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Save Money By Eating Out At Local College Town Area Restaurants

Published 7/28/08 (Modified 3/8/11)
By MoneyBlueBook

This weekend a good buddy of mine and I decided to meet up and go for a round trip cross country bike ride from suburban Maryland, through the tree lined bike trails of Washington D.C., and into the outskirts of Northern Virginia. Neither of us owned decent bikes (none with suitable seats that wouldn't give us wedgies anyway), so we decided to rent a pair from a local bike rental shop near my old university stomping grounds. Since I hadn't been back to visit my old college in some time, we decided that after bike riding we would spend some time looking around and grabbing a bite to eat somewhere in the college town neighborhood.

The bike ride through the shaded forest trails and paved roads was fun and the subsequent pit stop at the National Zoo in D.C. was very relaxing (although, where were all the animals we wondered?), but the biking experience left me utterly exhausted, with aching legs, and a pair of sore butt cheeks. I completely underestimated the painful long distance hill climbs and the sheer distance that we needed to travel. Despite my cross country running background, I've been slacking off in the exercise department of late and wasn't in the best of shape to embark on a long bike ride.

Next time, I would definitely do a better job planning the route. For one thing, I would arrange it so that we faced the long uphill climbs in the beginning first half of our bike ride during early afternoon than during the subsequent half late in the afternoon when our muscles and energy levels were already worn out. It was sort of embarrassing, but my friend and I ended up pushing our bikes uphill near the end because our legs were too drained. Yes, not the most impressive demonstrations of manliness (considering there were little kids biking uphill in their tri-cycles of all things), however, the day was a very enjoyable calorie burning day and we had appetites to match.

Visiting a Local College Town Bar and Grill Restaurant For Dinner, and Gushing Over the Cost Savings

After dropping off our rental bikes at the college town bike store, we looked around the neighboring university town to decide where to eat dinner. I suggested either one of the popular bars or local college town hangouts next to our bike rental place, or perhaps one of the casual dining cafes or restaurants popular among the college students. After reminiscing a little bit about the fond memories I had about sporting event inspired student riots that erupted in the past from these very same local hangouts, we settled on this one sports bar type place. The restaurant was a bar and grill eatery, and was a popular college student hangout when I was a student a few years ago and apparently still was. The interior walls were lined with numerous flat screen TV's showing various sporting events, and the place proudly displayed its local college team ties with mascot logos and signed football jerseys. Even the menus featured dishes named after the local university football and basketball coaches' names with ingredients that supposedly reflected their personalities. The place looked like a three way cross between an Applebee's, an ESPN zone, and a Hooter's restaurant (the waitresses at least).

After given the dinner menus by the perky waitress, my friend and I looked through the menu and picked out four dinner items - two entrees and two appetizers. I don't remember the exact name but I ordered some type of special pesto pasta dish and a side order of sweet potato fries, and my friend ordered some type of grilled chicken sandwich with an extra side of onion rings. I remember glancing at the prices briefly, but usually I don't usually pay much attention to individual prices until I get the bill. After we got our food, finished it, and asked for the bill - I was completely blown away by the final amount. Including sales tax, the bill came out to only $14.23! At first I thought there must have been some mistake - surely the waitress must have only calculated one of our orders and forgotten to include the other person's dinner entree and appetizer. But after punching some numbers on my cell phone calculator, I realized the final tab was computed correctly - it really was that cheap.

While some of you out there who live in rural or lower cost suburban areas may not think this is all that low for the cost of a dinner for two, in my neck of the woods of Washington D.C. and Maryland, this is exceedingly cheap. I was mentally expecting a total bill to come out at around $35.00-40.00 or more, especially since we also ordered appetizer sides and the fact it was dinner pricing, which is usually substantially higher than discounted prices during lunch time. So when I saw the low cost, I was ecstatic and elated at the tremendous cost savings.

Local Non-Chain Restaurants That Appeal To Cash Strapped Students Feature Much Lower Menu Prices

After pondering about it for a bit, I realized why prices were so comparatively low at this particular restaurant. In fact, it wasn't just that particular restaurant that offered much lower prices. Most of the other local neighborhood college town area restaurants, bars, and dining cafes offered similar competitive pricing as well. The reason for the cheaper pricing was because these restaurants catered heavily to the local state university campus a few blocks away, and as is understood, college students generally have a very limited financial budget to work with. While working adults and graduates presumably have full time jobs and income, college students tend to be more cash strapped and limited as to how much they can afford to spend. To cater to this category of lower income clientele and offer competitive food pricing, these college town restaurants must offer heavily discounted prices. While to the students, the prices were set just right and accurately priced to fit their market, to working adults like my friend and I, the dining prices were remarkably low. The different perspectives in pricing would be like some city slicker businessman from New York City, accustomed to paying $12-$15 for a single lunch deli sandwich everyday, being instantly transported to the boonies of Nebraska and finding sandwiches prices as low as $3 each. It's a frugal person's heaven and jackpot to be able to find such a hidden treasure trove of underpriced goods.

However, based on my view, the tremendous price savings are only available and offered at locally run off-campus hangouts. Brand name chain restaurants like Applebee's, TGI Fridays, or even coffee shops like Starbucks continue to offer the same high rip off prices they offer elsewhere. If you are looking for college town dining savings, you won't find them at chain restaurants or national retail shops. You'll have to go to some popular local bar or grill restaurant to get the great student level pricing.

