Paying for College

College Meals Cost Budgeting

Parents, if you think your college student is eating all his or her meals in the college dining hall, you're sadly mistaken. You may recall some of my ravings here about those very special nights when I was in college (yes, that was back well before all the planets in our solar system were formed) when my roommate and I would stroll across the street to the Hilltop Sub Shop (HSS) for one of their world-class steak sandwiches. Why was this event so special?

Well, we both would have just received money from home. I would get a letter in the mail that contained a five dollar bill. That was back in the days when most postal employees could be trusted to deliver cash in the mail. My roommate, coming from the Philadelphia Main Line, would get a TEN dollar bill. On those outstanding mail days, we would feel like millionaires (in those olden days when being a millionaire really meant something). Anyway, even as I wrote above, we weren't eating all our meals in the dining hall.

So, there I was yesterday, daydreaming about our beloved HSS and those exceptional memories of being away at college, on our own for the first time in our lives. Then, while checking my endlessly cascading email, I found a perfectly timed article entitled College Eating: 9 Ways to Save on Dining Out, written by Kendal Perez, a bargain shopper who helps those of us concerned with saving money to hold onto our hard-earned cash, especially in ultra-expensive venues like college. Kendal is the marketing manager for Kinoli Inc., a family of money-saving websites. With Kendal's gracious permission, let's see what she has to say about saving money in college while dining out. I've included a few of my own observations [inside brackets].

In 2011, college students spent an average of $765 eating off-campus. Despite the frugality of Ramen and the convenience of on-campus dining [at such places as the Hilltop Sub Shop!], most students like to try the local cuisine or have a fast-food habit to feed. Regardless of the reason, dining out can take a serious toll on lean college budgets [well beyond the five or ten dollars a month Mom or Dad mails you every month (yes, I said “month")].

Since avoiding the restaurant scene in a college town is out of the question, consider these easy ways to save on dining out.

1. Set a Limit

Each week, determine when you want to eat out and how much you want to spend, and withdraw that money in cash. [Try to draw the line at $100, although that will severely limit your tipping.] Then, stock up on at-home meals from the grocery store so you have plenty of alternatives once the greenbacks disappear [which should be right after your second restaurant visit, or even during your second restaurant visit].

2. Use Coupons

If you failed to grab the college coupon book during your first week of class, no worries. This stuff is digital now! Download the free Coupon Sherpa mobile app for coupons to restaurants like Baja Fresh, BJ's Brewhouse, Domino's Pizza and more [but, sadly, not for Hilltop Sub Shop]. You can also find deals to local eateries using the Valpak app.

3. Play the Student Card

Don't leave home without your student ID. Many franchise restaurants offer a student discount [but don't inquire about this perk at any restaurant that deploys cloth napkins], but the savings vary by location. Click here for a complete list of restaurants, retailers and service providers known to give discounts to students [and who also don't use tablecloths].

4. Order for Leftovers

According to the Center for Disease Control, the average meal at a restaurant is four times larger than it was during the 1950s. Keep the freshman 15 at bay by only eating half of what's served to you [use a large metal ruler to divide those huge portions in half], and request a to-go bag for tomorrow's lunch or dinner. [Whatever happened to the term “doggie bag"? The kitty lobby must have sued for discrimination.]

5. Get Chummy with Happy Hour

True to its namesake, happy hour is a college student's best friend. Half-price drinks and appetizers can easily satisfy your dinnertime cravings. Macaroni Grill, for example, currently offers three of their $10 artisan pizzas for just $5, along with $3 drafts and house wines. [Caution: Happy Hour can quickly lead to Hangover Morning, regardless of how much half-priced pizza you've had.]

6. Watch for Specials

Chain restaurants like Applebee's and Olive Garden offer periodic specials that yield a whole lot of food for less than individual prices. For example, Olive Garden's Never Ending Pasta Bowl is available through Sept. 29, offering bottomless salad, breadsticks and pasta for $9.99 [although the Olive Garden waitstaff has been trained to watch for college students stuffing “endless" breadsticks into their backpacks].

7. Peruse Daily Deals

Groupon and LivingSocial can be great money-saving tools when used responsibly. Though an all-inclusive trip to Fiji may be appealing, stick to daily deals for local food and save 50-percent or more off your meal. [How about an all-inclusive trip to the library to study for midterms?]

8. Stick to the Entree

A surefire way to leave a restaurant with a $50 charge is to treat yourself to multiple courses and beverages. Opt for water over soda or alcohol, and skip pricey appetizers and desserts in favor of a single entree. [Forget those loaded fries and chocolate volcanoes for dessert.]

9. Sign Up for Savings

Create a new email account and use it to sign up for restaurant newsletters. In exchange, restaurants will send you new-member coupons as well as subsequent announcements and offers which you can peruse before heading out to eat. [Be careful about those outfits that offer to fax you the latest restaurant menus, especially if you don't have a fax machine in your dorm room.]


One of my own money-saving tips is to use dining hall food as the foundation for decent dorm room meals. If you have a 'fridge in your room, go to the local Walmart Super Center and stock up on salad dressings, fresh veggies, fruit, and other condiments that can add both tastiness and mileage to those dining hall menu items you bring back to your room. Fresh fruit can be made into a delicious fruit salad and simple mac & cheese can be augmented with fresh tomatoes, croutons, and some seasoning to make a satisfying entree. Keep an eye out for many more dorm room delights in my forthcoming book, Dorm Room Dining: Five-Star Meals Right There on Your Bedspread!


Be sure to check out all my college-related articles at College Confidential.