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Living Cheaply in College

Thousandaire wrote a post last week, Living Gas Tank to Gas Tank, that just hit the rewind button in my brain and I started thinking about living cheaply in college.

Like a lot of college kids, I was living as cheaply as possible and getting jobs for college students online.  I shared a 2 bedroom apartment with 3 other ladies for $288 a month.  I cringed if I ever had to turn on my car.  I also spent the last 3 years living on $2-$3 a day for food.

Comparing that life less than 10 years ago to the one I’m living now is like comparing a Chevy Aveo to a stretch limo.  Seriously.

Here was a normal daily menu for me in 2003 when living cheaply:

  • Breakfast – Banana or an off-brand granola bar
  • Lunch – Peanut Butter and Strawberry Jam Sandwich (I still love these, lol)
  • Dinner – Bean burrito from Taco Bell, another sandwich, a bowl of cereal, OR I sponged off others that freely shared (thank you to everyone who ever fed me!)
  • Snacks – Nothing or sponging again

Here is a normal daily menu for me now in 2011 when not living as cheaply (now that I’m on Weight Watchers…last year’s menu was way bigger and had less fruit, lol):

  • Breakfast – Banana AND a bowl of cereal
  • Lunch – a Smart Ones or Lean Cuisine meal or leftovers
  • Dinner – Grilled lean meat (steak or chicken usually), some form of potato or starch, and a huge helping of a green vegetable (we are big on green beans right now)
  • Snacks – Fruit, baked chips, and/or a granola bar

Yep, I went from less than $3 a day to at least $5-$8 a day in less than 10 years.  And I very rarely regret it.  It is nice to have enough money to spend on better food without giving up our savings goals.  I truly am thankful for where I am today but living cheaply is the only reason we’ve been able to get this far this fast.

Do you remember living cheaply or even cheaper?  What are you thankful for today?  If you are having a cruddy day, sorry for bringing all this up…

33 thoughts on “Living Cheaply in College”

  1. When I was 18, I lived in a house that was half condemned. To get to the basement, you had to go outside, around to the back door, and walk through a room with no floor boards. Thankfully, the only thing down there was the water heater.

    My meals were a can of soup cooked with a box of pasta. If I picked both up on sale, I could eat 2 meals for $1.

  2. 101 Centavos

    There was a period as a starving studen when I actually ate fairly well and cheaply. I lived for a period near a reservoir lake that was regularly stocked with rainbow trout. I got into the habit of early morning fishing before work, and would use the time to read and study, occasionally interrupted by reeling in fish. Some mornings I would catch my limit and be on my way in less than an hour. I’d clean the fish on the spot, and keep it on ice in a small cooler at work. Breaded trout skillet-fried in a little olive oil for dinner.
    Other cheap eats were pasta, PB&J and more pasta.

  3. Mercedes

    because it is such a convoluted story I wont go into the details of how I got myself to this point, but 7 years ago I was living pay check to paycheck and after rent and cell phone was taken out (I was living far from family and it was my only life line) I had 5 dollars a week for food and 5 dollars for gas. I would run the car on fumes until I got paid on friday and one time actually ran out of gas 1/2 mile from the gas station! Food consisted of a box of noodles and a can of spaghetti sauce from the dollar store, a box of jello (because the only other ingredient you needed was water) and maybe a loaf of bread from the second hand bread store and a jar of peanut butter if I felt like splurging. If I portioned the spaghetti out just right I could make it last 5-6 days And luckily where I worked would buy pizza and the like for those of use that worked the night shift on sunday. I felt bad if I tried to take any of the left overs because I worked with some great women that were raising kids by themselves on the same salary I was living by myself on.

    But now, 7 years later, I’ve bought a house, I’ve got a car I own outright, and a job that pays great! (even if the hours suck sometimes) I never run out of gas and I can eat pretty much whatever I want whenever I want.

