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How to Eat Well on a Graduate Student Stipend

Although grad school is nice in that we’re paid to read and write about our niche areas of interest, the payment we receive is all-too-frequently insufficient in comparison to the amount of time put into our studies.  Some of our paychecks are more meager than others, and some of us don’t have the luxury of getting those payments year-round. After reflecting on my two-month stretch without payments (as my program has only 10 month stipends*), I’ve compiled a list of tips that have helped me eat both healthy and delicious food over my time being borderline broke.

Disclaimer: Some of these tips show fast results, but some take time. However, generating healthier and more frugal eating habits can reap many benefits in the long run, so it’s definitely worth the extra time.

1. Find your resources. 

Every neighborhood has grocery stores, but each grocery store varies in the amount of healthy food offered and the price they’re charging for that food. Largely managed and operated stores, that also focus on produce as the center, tend to be the most effective for eating healthy for cheap. The biggest chain that seems to be worthwhile in this way is Sprouts, but if you don’t live near one, it helps to find your local “growers direct”. These markets negotiate pricing directly with the grower, instead of buying products from big-food middlemen, so you, as a customer, benefit from subtracting middle man’s extra cost.

In the Atlanta area, I’ve found that the Dekalb Farmer’s Market functions much like an international growers direct, selling produce and other items at incredibly low prices, because they’re acquiring and processing most of the goods. I know that, there, I can afford to buy my eggs organic, since there are nearby Amish and Quaker farms that supply it to the Dekalb Farmer’s Market for only $3.99 per dozen. However, you might need to do some exploration to find out where to get the best products for the least cost.

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2. See how far you can stretch $20. 

It’s actually more fun than you think it is, and you’ll surprise yourself when you find out that you can actually buy about a week’s worth of food for around $20. Make it a game where you check around the market for the best prices before choosing what to put in your basket. Remember to overestimate your total in order to account for taxes. If a number under $20 appears as the total at the cash register, you’ve won the game! In order to win the game every time, the next few tips will help.

Here’s what I was able to get this week at the price of $17.50:

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3. Don’t make a (set) grocery list. 

Although it is a good idea to know what types of foods you need (i.e. vegetables, condiments, butter, etc.), sticking to specific items too rigidly could be limiting.  If you don’t make a list, you’ll be able to browse for what’s in season, as opposed to looking for what you have thought about cooking. Buying food that’s in season will also ensure that is fresher and lasts longer, so you’ll be less likely to throw food out. When there’s an ingredient at a good price that you’ve never cooked with before, simply google that ingredient and explore some recipe ideas.

watermelon chop

4. If there’s wrapping, you’re paying for it.

Avoid packaged goods. Most food service companies charge three times what the good originally cost them in order to make a large quantity of profit. You can’t avoid this when it comes to food, but you can buy food that has less packaging. Packaged goods have an additional middle man to hike the price, yet again, for that desired profit.

5. Always use a basket; never use a cart. 

Unless you’re hosting or shopping for more than one person, you should be able to fit almost a week’s worth of food into one basket. This will ensure that you don’t overbuy food. If you overbuy, some of your produce might go bad before you’re able to eat it. Yes, this means more frequent trips to the grocery store, but with such a light load, they’ll be fast trips too!

Grapefruit

6. Recognize foods for their nutritional value. 

You don’t need to down a plethora of expensive “superfoods” to get all the nutrients necessary for a healthy diet. Many common foods are just as healthy as what gets deemed a “superfood.” Eggs, for example, have zinc, iron, copper, selenium, vitamin D, vitamin B 12, Vitamin B 6, and much, much more. You might not need to buy multivitamins (another expense to remove from your budget) if you’re getting what your body needs naturally from food. Also, if you keep yourself healthy with food, you might not have to deal with the cost of medical bills!

7. Know your body. 

Not only is it helpful to consider the nutritional benefits of the foods you buy, it’s also important to think about what nutrients your body craves, along with which foods it detests. It’s helpful to keep track of which foods make you feel the most full and sustained for long periods of time. An occasional homemade, fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice might rejuvenate me from a long day of work, but your body might need something else.

8. Know your habits. 

Are you down to cook or do you detest cooking? Consider what you buy at the store and whether or not you’ll have to cook it. If you don’t like to cook, it might help to do some research on easy meals to prepare, along with the most hands-off ways to prepare them. Remember that fresh fruit is the fastest thing possible to eat, so if you live a healthy lifestyle, stock up on apples and bananas!


9. Invest in a crock pot (or other hands-off cooking devices you might enjoy).

Even if you live a busy lifestyle, you can leave the cooking up to the crock pot. Basic crock pots start as low as $20, and can make a seemingly intricate dish become the most simple and fast to prepare. There are plenty of other devices at varying prices, like an Instant Pot, which cooks much faster than a crock pot (but is a bit more expensive).


10. During times of money, stock up on flavor enhancers. 

The extra flavor enhancers are often what cost the most money, so accumulate them slowly over time. Maybe once a month, buy a spice or two, or maybe some sort of hot sauce. (Pro tip if you’re in Atlanta: Your Dekalb Farmer’s Market has extremely cheap spices!) Consider buying the types of products that will last in your fridge for a long time, like miso or soy sauce, which will last about a year.

11. Stay positive. 

If you reassess your situation, you can see it as being creative and healthy  rather than being broke. Even if you have enough money to buy whatever you want, think about adopting these tactics and saving the extra money for a vacation or something else you’ve been wanting for a while!

*After this post was published (in 2015), my stipend was increased to 11 months the following year and to 12 months the year after that. It relieved a whole lot of stress and gave me some flexibility with my budget. I do, however, still like to play the $20 game when I go to the grocery store.