Words by: Natalie Gosney, TSR editorial team
What do many students complain about? Well, aside from essay deadlines the obvious answer is being short of money. Let’s face it, when you’re having to fend for yourself for the first time away from mum and dad, it’s easy to overspend - especially in the first year of uni.
Student loan in one hand and overdraft in the other, it’s all too easy to feel that your cash is burning a hole in your pocket. However this is where you need to take a step back and reel in those reins a little, otherwise halfway through your first semester you’re going to be on the phone begging the ‘rents to lend you some money, which is never a great situation to be in.
The first thing you can do to help avoid this predicament is learn how to eat on a budget. By this, I don’t mean resorting to that good old student staple of Pot Noodles. Don’t get me wrong, a Pot Noodle once in a while isn’t terrible, but there are far more nutritious ways to cheaply fill your belly.
Where to shop
Choosing the cheapest supermarket might sound simple, but really it depends on several things. If you have access to a large freezer, this is going to help immensely. Iceland is definitely one of the cheapest supermarkets around, and don’t be mistaken - it’s not just full of ready meals and frozen pizzas. You’re wanting to get your five a day (well I assume you’d want that!) so have you looked at the cost of fresh fruit and vegetables lately? Frozen bags of veggies are always always going to be a cheaper option than fresh, and one bag can last for several meals. At £1 a bag on average you can’t really grumble.
It’s not only frozen greens either - salmon, pork chops, chicken breasts - you name it and you can probably buy it frozen from Iceland for far cheaper than you could find it fresh in another supermarket. Mind you, most supermarkets sell frozen goods these days for cheaper than fresh produce, but Iceland has one of the largest selections.
So if you can, buy as much cheap frozen food as possible. You can quite happily have a nice home-cooked traditional Sunday dinner for just a couple of quid in this way.
If, however, your freezer space is limited, then try your local market for some fresh meat, fish, fruit and veg. It won’t last as long as frozen food, of course, so plan out your meals before you shop so that you don’t end up spending money on food that will go off before you get a chance to cook it.
Should you have bought something which is about to go off, and you have no plans to eat it just yet, then cook it, let it cool down, and put it (covered) in the fridge. It will keep for another couple of days that way, as cooked food keeps for longer than uncooked. (Note - never eat shellfish past its use-by date).
When you are looking for something to eat on the same day, don’t be afraid to buy food from a supermarket’s 'reduced' section. There are often great bargains to be found there as long as you’re willing to eat the food very soon, as many are close to their use-by dates. If you go shopping in the evening you may grab even more deals, as spit-roasted chickens and other cooked-on-premises items are reduced just before the rotisserie counters shut (I’m thinking in particular of Tesco here, though the same is likely true of other larger supermarkets).
Fill those cupboards
Some basic staples that are fairly inexpensive and always handy in a pinch, are: bread, eggs, baked beans, pasta, soup, rice, ham and cheese. As long as you have those in, you’re unlikely to starve. You can mix them up in a variety of ways (cheese on toast, egg and beans, ham and rice etc.) to create a few different meals to keep you going for a couple of days.
Handy hint: Home Bargains (if there’s one near you) sells cereal much more cheaply than any of the major supermarkets.
Don’t rule out local smaller retailers either. A small family-run butchers might be able to sell you meat, eggs or chicken at a much more affordable price than a large supermarket would. However this is not always the case. Check prices before you buy. On occasion you might get lucky and catch the butcher on a particular day when he may be selling excess offcuts of meat cheaply. It's always worth asking.
It always helps to plan out your meals before you go shopping. Plan for the week if you can, and don’t forget to factor into your budget a little spare cash for a top-up-shop during the week if you find you've inadvertently run out of something. Planning your meals can prevent overspending, and can also curb the urge to impulse buy if something delicious (but unnecessary) catches your eye in the shop. It’s also better to avoid supermarket shopping when you’re hungry - you're more likely to overspend on food if you go shopping with an empty stomach.
Buying in bulk
Sometimes it can work out much more cost effective to buy in bulk and cook larger meals, such as a large pan of bolognese or a tureen of risotto, and make it last for several days by keeping two day’s worth in the fridge and storing the rest in the freezer in freezer bags. Plus it means less cooking and less washing up! Bonus!
To be a little more up to date with which supermarket is currently displaying the best deals, try My Supermarket. It's a supermarket price comparison site, but admittedly it only compares the larger (more expensive) supermarkets.
You might want to try a few cookbooks if your recipe skills are a bit limited. There are several you can buy relatively cheaply online, for example these three (though there are many more out there):
Nosh For Students : A Fun Student Cookbook
The Hungry Student Cookbook
The Best Ever Student Cookbook
If you’re planning to eat out, take advantage of discount codes and vouchers. There are dozens of websites with money-off coupons for eateries around the country. Decide where you’re going to dine, and a simple Google search will probably produce some money-saving results. For example, if you fancy a pizza, try 'Pizza Hut discount code' or 'Pizza Express voucher' in your search engine. Play around with the words a little, and you’ll get more results. Make sure you have access to a printer though, as many redeemable vouchers must be printed off. Don't forget to take your NUS card with you as this entitles you to discounts at many restaurants and fast food outlets.
It’s not impossible to keep food costs low, it just takes a little forward thinking and organisation. Bon appetit!