College Budget Journies: Tracking How Much I Spend On Food

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Photo Courtesy of Alice Giovanna Terriquez

by Alice Giovanna Terriquez

It’s a typical college scene: I’m sitting in class with a growling monster in my belly while the girl next to me gives me her death glare. As soon as class ends, I race to UTC to grab some food.

“A burrito or a chicken sandwich today?” I ask myself. I check my bank account, sad to discover I could not afford guacamole and chips. A burrito alone will have to do, as my stomach fills and my bank account depletes.

During my next class I have trouble concentrating — I’m too full. I regret eating the whole burrito, but I didn’t want to carry it; my entire backpack would smell like Pico de Gallo.

So here are the first problems I encountered as I began to track my food choices, an idea inspired by the realization that pretty much all of my money goes towards buying food. These purchases were based on convenience and often times, carried regrets. I wish I could say that I was eating expensively but super healthy, that my money was invested in fresh greens, protein shakes, and seasonal fruit but actually I discovered that all my money was invested in breaded chicken sandwiches, waffle fries, cinnamon pretzels and coffee.

Taking all my receipts from the past month led me to discover that I was eating food that did not quite make my body feel good. Beyond my own fulfillment, I realized that I should also stop paying for my friends at restaurants — I am just as broke as them. And by tracking my receipts, I learned to ask the biggest question of all: do I really need to reward myself with chocolate every other day?

The food I was consuming was leaving me feeling hungry and so then come the snacks — lots of snacks, my favorite being the cinnamon pretzel. After every meal I found myself regretting my decisions or having a little bit of a sweet tooth. It did not help that I work at the Irvine Spectrum, right next to Wetzel’s Pretzels. I thought it was a genius idea to get a cinnamon pretzel…every single shift. Yes, you’re probably wondering how I did not get tired of all those pretzels. Well, they are delicious, made of bread and sugar, fat and tasty.

Then when I am in school I find myself at the candy shop in UTC, I mean the pound of candy is higher than minimum wage but the classes here can be up to three hours long. What better way to pass the time than to eat while the professor teaches you that everything you learned in high school was a lie?

Being a student at UC Irvine is not cheap, I am surrounded by fast, expensive food and live in the middle of the foodie culture. On top of that, there is stress-eating during midterms and then late night food runs to those terrible places that are open 24 hours! Hanging out with friends is always fun but costs too much. It seems that every weekend a new coffee shop is opening, there is a new crepe place to try, a festival with delicious deep-fried food is in town or someone is turning 21 and it is polite to buy them a drink at a Newport bar. If only we all just hangout at the free events, then we wouldn’t be racking up $22 tabs a few times a week.

On top of all this, I have my coffee addiction. Granted I only get the small simple coffee and do not splurge on a Caramel Macchiato but nonetheless racking up about $60 dollars at Starbucks in a month.

I wish that when we entered college, they would’ve handed us a crock pot and some food gift cards. After tracking my food for the first few weeks I sat down on a Sunday and decided to make some decisions that could help me, money and health-wise.

I realized that cooking at home could reduce my meal cost from $10 at the places on UTC to about $2 a day. When I did the math, I began to save myself about $200 a month. There was no coffee expense (okay, since I was saving money I did get a latte last week) but I only ate out twice a week, and instead spent money on groceries. I threw in some veggies and chicken and spices and made some delicious combinations. Not only did I have a lunch but I also had a dinner waiting for me at home, which also made it easier not to eat out. The fact that I was conscious of having food at home made it easier for me to avoid splurging on some fries or sweets.

As I sat down with my receipts I also was curious about what the long term effects of eating out often were and I don’t want any of the ones I found on WebMD. Freedom comes with great responsibility so as I tracked my food I noticed that at the end of the day, I was making these decisions. I had power over how I spent my money and how I was going to feel after every meal — satisfied and not gross.

Being in college has given me the opportunity to make “big girl” decisions so after sitting down and seeing my receipts I decided that I needed to make smarter decisions. It was not easy. UTC is convenient for a reason; they don’t want you to stop drinking boba, eat chicken or shark-shaped gummies, no they don’t.

I also decided to head to Walmart and purchased the Single Serve Coffee Maker and some Gevalia House blend for $35.99 plus tax. I know what you’re thinking: we don’t have the time to make our own coffee in the morning. Wrong! Yes, we do. If we have the time to stand in that ridiculous line at Starbucks which can take up to forty minutes, you can brew coffee for two minutes at home and not spend $720 on coffee a year, up to $900 if you’re the type to order the venti frappuccinos.

So I decided to give up the coffee spending but I am conscious that I can’t give up the eating out with friends because those moments are good for the soul. Only now I just do not pay for my friends, as stingy as that might sound. I figure if we both cannot afford the restaurant then we can go for a morning walk at the beach instead or come over to my place and I will brew some coffee.

I do not have the perfect formula for how to eat out and when it is appropriate to do it, but ever since being aware of my decisions I have been able to make small changes like the ones mentioned above and put other things into perspective. I spend my money on things that will last me a little longer and also have some leftover money so I can maybe afford a spring break trip.

Consciously taking preventative measures, asking myself simple questions like, “How am I going to feel after this meal?” “What about that bank account?” “Can I make myself something at home?” “How else can I spend $720 this year?” has really helped to keep myself a little healthier, with more money in my pocket.

Now instead of a coffee everyday, I get a macchiato every other week and actually feel like I am rewarding myself. I no longer work at the Spectrum so that helps me avoid the oh-so-delicious cinnamon pretzel. However, finals are around the corner so I ask that you wish me luck as I set up shop at the library — I might have to get some extra snacks.

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