Poverty Potluck

by admin on February 6, 2013

This is more a question concerning etiquette, and what I should do.

First, some background, I am a university student who lives on campus. I have no access to a stove/oven, microwave, etc. People who know me, know I have no possible way of cooking for myself, and that I get most of my meals from the dining hall services.

I have a poor job and earn only minimum wage. Almost all of the money from that job goes to paying my university fees or I save so I can visit my family during breaks (It’s roughly $120 both ways- which is also how much I make in two weeks.) I don’t exactly have spending money.

Now, I have been invited to three or four potlucks this year. The first one, I stated I could not attend, as I had no way to cook anything or the money to purchase food. My university society (almost all of which live off campus in their own homes), replied with a positive, “Show up anyway”. Still, I felt it was unfair to those who had brought food – so I ended up staying in my dorm room and eating at the meal hall. This short story doesn’t end there. My rather large, strong friend discovered me on my way out of the meal hall, yelled at me for not going to the potluck, and proceeded to pick me up and carry me across campus to the room it was being held in.

There was a second potluck around christmas time – this time I was with my parents and had access to a stove. I happily made my sweet-and-sour meatballs, and managed to get a ride in to the party with a friend. Once getting there however, I discovered I was the only one who actually read that part of the invitation (through a facebook group) other than the hosts. I felt a little miffed, as I didn’t eat before coming and had known a potluck was supposed to happen.

We ended up going out for pizza after my friends devoured the three avaliable dishes.

Now I’ve been invited to another potluck, this one is for the Super Bowl, and I would love to attend, but I’m back on campus with no way of cooking and with no money to spend. I don’t want to impose and ask my parents for money, and I certainly don’t want to make a boor of myself by showing up without food. Unless they (the hosts) express a want of me there even if I’m unable to bring food, I doubt I’ll go at all.

Am I making the right call about not going at all?

Perhaps you are over thinking what you believe is appropriate potluck food.   My adult son attended a Super Bowl party where the guests were forbidden from bringing chips but encouraged to “get creative” about their potluck food choices.  Of the 40 or so guests there, not one person brought drinks which forced the hosts into an emergency trip to the grocery store.
When I host a large potluck, I always reserve the less expensive items for those not particularly financially well endowed.    Two and three-liter sodas go on sale for 99 cents in my neck of the woods and are a welcome addition to all informal potlucks.   Tea bags and a 1 pound of sugar to make sweetened iced tea is also an option.   Other inexpensive potluck items are deviled eggs, potato chips, most potato dishes, celery sticks with peanut butter, carrot sticks.   Readers?  Other suggestions?

{ 110 comments… read them below or add one }

LIbrary Diva February 6, 2013 at 12:37 pm

Dill dip — you can buy it store-bought, or you can make it. Use equal parts sour cream and mayonnaise. Get a jar of dill from the spice aisle and stir it in to taste (I think probably one standard jar of it will get you through 5 or 6 go-rounds of dip). Use whatever you want as dippers: veggies, torn-up bread, chips, mini-pitas (my personal favorite). No cooking whatsoever, all you need is a workspace, a bowl, and a spoon.

If this is still out of your budget (been there myself), I love all the other suggestions. And keep in mind, it sounds like you are very rich indeed in the things that matter if you have a friend who values your company so much that he physically, literally drags you to things to hang out!

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Stacey Frith-Smith February 6, 2013 at 12:57 pm

OP- continue to focus on your education and your context. Don’t over-think this. Chips or soda, or offer to help with a task. Checking your meal plan is a creative option, too! Great comments here! Hang in there and I hope your potlucks and other fun opportunities abound!

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Stacey Frith-Smith February 6, 2013 at 1:00 pm

(Sorry, OP, one more thought. When you are home for the holidays, are you able to stock up on one or two things that could make such a request easier? A bottle or two of wine for a few dollars or a few cans of nuts? Anything not too heavy, too pricey or too hard to store might help you feel in control by advance preparation. Sorry if the suggestion is too much of a stretch…just thinking.)

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Calli Arcale February 6, 2013 at 1:11 pm

Phoenix:
“The only downsides to tea is that most of it requires the tea to be steeped in hot water and then cooled.”

