Real Money-Saving Ideas for Students

This post motivated me to make my own list of things I do to save money as a student (married & living out of home).
1. Use veges and legumes when cooking
Anything where you use mince, you can add beans and lentils to make it go further. I tend to use about 1 cup dried beans/lentils to every 500g mince – this approximately doubles the amount of the meal. Only thing with this is it does require a bit of pre-planning – ideally, you should leave the dried whatevers to soak overnight (I often decide in the morning what I will be doing for tea, then put the stuff to soak then. Gives an 8hr soak, which is about what they recommend on the packet). Always follow the prep instructions on the packet for dried stuff. Canned stuff, generally just drain and rinse (can then be used hot or cold).
Add veges to EVERYTHING. Either chop up stuff that is a bit old and freeze it yourself in bags, or buy the cheapest bag of frozen mixed veg you can find. I do a bit of both – depending whether frozen were on special, and whether we ate all the fresh stuff.
2. Check your local fruit & veg shop
My local fruit & veg shop does these things called “value boxes”, where they put together a box of assorted fruit and veg and deliver it for free (to your house). They put up on their website what is going to be in the box that week, and it changes every week. Usually, a $35 box has about $60-$70 of stuff in it, and will stay fresh for at LEAST 2 weeks (sometimes longer, for hard veges). They also let you swap out 2 ‘items’ for something else (in case you don’t like/allergic to something).
Farmers markets will often do similar things – usually if you go towards the end of the open hours. You can get a huge box/bag of fruit and veg for WAY below cost price.
3. Cook in bulk
This is only if you can – if you’re share-housing, this won’t always be possible. But that said, if you can, GET A DEEP FREEZER (mine was a bday present from my mum). It doesn’t have to be a big one, I have one that is the size of a bar fridge and along with the freezer on the bottom of my fridge, it’s enough. (Also, ‘upside-down’ fridges – with the freezer at the bottom – give you more room in both fridge and freezer. They’re also usually more efficient. Because science – cold air falls.)
Get a whole crap-load of chinese takeaway containers (I buy them in bulk packs of 25 at my local supermarket – usually this is about $5). The 600ml size is just about right for a single serve of something, and they stack well in the freezer. Get some of those little label stickers, so you can put the name and date of your food on the containers – everything looks THE SAME once it’s frozen. Also, you should only keep meals frozen for about 3-4mths (before eating or chucking them out).
This saves me a heap of money on nights when actually cooking something seems WAY too hard, because I already have meals ready to go so I don’t go and get takeaway. It’s also a heap cheaper than buying pre-made freezer meals. They’re also great to take for lunches if you have access to a microwave.
It can take a little while to build up a stock of these meals, but I generally try to cook at least 1 large meal every week to freeze – by the end of a month, there’s 4 or 5 different kinds of meal in the freezer.
*If you’re worried about heating things in plastic containers, just pop it into a glass/ceramic container before microwaving. I use the cheap containers for freezing, and have a small number of more-expensive, BPA-free (and water-tight) plastic containers that I use for reheating and taking food around with me*
4. Buy home-brand
A lot of stuff tastes the same as the brand names – and some tastes even better, or has better ingredients. Eg – the only brand of Oyster Sauce that doesn’t have MSG is the home-brand one, and the home-brand tinned tomatoes have more tomato and less fillers & salt. Go figure.
This is a bit of trial-and-error to find the things that are fine (e.g. tinned tomatoes, rice, pasta, flour, frozen veg, sugar) and things that you’re going to be a snob over (COFFEE, tea, tuna). Buy small numbers of home-brand items and taste them. Some you will HATE, and some will be fine, and some YOU will like, but other people will think are awful (I hate home-brand tuna because of the texture, but my sister thinks it’s ok).
5. Buy on special
Connected to #4 – avoid paying full price. If you live somewhere that does coupons, USE THEM. That will be the end of my comments on coupons though, because we don’t have them in Australia (so I don’t really understand how they work).
Only buy things that you will use!!!!!! And only buy things that you can store without them going gross. So if bread is on special, make sure you have enough room in your freezer to store it. Bread is the only ‘fresh’ food I buy when it is on special. Otherwise, I stick with canned, dried and frozen food (and stuff like toothpaste, toilet paper, deodorant, etc).
Just because something is on special, doesn’t mean you should buy heaps of it – if you only use coconut milk once in a blue moon, don’t buy 10 cans because it’s on special. But, if you use HEAPS of tinned tomatoes, go nuts. I usually buy 10-15 cans when something like canned beans or tomatoes are on special, because I use them for everything.