Also, it seems the arbitrage price savings can usually only be found at community or local state universities and colleges. If you visit a private university or one that imposes notoriously high tuition rates, you are unlikely to find too many deals when it comes to dining or eating out. This is probably due to the richer and wealthier student patrons that enroll in those types of schools. As a result of the deeper pockets that these students come to school with thanks to their wealthier parents, they have a lot more disposable spending money to blow on entertainment and food. As such, even the local mom and pop restaurants located near private college and university campuses can afford to offer expensive items on the menu and still adequately compete for customers. Public state school students tend to be more frugal and more cognizant about prices. I would know - I graduated from a public state university. My friends who attended neighboring private colleges and universities tended to be more wasteful and lavish in their spending - and as a correlation, restaurants and cafes located their private school campuses tended to price themselves high to capture this higher income demographic. Finding exceptional dining deals around their schools was usually quite a challenge if not impossible.

Of course, the one greatest downside (or upside depending on what you're looking for) is the sheer number of rowdy students that are bound to flood these local college town restaurants when school season starts. We ate there during the summer and despite the presence of a few summer students and local residents, most of the locally owned restaurants and cafes were rather empty and vacant. I'm sure when September rolls around and school starts, the place will be filled with hordes of drunken college students and fraternity pledges from the neighboring fraternity row just a block away from the area restaurants - all looking to party it up.

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12 Responses to “Save Money By Eating Out At Local College Town Area Restaurants” 

  1. madsow-Engineer a debt free life says:

    Sometimes the wife and I will eat out at the local hospital's cafeteria for a cheap and very healthy meal. I know it sounds odd, but when we were going to lamaze classes, we discovered that we could dine a the hospitals cafeteria for around 3 dollars each, usually it is just the same thing that they made for the residents. We typically ate baked chicken with veggies and rice and a salad, lasagna and garlic bread, hamburger steaks. Always good food, low sodium which is great for my high blood pressure and at 3 bucks, you can't beat the price. Maybe not every hospital is like this, but it's worth checking out.

    Never gave much thought to the college campus though. I will have to try that one.

  2. Raymond says:

    Hey Madsow,

    That's a great tip! I wonder if hospital food is subsidized, contributing to the discount savings. But isn't hospital food kind of like airplane food - sort of the bear essentials in the food department?

    When I went to grad school, I used to stop by a hospital cafeteria for lunch, but I don't remember such lavish pickings.

  3. Mimoji says:

    "Saving money by eating out" - sounds like an oxymoron to me...

  4. Raymond says:

    Mimoji,

    How about "saving money WHEN you eat out"? Some of us cooking-challenged bumblefingers have to resort to eating out all the time. We can only eat ramen or cereal so often!

  5. Murray Trillionaire says:

    I guess it depends on the college town. I live in Princeton, NJ and the restaurants are outrageously expensive.

  6. Raymond says:

    Murray,

    Ah...well as I mentioned in my post, the student level pricing is likely only available in off-campus college towns near public universities or community colleges. Princeton, NJ is probably more well known for Princeton U, a notoriously expensive private university with high tuition rates catering more to wealthier students and families, or perhaps to a few students who are fortunate enough to qualify for special sweetheart financial aid packages.

    My assumption is that the students there can easily afford expensive amenity costs when it comes to food and entertainment. Thus the neighboring restaurants and diners have little incentive to price themselves low. It's just something I've noticed.

  7. Mimoji says:

    "Special sweetheart financial aid packages" - what does this mean? Married couples only?

    I went to a private university, and there were always sandwich and pizza places nearby. I also went to school in a large city with the campus located in an expensive neighborhood. It sort of balanced out - rich neighborhood kids and poorer kids got to eat out at places in each of their price ranges.

  8. Raymond says:

    Mimoji,

    Well I wasn't talking about pizza places or sub shops, I was talking about actual sit down restaurants, bars and grills, and sports bars that heavily cater to off-campus public university students. In my experience, they not only frequently offer great public student level pricing, but still provide good traditional sit-down restaurant food.

  9. Mimoji says:

    Raymond,

    I forgot to add this earlier. You might find this useful to solve your cooking woes: "Cooking Basics For Dummies"

  10. Raymond says:

    Mimoji,

    Does the book come with a personal shopper to do all the grocery shopping, a live person to do all the cooking work, and a maid to do all the subsequent cleaning? :) Because that would be quite the splendid bonus

    This book in particular looks like it's right up my alley - "Complete Idiot's Guide - Cooking For Guys".

  11. Packaging Manuli says:

    On many a Friday we often think about eating out, getting a takeaway etc. but then end up going to the supermarket and spending way more than we would have spent due to the "Eye bigeer than your Belly" Syndrome! So yes I agree it's sometimes cheaper and better to eat out then at home.

  12. nickle young says:

    That's a great tip! I wonder if hospital food is subsidized, contributing to the discount savings. But isn't hospital food kind of like airplane food - sort of the bear essentials in the food department?I forgot to add this earlier. You might find this useful to solve your cooking woes: "Cooking Basics For Dummies"

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