Josh started university this autumn. He was sent off armed with boxes of cereal, packets of pasta, containers of laundry detergent, a veritable selection of kitchen equipment, and an iron. (For those of you who don't know Josh, he's something of a dandy; the iron is essential.) He is blossoming into a more than competent cook, hosts a fabulous radio show, and manages to turn in his assignments on time. Altogether, I would say that he is coping most admirably. Nevertheless, there have been IM conversations where I have directed him in the finer arts of separating clothes to prevent colour leeching during the laundry process, and a telephone conversation along the lines of: 'I've cut myself and it won't stop bleeding. What should I do?' However, a recent text message was perhaps my favourite: 'I need lessons in food shopping. Please email advice.' (I'm waiting for the next request to come via telegram.)
Bless him, he was slightly perplexed as to where his money disappeared every time he stepped foot in the supermarket. Telling him to shop around was definitely not an option: he lives on campus and does not drive. He might be a student but he really does have better ways to spend his time and money than taking the bus about town to compare the price of potatoes in Sainsbury's with those in the Co-op. Thus I drew on my experiences from five years of student-enforced penury and provided him with the following advice. You never know, you might find it useful too.
- Do not go shopping when you're hungry. Going grocery shopping with a rumbling stomach will result in you buying enough snack food to make you obese and induce diabetes in one sitting. Not only that, but you will be even grumpier than the usual gauntlet of the supermarket shopping experience makes you. And more? You still won't have any food with which to make an actual meal.
- Make a list. Doubtless you've heard this hundreds, if not thousands of times, but do it anyway. Plan out what you need in terms of essentials: bread, milk, cereral, toothpaste, toilet roll &c. Then work out how many meals you need to accommodate from the shopping expedition you are about to undertake. It will seem like a terrible chore, and you will almost certainly leave it on your desk, but the act if writing it will help to focus your mind.
- I don't necessarily plan my exact meals before I go. I work out how many times I need to feed myself and what, vaguely, I want. Thus, my list will normally say something like: dinner for Monday - fish? This way I can buy whatever looks fresh/good/is suitably cheap, but make sure I have what I need to feed myself.
- Buy only what you need. Unless it's things such as tinned tomatoes that don't go off and are used with alarming regularity, don't feel compelled to buy things in bulk because they are on offer. Three-for-two offers on large tubs of yoghurt might seem like great value, but will you eat all of it before it starts to smell, congeal, and turn a funny colour? Sustaining an independent ecosystem in an over-abundance of something in your fridge is not good value for money.
- Take a calculator with you. Sometimes the very largest size of a product isn't the cheapest. It's the middle size. Work it out. Do not be embarrassed by your status as a skint student. It is a ritual and badge of honour. Remember: the smallest size invariably won't be the most cost effective.
- Sometimes there are weird brands which are cheaper than supermarket own brands; keep an eye out for them. I get through risotto rice in almost industrial quantities. I use an Italian brand that is half the price of anything else in the supermarket and is just as good, if not better. Same goes for tinned tomatoes.
- Use a basket, not a trolley. Not only will this prevent you having to schlep a container ship's-worth of products back home and then find room for them, it will help to stop you from spending too much.
- Get an adult to take you shopping. She or he will usually pay.
I've set myself up for the last one, I know. Whenever I visit him, I will have to take him shopping and I will feel obliged to pay. I was a poor student once upon a time. I might yet end up a poor student again. What you give is what you get returned. But the good news? He tells me he has managed to reduce his weekly grocery bill quite significantly. Huzzah!
Addendum: alex has pointed out that you should not go shopping when you are tired. Fatigue will diminish your ability to resist the unnecessary, and probably snack and comfort foods, too. Good point, thank you.