Actually, you don’t even need to boil the water! That just speeds the process up. All you really need is a clean container, tea, and water. Put a a bunch of teabags into the container and fill it up with water. Close it, and stick it in the fridge. 3-6 hours later, it should be ready, though time will vary depending on how much tea you put in, what type of tea (cheap brands actually steep faster, because they use “tea dust” which has more surface area per particle than full leaves), and how strong you like it. Some people prefer to put it in the sunlight first (“sun tea”), but it really doesn’t make much of a difference; the sun doesn’t warm the water enough to matter. And this way, it’s already pre-chilled. ;-) If you don’t have access to a refrigerator, just leaving it out on the counter will do, though if you want to observe food safety rules, you should plan on either serving or refrigerating as soon as it’s ready.

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Daisy February 6, 2013 at 1:13 pm

Oh, my! This brings back some not-so-fond memories of university days. It’s no walk in the park! My favourite “so broke it ain’t funny” party dish requires a can of black beans, a can of corn niblets, a head of garlic, and a small bag of corn chips. (You’ll need to liberate a bowl, a spoon, and a can opener from your folks the next time you go home, or pick them up in a dollar store when you’re feeling rich.) Open the beans and drain them, then put them in the bowl. Use the spoon to mash two-thirds of them into a rough paste. Open the corn and drain it, then mix it into the beans. Peel a couple of cloves of garlic, squish them up with your spoon, and stir them into the corn and beans. If you’ve managed to liberate a little Tex-Mex seasoning from your folks as well, toss a teaspoon of it in, but it’s fine without it. You now have a nice bowl of southwest bean dip. It doesn’t require refrigeration or cooking and is acceptable at any any self-respecting potluck around. Plunk it down on the table with your bag of corn chips and you’re good to go.

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Lisa February 6, 2013 at 1:16 pm

Buy a pre-made veggie or ranch dip at the store. Scoop it out and put it in a nice dish. Chop up a bell pepper (whichever color is cheapest that day) and sprinkle it on top. Grab a bag of chips or baby carrots and you’re done.

Then tell people it’s homemade :)

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Lindsay February 6, 2013 at 1:35 pm

There are some fantastic suggestions on here for cheap and easy contributions.

However, I think consideration should be given to the spirit of a potluck. In my experience, it is to have a wonderful gathering for good friends/family, where the cost of the party is broadly spread across the attendees. A contribution is a courtesy in spirit with the party, but is not a required ticket for admission. If I hosted a party and knew that someone could not contribute (for any reason, whether financial/kitchen/time, etc.), and I genuinely just wanted that person there, I would say so., and mean it. OP’s friends communicated exactly as much. If I then found out that that person disregarded my welcoming invite to dine alone in the dining hall (while moping, most likely), I would have been insulted and hurt. The large friend was incredibly insulting to carry her away like a pirate, but I completely agree with the spirit of “Hey, we told you to come because we want to see you. Why in the world didn’t you?!”

Bottom line: if the host genuinely says “come anyway!”, then please put aside your social insecurity and graciously accept the invitation without guilt. They value you for more than your chips or meatballs! Then offer to help clean up, if you’d like.

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Lisastitch February 6, 2013 at 1:38 pm

I’ll agree with some others that you might contribute time, either preparing for the party, or cleaning up afterwards.

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XH February 6, 2013 at 1:41 pm

Alternatively, why not offer to clean up after instead of stretching your finances to bring something you can’t afford? After all, your labor is free and surely the help would be appreciated. :)

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pinkiu February 6, 2013 at 1:52 pm

There are all kinds of no bake bars and cookies online. The next time you are at home, ask your parents to help you getting the ingredients for a couple of potlucks per semester. Then when invited you already have the no-bake ingredients and can put them together. Some require you to melt chocolate which you can do in a microwave that I bet your dorm has. You could also ask for a toaster oven as a gift in the future so that you can do a little baking. I like the idea of drinks though. Save gallon jugs to make a drink in and to transport but bring along a pretty pitcher or bowl in which to pour it in. I drink diet pop and no potluck ever has enough. After holidays, I buy candy and save it for future things as well. I love candy corn and am happy to eat it at any time of year. I’m a mom and this is certainly something that I’d help my son with. Just talk with them and have them help you brainstorm so that you are prepared.