  4. Nicole

    In graduate school we would spend $1.50 every two weeks on the T (mixture of subway and elevated) to get to the haymarket (a big open air market that would be like a farmer’s market if all the produce weren’t shipped from CA to Boston) so we could get huge bags of whatever was cheap for $1/bag (sometimes less!). Then we’d live on that and potatoes, rice, beans, split peas, canned tomatoes, noodles, bread machine bread, and if we were lucky on sale macaroni and cheese or Lipton packets. Probably around $20/2 week period to feed two adults (though this was half a decade ago). At the start of graduate school, my dad let me raid their spice cabinet and take their older spices and what they had duplicates of, which helped a lot in the beginning. When we ran out we bought them from the Mexican section of the grocery store.

    So a combination of super healthy and not so much.

    Now we spend quite a bit more and eat quite a lot of fancy cheese, meat, that sort of thing. And we get our fresh spices from Penzey’s.

  5. Finanzas Personales

    It’s quite a hard task to find good healthy food and pay cheap… however, I think being creative here is a big plus. Knowing how to cook and liking it helps a lot, since we have a better control over what we include in our diet and how much we are spending on it. A good strategy is to calculate what will be used and buy efficiently.
    I cut my supermarket bill by about half when I started using this approach. I stopped buying whatever jumped at me on the supermarket and started making a list that included what I really needed to cook. Great for my body, great for my wallet.

  6. Jackie

    There have been two times in my life when I lived really cheaply. Once was after my first husband and I got married. We were car-poor but didn’t realize it. Breakfast for me would be toast if we had any bread left, otherwise nothing. Lunch would be a single dollar menu item and a cup of water or else Top Ramen, and supper would be 10 cent crackers and water from the cafe at work. (I worked swing shift.) About twice a week we’d switch things up with spaghetti, depending on how long the jar of sauce lasted.

    The other time was after the dot com bust. My son and I lived on below poverty-level income for about 4 years, but that wasn’t so bad because my bills were extremely low and I had an emergency fund.

  7. Crystal @ BFS

    Okay, now I just feel like I was spoiled in college!

    @Jason, that is pretty dang cheap! Your housing situation sounded scary though…

    @101 Centavos, okay, that is ingenious! I went to school in Houston, so I wouldn’t want to eat any fish I could catch around here, but that was just super smart on your part!!!

    @Mercedes, that sounds like a straight-up success story! Sorry you were ever in such a tight spot.

    @Nicole, I can’t believe you ate so healthy even when you were broke, lol. You definitely practice what you preach!

    @Finanzas, we’ve started eating healthier by cooking at home, but we have not embraced seasonality as much as we should yet…we’re working on it…

    @Jackie, that crackers for dinner part makes me want to send you a whole roast, lol. I am so glad you and yours are doing so well now!!!

  8. MyATM Holdings

    Well, I don’t remember living cheaply like you did but I try to sometimes save money by not eating out a lot. I’m not the type to like to dine out. I can live cheaply especially now that I’m on a diet. I’m also watching my weight. 🙂

  9. Kevin @ Thousandaire.com

    While I no longer worry about gas, I still eat crappy. It just takes a few minutes to cook something, and I don’t have the desire to spend time in the kitchen. The most complicated thing I make regularly for dinner is hamburger helper.

  10. IPA @ investmentpropertyasset.com

    During college and before I got married I would live off top ramen noodles. I would get creative sometimes and mix in chicken or beef with veggies. That is if I had any extra cash to splurge on meat. I would also buy the extra large pizza from Papa Murphys as that would feed me for about three days. $10 for a pizza that provided enough food for three days was awesome!

    Now we eat wholesome and healthy meals even if it is a challenge to get our 4 year old to eat some things, although he does love salad!

  11. krantcents

    It was after college and graduate school, I remember 15 cent macaroni and cheese. I was a Sales Engineer on commission and broke! I think you learn more from those experiences.

  12. Dr Dean

    Hey Crystal, One summer in college McD’s was having an olympic’s special with scratch off cards.

    I had a lab during my lunch that would have been paid for with my meal plan.

    So I had Quarter Pounder with cheese every day for a quarter (pre-semester system!) At least 1/3rd of em were subsidized by the scratch off cards…

    And yes I still like QP’s. Though I haven’t had one in a while, come to think of it!

