When you’re looking for ways to rein in your spending, a food budget can be a good place to start. But you don’t want to sacrifice your social life. Here are a few ways to enjoy those tailgating parties, coffee dates and roommate takeout nights without food costs draining your bank account.
1. Plan your spending
Divide your food budget into two categories: needs and wants. Food can easily walk a tightrope between the two, so use this strategy as a guide, not a rigid rule. If you’ve already paid for a campus meal plan that covers all of your weekly meals, most of your additional weekly food spending will fall into the want category. If you live off campus, consider your groceries as needs and impromptu drive-thru runs as wants.
Set weekly goals for each category based on what you can afford and what’s reasonable for your lifestyle and location. This budgeting calculator may help. Tweak your spending goals to develop a budget that works for you.
2. Understand your campus meal plan
Many schools charge a lump-sum dining hall fee per semester or bundle food and housing costs, so it can be hard to know what you’re really paying for each meal you eat on campus.
The cost per meal can vary widely by school, so use this college meal plan calculator to estimate yours. The dining plan may be your only option, because some schools require students living on campus to buy one. But if you can opt out, you could save money by skipping the dining halls and buying groceries and the occasional meal out instead.
3. Cook at home on weeknights
Vowing not to order takeout is probably unrealistic, but try to cook at home at least during the week. You’ll be most successful if you plan ahead, so make meal prep part of your Sunday routine. To get started, try vegetable curry, turkey avocado cubanos and lemon basil ramen stir fry.
4. Budget for splurges
It can feel impossible to resist that group pizza order after a late night out. You don’t have to deny yourself those indulgences, but come up with a way to curb impulse spending.
One idea: Use a prepaid debit card to hold your “want” food allowance. Look for one with minimal fees. Load a set amount onto the card each month, and when it runs out you’ll know it’s time to cut back until next month. For a similar effect without the fees that some prepaid cards charge, tuck a few bills in an envelope and use them to buy those midnight munchies. In both cases, the card and the cash — or lack of it — will say no when your willpower can’t.
5. Split bulk grocery items among your roommates
Buying pantry items in bulk can be cost-effective. But when you’re cooking for one, a 25-pound bag of rice could take you years to finish. To avoid waste and still reap the cost benefits, ask your roommates to split bulk amounts of nonperishable items like pasta, beans, oatmeal and nuts. Use Venmo or a similar money-transfer app to pay one another back.
This article was written by NerdWallet and was originally published by USA Today College.