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Bottlecaps February 6, 2013 at 1:55 pm

Glad to hear it all went well! I too am in the situation of not having many options when it comes to cooking and being on a very strict budget. At Christmas time, the place I was working at the time held a potluck Christmas party. I do happen to have a slow-cooker (you can find small ones like mine for about ten to fifteen dollars), so I grabbed some frozen meatballs and marinara, tossed them in, got them good and hot, and used the slow-cooker to keep them warm throughout the party. They were delicious, and budget friendly, too!

When faced with a situation like this, grabbing a store-bought items that require no preparation, such as the deli trays, chips, or store-bought cookies like other posters suggested is a wonderful idea. Also, if it’s within your budget next time a potluck rolls around, a lot of store delis and bakeries sell absolutely delectable brownies and cupcakes. Sometimes you can even find a small, round cake that is beautifully decorated (and tastes pretty good, too) for about five bucks at the grocery store bakery.

I have to say that I agree with Dira – your friend had some nerve actually physically picking you up and forcing you to go to one of the other potlucks! Maybe he/she needs to come to this site and get a few tips! As for you, you are being so considerate, not wanting to impose by showing up to a potluck without food. However, if your friends genuinely tell you to come anyway, then I think it’s OK to go. That shows that they really do want your company, and don’t just want your food. :)

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The Elf February 6, 2013 at 1:58 pm

I have a feeling OP was exaggerating a little about the lifting up and carrying, and that it probably wasn’t against her will. If it was, that is a cause for concern, but I read it as ordinary horseplay between friends.

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The Elf February 6, 2013 at 2:05 pm

Re: Kitchens in dorms.

Where I went to school, kitchen access depended entirely on which dorm you were in. The big freshmen dorms had 1 shared kitchen per floor. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. Sometimes it was a disaster, sometimes it was pristine. You couldn’t count on it. In your room you could have a coffee maker or similar appliances, but that was it. The other, older, dorms had either no kitchen (blocked off to accomodate staff offices in the basement) or had a full kitchen near the laundry facilities. But those dorms had the oldest wiring, so no cooking appliances at all were allowed. The suites had newer wiring that allowed for things like microwaves and mini-fridges, but no kitchens in the dorms whatsoever. And then the apartments had full kitchens.

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Avery February 6, 2013 at 2:12 pm

You can’t spare $7 to buy 2 bags of chips or $9 to make a cold salad?

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Ergala February 6, 2013 at 2:19 pm

OP I don’t have many suggestions since my main one is probably out of budget :( But I will say this, I absolutely love your ethics. If you were closer to me I’d be feeding you every single day because I cannot stand to see someone go hungry in the slightest. And I wouldn’t mind if you showed up at a potluck empty handed, in fact if you offered to help with clean up or set up I’d be stoked and that would be more than enough since I hate doing both haha!

However, I will say that my husband and I went through a period where we had absolutely no money for food. I had lost my job mid pregnancy and he was working full time retail. We were way too proud to apply for food stamps and WIC had said that we made $30 too much year to get help. We lived off turkey gravy and pasta or rice for months. And even after our son was born when we finally got WIC we would draw straws to see who got the last meager serving. Usually we’d split it with each other. I got pretty creative with stuff but I had an oven and I love to bake. You will get past this, I know you will. And to be honest I think it’s good for college students to go through at least some period of poverty because it will help them later on life not only budget when they do gain employment but to also appreciate what they have. My husband and I still get nervous in the winter because we used to run out of heating oil all the time and had no money to get more so we kept our heat very very low.