  13. Crystal @ BFS

    @MyATM, we started saving about $100 a month when we stopped eating out regularly.

    @Kevin, I was like that until last year, now I rather spend 30 minutes making something super tasty. It’s a give and take.

    @IPA, I loved it when my friends had leftover pizza and didn’t want it – a slice made a lunch or dinner. 🙂

    @krantcents, you’re dating yourself. 😉 Off brand mac and cheese costed 50-65 cents a box when I was in college, lol. You are very right though, that is the times I learned what was actually important…

    @Dr Dean, a 25 cent QP! Wow…I want a 25 cent QP…

  14. Squirrelers

    I remember eating cheaper than I do today, much cheaper. But not to the level you did in college. That’s impressive.

    For me, food has been the one thing I have probably splurged on more than others. I don’t need an expensive car (I drove one to past 200,000 miles), I don’t need expensive gadgets, pricey clothes, etc. But I do spend on food. It’s an area that I could probably do better with, even though I do employ some frugal tactics (as you probably realize by now!).

  15. Melissa

    When I was finishing up my B.A. I lived for 1.5 years in a co-op. There were two large old houses and 50 of us lived there. Every night two of us were assigned to make dinner for the other 48 people. It was a great way to save, though looking back, it sounds a bit hippy like. 😉

  16. JT McGee

    When I lived on campus, it was all about cereal. Cheap, reasonably healthy (if you don’t get super-sugar-cereal) and tastes great, and good for every meal. The calcium from the milk is good, too.

    One thing I always had, at all times, was a can of peanuts. I mean, all the time, I’d literally pour them in my mouth. Mmm, good stuff, lots of protein too 🙂

  17. Jenna

    I graduated from college two years ago and still living the frugal diet. However, it’s nice to splurge on going out to dinner at fancy restaurants and not having to worry if you have enough ramen to make up for it!

  18. First Gen American

    One of the best things about working in food service throughout college is that I ate pretty well. We got discounted meals at work or just scarfed down leftovers at the end of the night.

  19. Crystal @ BFS

    @Squirrelers, Mr. BFS and I pull out the stops on food too. We figure we also don’t spend crazy-like, so we can afford to eat as our cravings decide (like the $10 salmon fillet we bought Monday even though that is a horrific price…).

    @Melissa, hippy-like isn’t a bad thing, lol. It sounds like you had a friendly group of people and a money-saving food situation to boot!

    @JT, I am addicted to Honey Nut Cheerios. Let’s put it this way, I have a bowl every single morning and if I have Weight Watchers points left at the end of the day, that’s what I eat to polish them off. Cereal is awesome.

    @Jenna, lol, so true.

    @First Gen, I had waitstaff friends that I worshipped when they brought back leftovers. 🙂

  20. Henway

    I used to be a ramen freak back in college. Every single day, it was ramen for breakfast, ramen for lunch, and ramen + some spam for dinner. I’m talking about those 5 cent ramen you can buy in Chinatown. The ironic thing was that I never got tired of them… mmm.. I could use some ramen right about now.

  21. Crystal @ BFS

    @Henway, you make me laugh. 🙂

  22. LifeAndMyFinances

    Living cheaply in college in always important! It can limit the amount of student loans that are needed, and ultimately create a wealthier individual in the future because they won’t be paying their entire paycheck to interest!

  23. Layla

    I’ve never calculated how much I spend per day on food, but now that I think of it it’s sometimes $5 sometimes more (I try to spend $35 a week on groceries.)

    I always think of groceries as a sort of “freebie” category in my budget… if I spend a bit extra I don’t worry that much. I’m lucky to have help from my parents for university, but I think I’m missing out on some realities…

  24. Crystal @ BFS

    @LifeAndMyFinances, exactly!

    @Layla, as long as you know you are lucky, you’ll be able to budget accordingly when you no longer get family help. It’s only really hard for the people who don’t realize what could be and think that they can afford the same things that their parents, who have worked foe 20 years or more, can afford. 🙂

  25. Jeff

    WOW. $288/month!! I wish I could get a price like that. In the BX its more like $1000/month.

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