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College Grocery Shopping: a How-To

What does a college student shop for at the grocery store? How does such college student avoid overspending at Target?

What does a college student shop for at the grocery store? How does such college student avoid overspending at Target?

Shopping on your own for the first time can be daunting, especially as college is a breeding ground for “broke college students.” I’ve grocery-shopped a little more every year at Carleton, particularly after my sophomore year when I went off of Carleton’s meal plan (meaning I stopped eating at Carleton’s dining halls) and had access to a car.

Freshman year, I mostly shopped for snacks at Northfield’s local grocery store, Family Fare. Family Fare is about a five to ten-minute walk from campus and has most essentials including a nice produce section.

Once I was a sophomore and my roommate got a car, we started shopping every weekend at Cub Foods and Target, grocery stores that are a five-minute drive from campus. Neither of us were on a meal plan at this point, so we cooked all our food at home and had to budget and plan what we bought at the grocery store each week. This is the same way we shop now, as juniors: most of the time, we shop together and then split the cost because we eat most meals together (and eat the same snacks).

This is what a shopping trip might look like for us:

Before we leave the house, we make a list (and stick to it!!). This really helps us not spend money on things we don’t need (and also remember the things we do need). Our list usually falls into three categories: ingredients for dinner, lunch food and snacks, and “other” (shampoo, conditioner… etc.) We both try and add things to the list throughout the week so nothing is forgotten.

While we usually cook a meal for dinner, we generally do something simpler for lunch and breakfast: things that can be taken on the go (like instant oatmeal with added protein) and Uncrustables (a lifesaver at this point).

We both really like packing middle-school-esque lunches: cut-up bell peppers, grapes, a granola bar, and a sandwich prepared the night before. I’m also a huge supporter of dessert, and Oreos are always a must in my lunch. Lunch boxes make it so much easier to eat lunch in a way that’s filling and not dependent on location (AKA, I can eat wherever I am and don’t need to go home or to a dining hall or café for food!). This is especially helpful during the winter when I try to minimize outdoor time!

lunch box


After taking stock of all of our meal essentials, we make sure to add anything else we may need to the list in the “other” section. These include things like more hand soap for the bathroom, toothpaste, or something random that we’ve been wanting and can afford that week like a new mug. I really love a good mug.

Once at the store, we only buy things on the list! (And usually, a couple of things we did forget to write down, whoops.) We stop at Cub Foods first (Minnesota’s state grocery store), then at the Target next door if there’s something we need and couldn’t find at Cubs. Target is also a must if we want a “reward” Starbucks drink for being “Real Adults” and grocery shopping.

Yes, I am buying Scooby Snacks with my adult money.


Most weekends, we spend about $130 in total. Because my roommate and I are close and share most of the things we buy, we don’t split our individual items, opting to Venmo back half of the cost to whoever swipes their card at the store. While it’s not for everyone, being able to shop and cook my own meals is something I really enjoy because it gives me the freedom to decide what I want to eat and how much money I can spend!



Ren (they/them) grew up catching salamanders, recklessly climbing trees, and running around barefoot in the Appalachian Mountains in a small town in North Carolina. They are a junior double major in art history and studio art, and love spending time in the arb, Sayles Hill Campus Center, and the Weitz Center for Creativity. Ren is the co-president of Carleton’s QuestBridge chapter and works with other equity programs on campus.