My idea if you are able to do it is very simple and easy. Get a couple packages of the bread thin sandwich things from Arnold. I get the whole wheat. Grab some chive cream cheese or onion cream cheese, and then different fresh veggies. You don’t need a whole lot because you cut them up. We do broccoli, bell peppers, grape tomatoes, cucumbers….you get the idea. Cut them up into small pieces, the tomatoes I halve up. Then what people do is spread some of the cream cheese on a bread thin and sprinkle the veggies on. You can top it with parsley, basil, oregano….heck I even drizzle olive oil and feta or goat cheese on top and broil it for my kids when they want a snack. But it’s not a very cheap thing to make on a tight budget. Costs about $10 to make them. Good luck OP and this too shall pass!

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June First February 6, 2013 at 2:29 pm

I really enjoy the idea of offering to help clean up. That’s something that would definitely be appreciated by the hosts.
I’d recommend you tell the hosts ahead of time, but don’t belabor the point. I’ve been there: pay freezes and reduced hours at work while my dog was sick and racking up vet bills. Just say something once, privately to the hosts. If you have a couple bucks go to the nearest dollar store and get some generic cookies. Like others have said: cookies are always popular!

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--Lia February 6, 2013 at 2:40 pm

I love to cook, have the kitchen to do it in, and it’s been a long time since my starving student days. My first thoughts were along the lines of suggestions given here: cut vegetables and dips. Then I thought of what someone else suggested: offer to do the clean-up. But now I’m going to suggest something even more basic: Check with the hostess, and if she says it’s alright, don’t bring anything. Here’s why I say that. I’ve said I like to cook, right? From the perspective of this guest, I’m FINE with people who don’t like to cook not cooking. Not only do I like to cook, I like to show off my cooking. I generally bring plenty extra. While I like trying dishes and seeing what everyone else has made, I’d rather eat small amounts of great dishes that that people wanted to bring than large amounts of soda and chips. (I have a bit of the health food nut about me.) Let other people contribute in ways that they like at and leave the cooking to the people who enjoy it and are good at it.

Having said that, my favorite good dish that’s easy and cheap (and healthy) is cole slaw. You can buy an awful lot of cabbage for very little money. Chop it up, dress with oil, vinegar and salt.

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Tracy February 6, 2013 at 2:49 pm

As someone said earlier, there are a lot of good suggestions that I’m sure the OP would be happy to make if she had the facilities. But no-bake cheesecake requires a pan, and mixing utensils, and measuring utensils. Chopped-up veggies require a knife and something to put them on. Even the least expensive dip recipe requires a bowl a spoon, and possibly measuring utensils). Pre-made dip in “a nice dish” requires a nice dish. None of those are expensive, but if the OP had an extra $10 or $20 to spend on a few kitchen basics, she probably wouldn’t be asking this question. And there are other suggestions that may seem cheap and easy to people who are making more than the OP, but pre-made deli platters, veggie platters and the like are surprisingly expensive when you make $240/month. I think the admin’s suggestion of a 99 cent 2-litter bottle of pop is very doable, but many of the other suggestions here make me think the readers didn’t read very carefully. :-)

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Amy February 6, 2013 at 2:58 pm

I agree with admin’s suggestions and often brought the soft drinks when I was a young, poor newlywed. You might also inquire to see if a bag of ice might be a welcome item for the potluck. Napkins, plates, and the like can be purchased from the dollar store and might be welcome at an informal potluck among friends.

If you live near an Aldi or Sav-A-Lot or similar discount grocer, you can find snacks and the ingredients for various dishes very inexpensively. I’ve been able to put together decent veggie & dip platters and cheese & fruit plates for under $10. My Aldi often has mixed nut trays for less than $5. They are tasty and do not look cheap. You can also find frozen desserts for under $5.

If you google the blog “budget bytes” you can find an assortment of recipes with cost breakdowns, quite a few of which that could be good potluck food.

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Ellen February 6, 2013 at 3:21 pm

I would think voluteering to come early and set up, or stay after and clean-up would be considered a wonderful contribution by most hosts, and keeps the communal or co-operative spirit of a potluck.

Also, if you are able to afford some basic ingredients as above, you could ask your hosts if you can come a little early and prepare it on-site, due to your lack of a kitchen.

If you can get access to basic utensils, and a trip to the store within a few days of the party, you could work off Daisy’s dip idea for guacamole (1-2 avocados, a lemon, garlic); or hummus (1-2 cans of chickpeas, lemon, garlic).

