Eating on a Budget While Studying Abroad

It may seem like a simple task, but when you’re living in a new place for a lengthy period of time, eating healthy while not spending too much money can be difficult when you’re studying abroad. If you’re in a country with a different currency, it can be confusing to remember what the equivalencies are while shopping. However, it’s important to know that it’s definitely a possibility.

Photo by Katie Smith

Photo by Katie Smith

When I was living in London, our living situation wasn’t…the best. We lived in tiny rooms with two people in them when they were really built for one person, and the only way we could consume food in the room was with a microwave. We had a tiny fridge that couldn’t really fit much. There were communal kitchens on each floor of the building, but they weren’t kept in the best of conditions because we lived on the same floor as some extremely messy students. However, we were lucky enough to be able to use the kitchens of the other floor. A lot of the people on my school’s program lived on the floor above us, so they normally used that kitchen and allowed us to join them. Even though the kitchens were slightly poor, they were still okay to use. But how did we manage to figure out how to get enough groceries to feed ourselves while fitting in the tiny fridges in our rooms?

There was a communal fridge to use in the kitchens, but that was the opposite of a good idea because you really didn’t know who would go in and use your food that you paid for. So, my roommate and I kept our food in our own fridge in our room. The problem was that it was extremely small, so it was pretty hard to fit food for breakfast, lunch, AND dinner for two people. This is where we really lucked out when it came to the grocery store we lived near.

We lived down the road from a Waitrose, which is one of the more expensive grocery store chains in England. While this meant high quality food, it also meant higher grocery bills. So what did we do? Well, luckily, Waitrose sells packaged meals that don’t have the different preservatives that you might find in the pre-cooked foods here in the United States. They also sold pre-made salads, as well as packaged pre-cooked chicken. This made everything way easier when it came time to eat; all I really had to do was put the ingredients together, with no cooking required.

One way to save money while shopping for food is to look for these pre-packaged foods. If they’re cheap enough, you could stock up on a few to balance out the amount of actual cooking you need to do in case you have a communal kitchen and can’t access an oven or stove. It’s also important to buy reusable grocery bags. While it could vary from place to place, in London, they charge you for each plastic bag you use. They charge what would be around 7 cents per plastic bag. This might not seem like a lot, but if you buy multiple bags per shop and you go shopping once a week, it definitely adds up. So, splurge for the bags when you first start shopping; they’re not that expensive overall, and you can use them when you come home from your time abroad. I still use my reusable bags from London when I go shopping!

Photo by Guus Baggermans

Photo by Guus Baggermans

Also, another fairly obvious point, but still necessary to include: reduce the amount of eating you do at restaurants. It’s important to get the experience of dining in a few restaurants in the city where you’re studying, but it’s also important to keep the balance of dining out and cooking for yourself in order to save your money for other experiences during your time abroad. Most of the eating I did during my semester was from the grocery store, but because I was in London, I loved eating in the pubs around town. I also took full advantage of being in the vicinity of the popular restaurant chain, Nando’s. However, I made sure that my restaurant visits were spread apart. This made me feel better about the amount of money I was spending on food. It also made the experience of dining at a restaurant feel more special, even if I was eating at a not-so-fancy place.

Another tip is to make sure that you’re not spending more money than necessary on products. Always compare prices, because chances are you can find a cheaper alternative that isn’t the brand name you’d be paying for. This applies to shopping wherever you are, but it’s especially important to remember when you’re on a study abroad budget.

Finally, remember: everything in moderation! It might not be smart to buy $50 worth of alcohol in one shopping trip, but if you find a cheap bottle of wine in the grocery store and you want to have it in the fridge for a leisurely night in, get it! Also treat yourself to some of the popular dessert items in the store. I made sure to try the different British chocolate bars that were sold in the grocery store, because I knew I wouldn’t really have access to them once I was gone.

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Overall, it might not be at the top of your mind when you’re thinking about studying abroad, but it’s extremely important to remember to keep to a budget when food shopping. If you spend less money on food, you’ll have more to spend on weekend trips, or other experiences around the city where you’re spending your time. It’s definitely a challenge to figure out a good way to eat, and eat well, for a low amount of money, especially if you don’t have the best options for a kitchen in your living situation. However, remember that it’s possible, and there are plenty of websites with easy and cheap recipes for you to utilize.