12 October 2013

Student budget eating guide

Okay, so strictly speaking this isn't actually a science post, but my sister is about to go to university and wanted some advice on eating cheaply for her friends and her. I really struggled for money when I was a student and have written up some of the tricks I used for saving money on my food bills. I thought that you might find this advice useful too, so I thought I'd post it here. 

Also, the point of this post is to help and advise people so please spread it to anyone you know who might find it useful - I know that plenty of people wouldn't look twice at a science blog, but could still benefit from this post!

Anyway, here it is!

The best way I found to budget for food was to plan all of my meals in advance. I used to do one big shop a week and made sure that I bought 21 meals of food in this trip (which is 7 breakfasts, 7 dinners and 7 teas). By doing this, I found I was able to set an affordable budget that I was able to stick to – the last thing you want to do is buy meals one or two at a time by shopping in supermarkets a few times a week. This makes it much harder to keep track of what you are actually spending because your bills are split into many different sessions and you end up spending way more. It’s also dangerous because the overall bill of each day is smaller than it is in one big shop, which used to trick me into thinking that I was spending less than I actually was.

A good trick that used to help me do this was to actually withdraw my allotted food budget in cash at the start of the week (I always made sure not to draw more out later). Mine was £15 a week, but I could have probably got this to less than £10 if I was really disciplined in what I bought (which is what most of budgeting actually comes down to). Anyway, I used withdraw £15 and then go and do my big shop. (When I was first getting into the habit of budgeting, I used to leave my card at home after withdrawing my cash out so I would have to put something back if I was over £15 – I literally couldn't pay for it)! If the overall bill was under £15, I used to put it in a pot for emergencies, snacks or let it slowly build up to £15 (so I wouldn't have to take money out on a week where I was really desperate).

Once you've done your big shop, try and stay out of supermarkets as much as you can. Only go in for things little things like milk and drinks.

Another piece of good advice is to ignore the special offers on things you don’t really need. These offers work by sucking you in on impulse buys and are always a sure way to blow your budget. You just end up with all these cakes (for example) that you don’t really want/need and most of them probably go off anyway because you can’t eat them fast enough. Secondly, if you actually spend the time to work out the maths in-store, they don’t even save you that much money. I found that the best way to avoid these deals was to make a list before you go shopping and the head straight to where the items are in the isles (and then straight to the tills without looking around too much). Saying that though, special offers can be a great way of saving money so look out for them on things you need or buy a lot (they crop up on healthcare products like toothpaste and shower gel all the time). 

Probably the hardest thing to budget for is alcohol. I never really got the hang of it to be honest, but I recommend that you don’t try to include it in your food budget and give it its own special one. Buy it in bulk as well – buy crates for cans/bottles and the biggest volumes of spirits you can afford – this is more expensive at the time, but works out way cheaper in the long run. Take advantage of the special offers as well! This might not be as applicable for you as it was for me (as I lived in the main student area of Manchester), but supermarkets used to slash prices of alcohol after holidays and exam periods so stock up then. I got 66 cans of Fosters for £20 once! Bear that in mind as it’s well worth keeping your eyes peeled!

Finally, don’t be conned into thinking that food from the big brands taste nicer than the supermarket own-brand ones – there’s usually very little difference in taste and the own-brand ones are cheaper and come in bigger packets. Avoid cheap, processed meat as much as possible, but it’s fine to buy everything else from cheaper brands. There’s not really any need to buy the very cheap own-brands either in most circumstances (as long as you are budgeting properly). I used to get away with buying Sainsbury’s Superior brands most of the time rather than Basics. For things like pasta and rice though, it doesn't really matter as Basics is just the same as Superior but in different packaging – it’s a ploy that supermarkets use all the time so don’t fall foul of it!

Anyway, that’s the best general advice I can give you. Budgeting for food is easier than you think – you've just got to sit down, work out what you can afford to spend each week and stick to it. Work out all your monthly outgoing costs – rent, bills and transport fares – and then how much you have coming in each month. The difference is your food, alcohol, going out and general shopping budget. Remember you can’t control your rent and bills, but you still have to pay them so make sure that this is a priority. Believe me when I say that it’s not fun being threatened with legal action and bailiffs by your landlord/utility providers!

I can also give you some good ideas for meals, which are cheap and will keep you pretty healthy – survived uni eating them anyway. (I was at uni a few years ago now and price of living has gone up, so things might not be quite as cheap as I say below. The principles of the pricing in the meals are the same though so stick to them and you should be fine).


Cereal’s the best thing – just buy a massive box of own-brand and you’ve got all of your breakfasts sorted for at least three weeks.