Have you talked to your fellow students and society members? Surely many of the other folks invited to these parties are in a similar situation to you – how do they feel about it, and what do they do?

How did you react to your “friend” carrying you bodily to the party? In some friendships that would be accepted as “all in good fun”, but something in your tone suggests to me that you were not OK with it. You need not continue a friendship with someone if you feel they are bullying you or being disrespectful. That kind of behavior is certainly not polite, and is only acceptable if it is OK with YOU.

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JD February 6, 2013 at 3:31 pm

I agree with the idea of the offer to help clean up or set up, rather than bring a food, if you are out of money at that time. I’ve been there, too, and a single dollar spent would have killed my budget sometimes.
I’m surprised that so many people are surprised that the OP doesn’t have kitchen facilities. I know my siblings and friends all attended universities with dorms that were simply rooms, with no kitchen facilities or appliances allowed. My sister smuggled a old-style popcorn maker into her room and used it to heat soup only, because the smell of popcorn would have given her away. She roomed with an old friend, who naturally didn’t tell on my sister for breaking the rules. My dorm room didn’t even have a bathroom — we all used the big communal bathrooms in the center of each floor. I am sure that no kitchen is not true at every college, but it surely is not uncommon. I had to buy a dining hall pass, and eat there three times a day; they packed a bag lunch for me (I had no choices on what I got) when my schedule didn’t permit me to return to my dorm hall for lunch.

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EB February 6, 2013 at 3:34 pm

I feel for you, especially if you end up going to a party and find yourself pressured to contribute for pizza that you hadn’t budgeted for on top of paying for food ingredients that you didn’t budget for.

In the case of the potluck that your friend carried you to, a large bottle of soda or drink should suffice, especially if they say to come when you don’t cook. For many events like these, those who can cook bring too much food so you should be fine with a minimal contribution.

As far as cheap suggestions –

suggestion 1
If your parents have a popcorn air-popper and coffee grinder they aren’t using, liberate those items and a large bowl from them next time you are there along with spices like parika, garlic powder, and a container of Parmesan cheese. Buy a large jar of popcorn and when you are going somewhere – pop a reasonable amount of popcorn, grind of the spices and cheese to a very fine powder a little at a time, and sprinkle over the popcorn (per my friend who made the popcorn with the spices but without the cheese as a diet trick, the find dust will adhere to the popcorn crannies). If you or your roommate have a microwave, popping popcorn in paper bags (you can find directions online) is an option. As a bonus, you can make it for yourself as well.

suggestion 2 (which will benefit you long term)
As your parents or a relative if they have a crockpot or rice cooker hanging around that they don’t use and are willing to give to you (many of us settled folks do). With a crockpot you can start cooking in your room and make things like steel cut oatmeal, chili, soup, a lot of tasty things to eat that could stretch your budget. If you are personally paying for themeal plan, then it can help you move to a lower tier meal schedule. If you don’t see the money you spend on food, this can still function as a cooker so you can contribute things like chili or meatballs, beans, or rice. Combine this with going to cheap farmers’ markets and lower price markets (depending on where your school is and how public transportation works). In college, one of our student groups used to work our meals this way – we would put the crock pot on in the student group office and have soup during meals. Make sure using a crockpot is ok though.

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Justin February 6, 2013 at 3:42 pm

Another thing to keep in mind is that among friends it is not always necessary to be equal on all contributions as they happen, just avoid everything being one sided. A story from my college days:

I went to school in a rural area, so to get to a grocery store was a 2 mile walk or bike ride or a drive. One of my good friends didn’t have a car on campus, but any time he needed a ride someone in our circle of friends helped him out. Most of us also stayed over the summers to work which meant moving our stuff from one dorm to another and back. Over the summer between our junior and senior years this friend saved up and bought a pickup truck. As a bunch of us were doing the end of summer move and unloading small stuff from our cars before heading back to disassemble furniture pieces he came around and started collecting keys to our summer rooms. As I was getting ready to head back and start on furniture he pulls up having gone back and loaded stuff from all of our rooms that wouldn’t fit in cars.

For three years he wasn’t in a position to drive and we helped him, later on when he was in a position to do something we couldn’t do (move large items) he did so without hesitation and went above and beyond what we would have asked. For the OP right now money is tight, but at some point it won’t be if all goes well, and then hospitality can be returned.

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Kara February 6, 2013 at 4:09 pm

OP, I think that you can decline potlucks if you want, but you can also explain to the organizers that (for various reasons) you cannot make a contribution toward the meal, and ask if you are still welcome to attend.

If you don’t have access to facilities for cooking something, or a fridge for food storage, or the money to buy anything, or even a way to get to the store to purchase items (regardless of whether or not you actually have the money available for them), then… well, honestly there is not a lot you can do.

I think that your circumstances are pretty clear, and that it will be clear that you are not mooching if you do attend potlucks empty-handed.

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Lizza February 6, 2013 at 4:54 pm

I agree with admin; when going through a poor phase and work decided it was mandatory potluck time, I’d always volunteer for drinks or chips and privately tell my boss that’s all I’d be able to afford. Tell the hosts you’d love to contribute, and this is what you can bring, and you hope that’s okay. Most of the time they’ll say okay, great, awesome, bring what you can, we really just want you to be there!

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gramma dishes February 6, 2013 at 4:57 pm

Avery (post #64)~~ I suspect that many of us have at one time or another in our lives been in a situation when no, actually, we would NOT have had $7 to buy a couple of bags of chips or $9 for a salad!

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Kate February 6, 2013 at 5:21 pm

Slice up some cucumber into small pieces and combine it with plain yoghurt to make tzatziki dip, and bring some plain crackers. No oven required, it should come in at under $10 and it’s delicious!

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Anonymous February 6, 2013 at 6:33 pm

Nobody here has mentioned ice, but it’s a staple at a lot of parties. You can get bags of ice for about a dollar, and a lot of places sell it, so chances are, there’s probably a place between the OP’s room and the party destination, where it’d be possible to pick up a bag of ice.

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missusmidas February 6, 2013 at 7:44 pm

2-liter sodas are usually a good deal, often less than $1.00 each for a store (not name) brand. If there is a dollar store nearby, you could stock up on paper or plastic plates, napkins, cups, and plastic utensils. While not food, it’s definitely a contribution so the hosts don’t have to spend time and energy doing dishes afterward.

If I were hosting a potluck, I wouldn’t consider someone a boor for not contributing food if I knew their money situation was tight. If they are important enough to invite, they are important enough to spend time with.

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missminute February 6, 2013 at 9:10 pm

OP if you truly have not even a few dollars to spend, I would strongly suggest offering to clean up instead. I know your contribution would be as appreciated as food. If you can rustle up a few dollars, bring sodas as suggested or pour a cheap dip into a nice bowl. It sounds like you are moping and feeling sorry for yourself when it’s clear your friends want you there regardless.

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Anonymous February 6, 2013 at 10:32 pm

Okay, scratch that; a lot of people have mentioned ice. Anyway, OP, I know another way you can contribute at potlucks without breaking the bank. Do you by any chance own anything like a Twister game, or a set of good-quality speakers, or anything else that you could bring to a party (with the hosts’ prior approval, of course), to contribute towards the entertainment? If you don’t have anything like that, then that’s still okay, because you could always make a nice “party playlist” of music on your computer, or even borrow a popular movie from the library that people will enjoy watching together. I know that that sounds lame, but most university libraries have DVD’s, and some of them even have DVD’s that aren’t strictly speaking educational. They won’t have new releases, but really, who doesn’t love a good classic like “Dumb and Dumber” or “The Breakfast Club?” Or, even if you have a deck of cards, that might be a good idea, because a lot of university students like to play “President” when they get together. Just, don’t get involved in playing poker for money, because I’ve seen guys gambling with their rent money, and it always ends badly.

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Another Alice February 6, 2013 at 10:52 pm

I LOVE the suggestion of bringing a game. I’m not sure if the OP in this case has one, but it’s something to keep in mind for anyone who can’t spare the money to make something for a potluck. It’s creative and, maybe I’m a nerd, but really fun!

In terms of the cooking facilities, if you’re going to a friend’s that does have a kitchen, you can always prepare there. I’m sure they wouldn’t mind, if you found, say, a simple baked good recipe that wouldn’t cost too much. Take the stuff there, throw it in a bowl, throw it in the oven, and then it’s ready by dessert time. Any leftover flour/sugar you could store in your room, maybe?

And that’s the other thing too; you could make it a date with the host and suggest, “Hey, you know, I’ve never baked apple pie [or whatever]. Why don’t I get the apples, and you get a pre-made crust, and I’ll come over a bit early and we can make it together?” I’ve done that before with friends, and it’s fun.

Last, maybe just grabbing a circular with coupons in it would help. That way, if there’s a deal on something relatively non-perishable, like cookies or crackers, you could buy a couple of boxes, hide them in your room, and then use them when needed.

Overall, I wouldn’t worry too much. Very few people are “rolling in it” in college, even if they SEEM like they are. I’ve heard (and lived) some fabulous stories of what exactly can be made of Ramen noodles, so you’re not alone. I’m sure your friends truly just want to be with you, and you’re very respectful/mature to take the potluck request so seriously. And really, I can promise you something: There were more than a few things in college that I didn’t do because I couldn’t scrape up the money, and I really, really regret it. I know, looking back, that none of my friends would’ve cared if I hadn’t brought something fabulous to a pot luck – honestly, they probably wouldn’t have noticed! As I said, most people are broke in college, but bind together with your brokeness and make some fabulous memories. Don’t get too hung up on the details of get-togethers – they will all be great memories, whether it’s, “That one time I filled up a pitcher of water in my dorm to take to a pot luck” or, “That time I tried to make oysters in a microwave.” (Yep, a friend of mine did that.)

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Melalucci February 7, 2013 at 12:04 am

It’s funny how people have different interpretations of OP’s friend picking him/her up and taking him/her to the party. I would love for a friend to be able to pick me up, and I’d be relieved that he took me to the party. I could name him as one reason for my lack of preparation. This, of course, would be different if I didn’t want to go for reasons other than lack of food to bring.

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Library Dragon February 7, 2013 at 12:06 am

Many good suggestions and OP you made a good choice. When I was a young, single soldier I would be invited to church related potlucks in couples homes. The barracks had no cooking facilities. I would pick up a bag of rolls for $1 and bring them. Popcorn is great and you can make your own microwave popcorn with a brown paper bag and an jar of popcorn. Some grocery stores sell popped popcorn. Not the big brand names, but a store brand. When we had two young sons and no money for elaborate birthdays I would serve popcorn instead of chips. The kids loved it.

Super cheap noodle dish if you can microwave water. Two packages of ramen noodles in a bowl (remember the noodles will expand). Heat half the water listed and pour over the noodles. Stir, cover, and let sit. You don’t want soup, but a noodle dish. Two packages are less than 50cents. Serve room temperature or chilled depending on preference.

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sweetonsno February 7, 2013 at 4:35 am

I also suggest bringing stuff that’s ready to eat (pre-cut veggies, chips, soda, etc) or that can be tossed in a microwave or oven (frozen pizza rolls, microwave popcorn, etc). If there is a grocery outlet in your general vicinity, you can often find good stuff at great prices. (I often walk out of there with a higher number in the “saved” column than I do in the “spent” column.) The downside of grocery outlets is that the stuff you buy is usually pretty close to its expiration date. However, if you’re going to eat them all at one event, it’s no issue.

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The Elf February 7, 2013 at 8:37 am

Avery, if you have never been in a position where an extra $7 felt like riches, just count yourself lucky.

I’ve been in the position twice, both as a young woman. In college, I had a summer/winter break job and worked 10-15 hours a week after school. I ate off the meal plan. Since I was a big eater, I’d run out of meal plan money in the last week or so of school as I was studying for finals. That would be about the time my savings from working between semesters ran dry. And since I was studying, I had cut my normal hours down to very little. Those were some lean, lean couple of weeks! I ate lots of ramen and pb&j. If I got lucky, one of my female friends would have extra meal plan money (it was never the guys; they were in the same boat I was) and would treat me. My parents always sent a “study hard” gift basket of snacks and fruits, and I ate that down to the crumbs.