Meat – please, portion it before you freeze it. Because trying to separate it once it’s solid just DOESN’T HAPPEN. If you get your meat from a butcher, they will usually portion it up for you into the sizes you want if you ask nicely. However, if you’re going to ask for 100g lots, you should probably go when it’s not busy.
6. Buy in bulk
But only if it’s ACTUALLY cheaper. (See #4 & #5 as well). Sometimes, the unit price ($ per 100g) is actually higher for bigger packets, because companies know that we instinctively think ‘bigger is better’. If your supermarket doesn’t put the unit price on the shelf label, carry a calculator and do the maths yourself. Often when a smaller size of an item is on special, it actually turns out to be cheaper to get multiples of the little ones (compared to 1 big one).
Meat – portion it before you freeze it (I know I’ve already said this, but it is important – I learnt this from experience). Because trying to separate it once it’s solid just DOESN’T HAPPEN. Butchers usually also have specials where the price per kg is cheaper if you buy more. If that’s the case, get a larger amount and portion it up.
Buying in bulk is one thing that can be difficult when you’re on a budget – sometimes, there just isn’t any spare money to get the extra to take advantage of the cheaper bulk pricing. Often it’s worth biting the bullet and going without something less important/urgent to do it though, because it frees up money in future shopping budgets.
7. Don’t buy pre-packaged
Single-serve packets of oats, chips, biscuits etc may seem good for portion control, but they’re hard on your pocket. Buy a normal bag/packet, and some sandwich/snack bags (cheap shops usually have these for 1/2 the price of the supermarket) and pack up your own single-serve snacks. Keep them in a large air-tight box (those cheap snack bags aren’t always air-tight enough to keep food really fresh).
8. Make use of Food Banks
These are FANTASTIC for when you only have maybe $30 a week for food – sure, stuff is often past the ‘best before’ date, but for most stuff that’s ok. Bread I would personally avoid (for food-safety reasons), but things like cereal, biscuits, canned food are usually FINE. Just check that cans aren’t distended (a sign that they are not safe to eat). A lot of these places also have free fruit & veg if you get other stuff too (keep in mind, the sort of “food bank” I’ve had experience with is the sort where everything is a negligible cost – like ‘fill a box for $10’ or similar). I don’t know how these things work in other countries, so do your research first.
9. Slow-cookers are your friend
This ties in with #3, because there’s not much point using a slow-cooker unless you can cook in bulk. Even the smallest ones make enough to feed at least 4 people. I own a HUGE one (6L) and I generally make one-pot meals like soups and stews. I have basic ’templates’ for minestrone soup and beef soup that I use a lot, and I’ll post them as I go along. I tend to only use the slow-cooker in winter, but you can use them year round.
Slow-cookers are great because you can get cheap cuts of meat (which are usually quite tough) and the long cooking time makes them tender and yummy. I would recommend browning the meat before putting it in the slow cooker – a lot of people will say this isn’t necessary, but for tougher cuts it does help with keeping them moist. Slow-cookers are also fantastic for busy days – the cooking times are very flexible, so if you’re going to be out of the house for 10hrs but the cooking time says 8hrs, that’s ok. Most recipes, if it’s 4hrs on High, it can be cooked instead at 8hrs on Low (and vice-versa). As a general rule, 1hr High = 2hrs Low. They’re great for time-poor students, because they’re set & forget (until it’s eating time).
A few health & safety notes – NEVER add frozen anything to a slow cooker. Always defrost everything first (overnight in the fridge, or in the microwave) otherwise it will spend too much time in the ‘danger zone’ for bacteria growth. Also, never put the pot insert straight from the fridge into the cooker – the sudden temperature change could cause it to crack. If I’m prepping the night before, I put all the ingredients in a big plastic container in the fridge, and tip it all into the pot in the morning.
10. Learn to cook from scratch
This has a couple of aspects – learning to cook things using basic ingredients (not packet mixes), and learning to cook with whatever you have.
Cooking without packet mixes
It can take a little while to build up a store of ‘cooking stuff’ like flour, herbs & spices, basic sauces (not pre-made stir fry sauces, but things like soy sauce) and other cooking/baking items, but it is worth it – once you’ve got them, you only need to replace 1 or 2 at a time, which ends up quite cheap. All these sorts of things keep almost indefinitely, and once you’ve got them, you can start with the second part of this: cooking with what you have.
There are some things I still buy packets/bottles for – curry paste and some stir-fry sauces. Have a look around, sometimes it’s cheaper to buy things in a bottle/packet even when they’re not on special – I have had NO LUCK with making a successful sweet & sour stir fry sauce myself, so I buy that. Curry pastes (as in the mixes that come in jars and are the texture of peanut butter) are great, because you can make your curry as spicy as you want, which is something that a lot of pre-made sauces don’t let you do. I usually buy a couple of recipe bases when they’re on special, because they’re always good to have in the cupboard for if Hubby has to do the cooking (he hasn’t got the ‘from scratch’ thing down yet).