Crumpets and toast are good if you want a change.
  • You can buy the cheapest own brands here because you’re heating them up. Think about it – bread gets dry and crisps over whether it’s cheap or expensive, which is what gives toast/crumpets their taste, so the brand’s quality really makes no difference at all


Make your own sandwiches and bring them into uni/college.
  • This seems like an obvious one, but for a few quid you can buy enough bread and fillings to last a week. If you buy a sandwich when you are out and about, it will be nearly £3 for just one meal
  • I found the best sandwich filler to be cheese – a packet costs around £3 and lasted me for two or three weeks of sandwiches/teas (grating it rather than slicing it makes it last for much longer as well)
Also, look out for offers on things like Gingster’s Steak Slices as well – they are poor quality food, but are a good treat that can be used for dinner and tea.


Pasta – this can be ridiculously cheap if you do it right.
  • Buy the cheapest own-brand pasta as you can find (as it all tastes the same), along with some pasta sauce and the biggest bag of frozen ‘mixed vegetables’ available
    • For example, Sainsbury’s used to sell pasta for 7p a packet, sauces for £1 each and a big bag of mixed veg for £1
  • Put the vegetables in first (as they always take longer to cook), and then add as much pasta as you want a bit later. Then just leave them to boil together for the time recommended for the pasta 
    • You’ll need to play around with this a bit to get the timings right (so the veg and pasta are both ready to eat at the same time)
  • Leaving the hob on, tip the pasta back into the pan and pour in as much sauce as you need (I went for half here and put the remainder in the fridge, where it will keep for a few days). Keep stirring for a few minutes – this is just to warm the sauce up really – and then you can eat it. The whole process takes about 15 – 20 minutes, so the meal is quick to make as well!
Pasta bake – this is a good meal when pasta bake sauce is on offer.
  • Just buy a packet of the same pasta as above and follow the cooking instructions on the back of the jar
    • You can buy different flavours that include meats etc, which really helps to bulk up the meal
    • You want to cook all of the sauce at once and put loads of pasta in the baking tray. Once it’s cooked, you should have two or three meals worth of food here (depending on how much pasta you used), so keep what you don’t want in a sealed contained in the fridge for later
      • This won’t last for too long, but I found that it was fine for about two days after cooking it. I wouldn't leave it any longer than this though, especially if you've cooked meat with it
Jacket potato – another really cheap meal here.
  • Buy a packet of potatoes (Sainsbury’s used to sell 4 for £1) and the required number of fillers (i.e. Sainsbury’s sold cans of own-brand baked beans 15p each/tins of tuna for 35p each)
  • Bake a potato (the easiest way to this is in a microwave, so just Google it if you don’t know how) and use a whole tin of the ‘filler’ to go with it – this fills you up way more than it sounds, it’s got almost no fat in it whatsoever (unless you go for tuna and mayo) and you get loads carbohydrates and protein (especially if you use tuna and mayo)
  • Buy some frozen burgers (try not to go for the very cheap ones here), some buns and whatever else you want like cheese, salad and sauces
  • Make your burgers and eat them with a few chips/a salad to bulk the meal up
    • As with everything else, try to buy the biggest bag of frozen chips as you can
    • You should be able to get two or three meals out of this for about £3 - £4
Spaghetti bolognaise – this might sound expensive, but it’s surprisingly cheap and gives your body all of the needed protein, carbohydrates and fat (you need some fat in your diet to be healthy, so never cut it out altogether).
  • Buy fresh mincemeat (don’t buy the very cheapest stuff here), along with some sauce and the cheapest own-brand spaghetti you can find
    • I used to buy around 320g of Sainsbury’s Superior mincemeat for around £3.50 (it changed slightly every week) and split it into thirds. I then put each third into a plastic sandwich bag, put all the bags in a sealable container and froze them – defrosting individual portions of meat as a needed them
    • Bolognaise sauce is actually pretty expensive in supermarkets, despite it being almost exactly the same as pasta sauce. Unless you really want it or it’s on offer, I recommend that you just buy normal pasta sauce. I found that Sainsbury’s ‘chunky vegetable’ sauce worked the best for this meal. It was also £1 a jar, which gave me three meals worth of sauce.
  • Using some sort of cooking oil (again, own-brands are fine for this), fry the mincemeat by referring to the cooking instructions on the label
    • Be careful here if you’ve never fried meat before – common sense should tell you can get really ill from undercooking it. I suggest that you ask someone or Google it when you try this for the first time
  • Towards the end of the meat’s cooking time, tip as much of the fat and oil away as you can (which makes the meal much healthier) and pour as much sauce as needed onto the meat. Stir it in and just leave it simmer for the remainder of the cooking time (stir it occasionally so the meat doesn’t burn onto the bottom of the saucepan)
    • I used to pour about a third of the jar here because I split the split my mince into three portions – however you decide to do it, try to make sure that you have enough sauce to go with all of your mince for the week’s allowance
    • Also, don’t pour the fat down the sink’s drain as this will block it after a while (the fat collects in the U-bend) – tip it into the bin instead
And that’s it really. This is the best advice and tips that I can give you – just use your brain and try remember these three rules: