Eating Cheap as an Exchange Student

Dining out is eating away at my wallet.

Existing in a foreign country as an exchange student is a strange limbo between native and visitor. Everything feels foreign, yet everything around us is home for the next five months. So far I’ve been spending on food with the mentality of a visitor – try it all! Now, after a horrified look into an empty wallet, I’m switching to treating food and drink spending as a native – and will hopefully start saving money!

Step 1 

Explore a few grocery stores, ask people who live here, and determine which stores are best for which products. For me, I’ve determined that Albert Heijn is my go-to affordable store for all things besides produce. Aldi’s is a farther walk from my dorm, but has the cheapest produce and is worth the extra effort.

While in line in Albert Heijn yesterday, I noticed all the locals holding identical blue cards. Curious, I ASKED. Most good saving discoveries come from simply asking, and sure enough, I learned all about the AH Reward program by asking a QUESTION to the cashier.

I’m now a proud AH Reward card holder!


Step 2

Opt to cook over eating out. I’ve met most my floor while (attempting) to cook in the kitchen. There is a sense of community and connectedness to prepare food as a group, then to sit down and eat together. My soups might be watery, and my vegetables burned, but I love cooking here for the people value and quality time spent in the kitchen together. I’m in week two and starting to figure out cheap recipes that I enjoy, stay tuned for my Students Eat Cheap Recipes and please comment with your own staple meals, I’d love to learn new dishes!

Step 3 

Keep ingredients simply and start buying from the bottom. “Start buying from the bottom” is my way of saying that the more natural the product, the cheaper it is.

I often use basil, but found the packaged basil too expensive. Instead, I opted with purchasing my own basil plant. It was two euros, and has provided both myself and other members of my floor with an endless amount of basil. This was about half the price of purchasing a much smaller quantity of basil, prepackaged.

Look for herb plants. NEVER buy precut fruit. It will take you five minutes to slice up your fruit, and that five minutes will save you from a ridiculously expensive additional charge.

Avoid individually pre-packaged snacks. Again, extra charges. Buy a few ziplock baggies and pack snacks yourself – much more affordable!

Step 4 

Buy store brand and take a few seconds to scan for the cheapest option. There’s no need to spend extra money on a special brand of tomato sauce, we’re in college. One day we can buy Speghitti Bolognase le Fancy, but for now we are college students eating off plastic plates. Love it, embrace it, and buy generic.

Step 5

Don’t be afraid to go native! I’d much rather make and eat a Dutch Bitterbal snack than a boring ol’ PB&J. Explore new local recipes, and even new food.

Here is where I allow some food splurging. The Dutch have incredible cheeses, so once a week I buy a new kind of cheese to try. Find food that is important to you, or important to the culture you’re in, and be OK spending on it. The cheese is a treat for me, and I’m having a gouda time trying all the different kinds!

Step 6 

Learn how to cook and find fun recipes to try. There are fantastic cooking recipes out there, start building a collection. I’ve been finding recipes through:

  • Dutch home magazines. I found a Dutch cookbook, but for seven euros I’m happy I didn’t buy it. In most cafes here, magazines are on tables, many often in English. Flip through, find a recipe, and cook your own Dutch avondeten!
  • Pinterest. Of course. I have two boards going for travel cooking. One board is dedicated to cold dishes, or dished that will be easy to prepare while hosteling. The other board is where I store more adventurous recipes, but still all easy to prepare.
  • Whole Foods Recipe iPhone App – free!
  • AllRecipes iPhone App – free!
  • Recipes by Better Homes iPhone App – free!
  • Ask people in your hallway to show you their favorite meals and how to prepare them. I’m learning about new foods and new ways to prepare foods from other students from around the world. It really is a lot of fun! There’s plenty of wait time while cooking, so conversations really get rolling while cooking together. What might start off as an exchange of cooking tips often turns into an enlightening exchange of cultures.

When collecting recipes, be sure to first look at the ingredients list. Don’t cook a meal that includes multiple, pricey ingredients that you’ll never use again. Stick to the basics, and find recipes that cater to the ingredients you already own.

Step 7

Explore local stores and build relationships. I’ve made friends with the local baker, and always have her pick out which bread I should get. Last time I was in she gave me a rye bread that looked bland, until I tore a piece off and found it filled with fruit! At restaurants, see what dish is the servers favorite. Typically, it won’t be what you were initially eying. Here’s my philosophy on ordering – you have to eat the rest of your life. Treat food you spend money on as an experience, and go for it! You know what a hamburger tastes like…but what is this Hutspot and Snert?! Try it.

Step 8 

Pack snacks. A handfull of nuts. An apple. Cheese, salami and crackers. Avoid little snack spending this way.

Step 9

Make coffee a treat, not a necessity…AAHHH!! I’ve been making myself a lot of tea, and pretending that it is filling the void of my daily coffee. I’ve decided to never order a coffee to go. Cappuccinos and all other coffee drinks here are simply TOO GOOD to not sit down, and savor. Frankly, also too expensive also. I enjoy taking my seat at cafes somewhat behind the counter, because I love to watch the baristas at work. It is an art here, and after working as a barista for a year, I understand the training and skill it takes to create the perfect espresso beverage.

Some cafes host free tasting events, I’m looking forward to attending one while I’m here!

PLEASE COMMENT with your own eating cheap tips and tricks, recipes you love, and other saving ideas!