Cooking with what you’ve got
First tip here – learn what things taste like. Learn what flavours you like, and what you don’t. Do some research and make a list, if that helps – e.g. “curry spices”, “things that work with tomato”, “things that work with beef” etc (I’d also suggest having a “things that don’t work together” list if you’re doing this). There will be a bit of trial and error, but you’ll gradually learn what works and what doesn’t. I started cooking like this while I was still in high school (when I was about 15), and I’m now at the point where I can decide what to add just by tasting or smelling whatever I’m cooking. Sometimes, if I’m not sure what I want to add but I know it needs something, I’ll go through the cupboard smelling all my herbs, spices and cooking sauce stuff to work out what needs to be added. And ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS add small amounts at a time – it’s easy to add more of something, but impossible to remove it if you add too much.
If you find something is too salty, or too spicy, adding milk/cream/yoghurt or potatoes can help undo some of it, but not all of it.
11. Bake!
I love baking. LOVE baking. I’ve had some epic fails – my most recent one was because I grabbed the wrong flour (moral of the story – label your containers. Plain flour instead of Self-Raising makes for a dry gross coaster, not a cake). Never say “I can’t bake” – like everything, it takes practice. I procrastibake – which is where you use baking as a study break, or as a way of AVOIDING study. The benefit is that you get something yummy and useful out of it at the end.
Bake your own snacks – you like banana bread? Bake it yourself, and freeze it. Muffins? Make a double batch and freeze. BUT always follow the recipe – baking is a lot more likely to be inedible if you don’t (unlike meals, where they’re pretty much edible unless you burn the crap out of them).
A few notes about my food tips
I’m assuming that you are already minimising takeaway and taking packed lunches to work/uni. If you’re not, you can save a heap of money by doing this.
Also, anything that quotes costs – I have NO IDEA what things cost in other countries, or what the average food costs would be for you. I have run the full range of food bills since moving out of home, ranging from $30 a week for myself and Hubby (when he didn’t have a job and I was working 2 casual jobs as well as full-time uni) up to around $300 a week (when both Hubby & I were working full-time, and before I went back to uni). Our current income means that our monthly food bill (I now think in months, as Hubby is on monthly pay) is now about $300 (sometimes $400 if I run out of EVERYTHING, and sometimes down to $200 if there’s a lot of other bills that month).
I have found shopping at Aldi to have mixed results at best – sure, stuff may be cheaper, but it usually only has half the stuff I need, so I have to go somewhere else anyway. Which I hate, because it means wasting time and petrol to get to another shop. Because of that fact, I shop at the one supermarket 99% of the time, because it is literally a 2min drive from my house, and also has a butcher in the same block of shops. I also know exactly where everything is, so I can fly through my shopping. I used to ‘shop the catalogues’, because that’s what my Mum taught me to do – work out what’s on special and where, make a list for each shop, then buy those things at those separate places. This works fine when you live really close to a big shopping centre (Mum lives 5mins from a centre that has Coles, Woolworths, Big W, Kmart and Target, as well as a vege shop and a butcher) but if everything is separate (like where I live) the time & petrol spent driving around to all the different shops isn’t worth it.

Now for some non-food-related tips

12. Really look at your transport use
Do you drive everywhere? If you do, look at ways you can cut that down – walking, taking the train/bus, riding a bike (or a combination of the above). Look at everything – travel time, cost, location. Because it takes me 45mins to drive to uni, and then parking costs $1.50 an hour, I drive to the train station and get the train in – time-wise, I have to leave home 15mins earlier, but it only costs me about $6 return for the train (compared to $9 for 6hrs of parking and 1/4 tank of petrol). Don’t drive if you don’t have to – out of milk? Walk to the local shops (if they’re close enough), or include it in some other trip (on your way home from somewhere, or get someone to grab it on their way – like if housemate/partner is on their way home from work/uni/whatever). Walking/biking will also get in some incidental exercise, which is always good. CARPOOL – best invention ever. Evenly share it between a few friends, and everyone saves.
13. Volunteer to be “Designated Dave
This can save you a FORTUNE (and your friends too). Taxis can be expensive and very hard to get after everyone is finished partying for the night, so this is the set-up I have with my friends: They all come to my place (or I collect them), I drive everyone to the location. They pay for my softdrinks, and pitch in $5 each for the trip, and then I drive everyone home. ‘Home’ can sometimes be everyone crashing at my place, or direct to their own homes (depending on where they live compared to me & the venue). If they crash at my place and want a hot cooked breakfast the next day, it’s an extra $2. Some people may think this seems a bit rude (“You charge your friends!?”) but it is a setup that has been running happily for many years now. All my friends understand WHY I ask for the cost, and they are happy with it (because $7 is a HELL of a lot cheaper than a taxi).
