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Boiling down the numbers: A “dining plan” for the off-campus resident

Compared to paying for campus housing and dining hall plans, living off-campus can be more cost effective, in terms of money spent per month on food and other expenses. GRAPHIC BY MAYA DEVEREAUX/DAILY FREE PRESS STAFF
Compared to paying for campus housing and dining hall plans, living off-campus can be more cost effective, in terms of money spent per month on food and other expenses. GRAPHIC BY MAYA DEVEREAUX/DAILY FREE PRESS STAFF

The freedom of controlling your diet in an off-campus apartment is a blessing — but it can also be a hazard. Newly independent students often catch themselves halfway through the month with no money and nothing in the fridge, begging friends with dining plans for a quick dinner at the dining hall. But a comprehensive and detailed food budget can save any starving college student from, well, starving.

It’s not difficult to break even in off-campus housing. With the minimum dining plan in the cheapest on-campus room, students pay $14,030, which breaks down to $1,753.75 per month. Living in the Allston-Brighton area, students can expect to spend $700-1,000 per month on rent (depending on the neighborhood, number of tenants, etc.). Apartments often climb in price as students enter city limits, ranging between $1,000-1,500 in the South Campus, Kenmore and Boylston neighborhoods. Students should expect to spend around $300-500 each month on food and supplies, factoring in an extra few hundred dollars to stock a kitchen. Splitting a budget into weekly and monthly grocery lists is a safe bet for any student worried about staying full without breaking the bank.

Stocking your kitchen is hard to conceptualize in the beginning because we forget how frequently we use spices, oils and utensils that magically appeared in our childhood kitchens. There are companies that rent out appliances and furniture to college students for a nominal fee, which might make sense for students on a tight budget. Even without borrowing your kitchen materials, hunting for bargains at Goodwill, on Craigslist and in grocery outlets like Super 88 can help students prepare for a year of cooking in a cost-effective way. Here are some smart appliances and everyday-ingredients to buy for your new apartment:


Appliances and Utensils: approximately $200, once each year

Mugs, plates, silverware, glasses and bowls Don’t spend more than $50 on what you use to eat. You can find everything listed here and spend $30 if you shop cheaply, but you can even buy all of these new and spend under $50. You can buy beautiful ceramic plates once you have a $401(k).

A coffee maker A French press is a smart, cheap way to make the morning coffee for both you and your roommate. Only one caffeine addict in the apartment? Stick to a pour-over plastic coffee cone, which makes a smooth cup of coffee for $3 at Bed, Bath and Beyond.

A skillet, a saucepan and a stock pot Each of these range between $20-30 new, but can be found for around $10 at places like Goodwill.

A spatula, ladle and three sharp knives Knife sets can be found for less than $20 on Amazon, and ladles and spatulas can be scavenged for less than $5.

A Crock-Pot and/or a microwave A Crock-Pot is the smartest purchase a college chef can buy. One of the smartest ways to get through a stressful week of dinners is with a Crock-Pot soup, stew or casserole, which can serve a student for less than $10. Crock-Pots can be found for around $20-40, and microwaves can be found for around $50.

For the first few months, expect to spend another $50-100 adding to your kitchen appliances based on your own personal diet.


Everyday Ingredients: approximately $100, 1-3 times each year

These purchases are made around once every three months, if that, but you use them constantly. They may change for each chef, but here some of the most important:

Olive Oil A good olive oil can go a long way. You would be shocked how often you use it. A one-liter bottle costs around $6 and will last you the entire year.

Soy Sauce, Mirin and Sriracha These three ingredients make quick and easy stir-fries and marinades for any given night. Every student should stock up on quick-and-dirty sauces at places like Super 88, which often cost less than $5 per bottle for dozens of dinners. Other recommended sauces include curry base, oyster sauce and sweet soy marinade

Herbs and Spices Shop at Trader Joe’s for the best prices on herbs. Depending on how frequently you cook, it might make sense to buy one jar of Herbs de Provence, a blend that packs tons of flavor for basic soups and sauces. Other classics include cumin, oregano, rosemary, tarragon, thyme, paprika and bay leaf. Don’t spend more than $20 on spices.

Rice and dry pasta Buy rice in bulk if possible, and pasta as well. If you stock up, one $20 purchase can work for an entire semester of meals.

Canned Tomatoes and Beans Canned tomatoes can be used in chicken dishes, soups, curries and more, and they’re cheap and plentiful. Buy a few cans at the beginning of the year with a few cans of beans, a cheap form of protein to add to soup or rice.

An emergency drawer Most likely, at one point in time, you will overspend and find your pantry empty. Buy a couple of sets of canned soup, some ramen and a few cans of beans, just in case.


Monthly ingredients: Around $150, 1-2 each month

Set aside $100-150 each month on ingredients you buy infrequently but each month, at least. These ingredients include eggs, butter, chicken breasts (which you can freeze), snack items, cereal and so on. Depending on how you eat during the day, it’s smart to consider lunches in this expense (which, in all likelihood, a student will eat on the go — especially those students living in Allston or Brighton). Cereal bars, granola, nuts and dried fruit travel well and are fairly inexpensive if you shop at stores like Trader Joe’s or Super 88.


Weekly ingredients: Around $50, four times each month

Foods that perish or can be consumed quickly should factor in to your budget. These foods include milk, produce, meats and juice. Super 88 Market has remarkably inexpensive produce that, while rarely organic, can help students eat healthily for less than $10 each week.

Any room in your budget can be reserved for your specific treat, whether that’s dinner out with friends, ice cream after dinner or pizza on Friday nights. While keeping your budget tight will keep you from going hungry, saving an extra $100 each month for other “fun” food expenses will keep you happy.

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