those healthy ones that aren’t as palatable but doable) – if you miss those home-cooked meals, here’s your chance to try your hand at making your own rendition. Don’t expect the same standard after the first or second attempt, but use those favorite meals as an inspiration to eat more wholesomely fresh foods that bring nostalgia to your doorstep on campus. If you have a friend that enjoys cooking, ask them for help to make the meal experimentation more fun!
  • Grocery stores vs. farmers market – when writing out your grocery list, consider which foods can be bought from a local farmers’ market. It is a great idea to support a local independent business and buy the freshest of the batch at a relatively lower price. If your really in a money pinch, check to see if your local farm offers seconds of produce. These are often fruits or vegetables picked some days back that are nearing expiration based on their level of freshness. As long as the produce isn’t molding or showing obvious signs of decay, it should be safe to eat. Your pockets most probably agree.
  • Use a grocery app – Flipp here’s a grocery app that can save you $45 a week on groceries. Flipp offers deals from some of the most popular grocers, such as Target, Weis, Walmart, and many more. Download the app to receive weekly ads populated based on your location, so it will only show the best deals near you! Start saving your college money hassle-free!

Remember, how much you budget for food every month depends on you. Always start with a budget plan to know how much disposable income is left after all bills are paid and when top priority items are taken care of. Food should be considered a priority when all fixed expenses are handled. 

Start shopping around for the best food item deals based on your remaining budget. The goal is to get your monthly college food budget down as low as possible without skimping on meals and foods that are the most nutrient-dense. It’s a perfect trade-off – spend your money on healthier food items, and you can be less of a zombie while walking to class.


About the Author

Christina Ezeagwuna

Christina is a professional writer with 7+ years in entrepreneurship, opening a rental baby furniture business in 2016 that she still runs today. Christina is a mom of three budding, financially savvy kids and works as a content manager for the Hispanic Alliance for Career Enhancement.

Last updated on: April 4, 2024