14. Have fun without going out
Stay in and do things, rather than going out. Have a games night, a LAN party (everyone in the same room, not over the internet), a movie night – make dinner pot-luck, with everyone bringing a designated ‘food’ (e.g. salad, dessert). There are HEAPS of things you can do. Personally, 1 thing I recommend that EVERYONE does at least once – camp in your own backyard. Seriously. It’s fun, but without all the inconvenience of having to pack up the car and then unpack it all – and you can’t forget anything! Get a brazier and cook over a fire (if you can), make s’mores, do all that stuff.
15. Do things that are free
Check out free concerts & events happening in your area (local libraries often have information about this kind of stuff). Go bush walking, go for a picnic, go to the art gallery or museum – once again, there’s HEAPS of stuff you can do.
16. Learn to drink in moderation
Or don’t drink at all. The extent you take this to is up to you, but alcohol is EXPENSIVE, and you don’t need to get plastered to have fun (see #13, #14 and #15). This can be difficult, especially with the ‘drinking culture’ that surrounds universities and colleges (and anyone up to about 30 yrs old really). It’s all about knowing your limits, and being able to say no. Practice in small social situations with friends – practice saying no to drinks, PARTICULARLY after you’ve already had one. Set limits for yourself, and stick to them. Have a “drinking buddy”, someone who will remind you to say no and will help you stick to your limits. With time and practice, it will become natural and easier. This exact situation is why #13 came about – I’ve never been particularly interested in drinking, so friends started asking me to be their “drinking buddy” and stop them getting plastered/into trouble.
Sort of on this same topic, but sort of food-related – avoid soft drinks except for special occasions. You’d be surprised how much you can save by drinking water (or even cordial) instead. And it’s better for you.
17. Join a library
And I don’t mean just the one at your university. Join the local library, and the state library if you can as well. Most don’t just have books – they’ll have DVDs (movies and TV shows), CDs, Audiobooks, magazines, and access to e-books (among other stuff). If you have something like Netflix/Quickflix, you may be able to ditch your subscription – FREE MOVIES AND TV SHOWS PEOPLE!!!!
18. Use less paper
This is pretty much a purely student-based one, and will vary a bit depending on your personal circumstances and study methods. Don’t print the lecture slides – open them on your laptop or tablet, or even your phone (if you only want them for reference during the lecture). If you do have to print something, print double-sided (this is a cost-effective option for me, as our uni printing thing is cheaper if we print double sided – it may not be the same everywhere). Take notes on a computer/tablet. Use a planner app on your tablet/phone/computer – cheaper than buying a new diary/planner every year, and all your information is backed up in case something happens. The most expensive planner app I’ve seen is about $15, so that’s still a HEAP cheaper than most decent diaries/planners, and you don’t have to keep buying a new one every year.
This is one that needs a bit of an investment first to make it worthwhile, but if you can manage to afford it, a decent tablet or laptop is WELL WORTH THE MONEY (but also refer to #19, and always do your research first so you know that whatever you buy is going to go the distance).
19. Don’t replace something unless it’s past its usable life
Seriously – I know it’s really nice to get new stationery every semester, but do you really need new pens/highlighters/sticky notes/notebooks? A lot of the time, the answer is NO. Buy a big pack of decent pens/highlighters at the beginning of the year, and they’ll last you the whole 12mths+ (once again, unit price here – cost investment at the start for value later). Buy your normal notebooks, and at the end of semester, rip out the pages you used and see what’s left. There’s probably enough paper there for another subject, so don’t go and buy another book. If it looks ratty, go nuts with a collage look or something funky and artistic, then cover with clear contact. This also applies to electronics – unless your computer/phone/tablet/mp3 player has completely gone cactus/is completely obsolete, do you REALLY need that shiny new thing? (This is something I really need to concentrate on, because I’m a bit of a tech-head and I LOVE all things new and shiny.)
20. Make use of your own abilities
Are you good at cooking, but can’t sew to save your life? Find a friend who can sew, and see if you can do a barter – they can hem those pants you’ve been meaning to get done, in return for some of your home cooking. The possibilities are endless. Don’t pressure anybody into doing a swap, but most people are more than happy to do it if you have something they need as well.
As you can see, I’m a firm believer in investing in decent stuff to save money later, where and when you can. This applies to bigger items too – like electronics, furniture and clothing. Spend a little more (if you can) and buy something that is good quality and won’t age, or become obsolete quickly.