The second time was as a young professional, having gotten married and moved out of the house. We both had entry-level jobs, and between the two incomes we could just afford the basics. But there was pretty much nothing left over and a lot of shuffling of bills to make ends meet. Going out to eat was eating off the Dollar Menu at McDonald’s. You know it’s bad when the pricier McDonald’s is out of reach!

In neither case would I have been able to spare $7. Thankfully, the situation was temporary and we lived through it with good tales to tell.

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Bibianne February 7, 2013 at 10:13 am

Okay, let ALL reread her post, shall we?: She doesn’t HAVE spare change. 120$ for 2 weeks work… she isn’t rolling in it! She doesn’t have access to a kitchen.
And looking at all the wonderful suggestion, I was not aware that offering to help clean-up was an option! Man… did *I* even miss out on a great deal: having someone help me clean out the kitchen AFTER a party? or even BEFORE a party? Where do I sign up for these services ;-)

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Anonymous February 7, 2013 at 10:27 am

Thanks, Another Alice. I did the “bring a game” idea for a Girl Guide potluck once. I was a Unit Helper, but I had no money, and I didn’t want to show up empty-handed, because I wanted to set a good example for the girls. So, I borrowed a game of Twister to bring instead of food, and we all played Twister. :)

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Ellen February 7, 2013 at 10:33 am

Lots of good ideas here, and the way I see them trending is…
1) There is no shame in being broke
2) There are lots of creative contributions you can make to your social circle
3) Reaching out to cooperate with your friends and colleagues is better than laying out cash
4) Remembering that there are people who value your presence, and will appreciate any hospitality or contribution because it came from YOU…means even when you are “broke” you need not feel “poor” because you are rich in inner resources.

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Sarah Jane February 7, 2013 at 11:29 am

I have often found that if I check with the hostess ahead of time, I can contribute a loaf of grocery-store-bakery garlic bread (the kind in the foil.) The hostess usually doesn’t mind popping it (bag and all) in the oven for about 10 minutes, especially since nearly everyone loves warm, fresh bread.

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Enna February 7, 2013 at 11:47 am

Or you could offer to be a pot washer? That way you are still contrbuting. If I had a pot luck dinner/party and someone offered to wash up instead of bringing a dish I’d be okay with that. Or is there someone you can club together with? Or maybe somene who cannot cook but can afford to buy food buys the ingredients and you make the dish? That could be a good negociation. I’m not a great cook myself (I can do salad!) so I’m liking the last idea. You have good ethics, why not ask the host what they think? Where I go to worship sometimes we have shared lunches where people bring a dish and often there is too much food left over. So sometimes, a guest who doesn’t bring anything but helps out in another way instead can be a blessing.

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Alicia February 7, 2013 at 1:41 pm

At times I have been darn broke in college grad school ect.
Spa water is the trick.
Large pitcher ( dollar store is good left over from folks is better)
Cold water
1 cut up lemon , lime, or orange liberated from the dinning hall
Let infuse several hours bring to potluck or for that matter just drink yourself

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AnaLuisa February 7, 2013 at 3:15 pm

Alicia, great idea!

Also that of explaining your situation to the hosts and offering to contribute your work, if you can’t contribute in kind.

I think that way no one would consider you a moocher. Who was never broke when a student? As a host, I would be happy if you showed you cared, and would happily accept your help.

Anyway, my experience from potlucks is that often people bring too much food so if one person brings none no harm is done. It happened several times that guests misjudged the amount of food needed, and poor hosts had to eat leftovers for the rest of the month ;-))

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Daphne February 7, 2013 at 6:33 pm

I think the best suggestion by far is the beverage idea. Two liter bottles of pop or the gallon jugs of fruit punch, lemonade, etc. (The cheap stuff on the bottom shelf.) Also remember that the fun of a pot luck is eating/drinking all the stuff you NEVER allow yourself in day to day life. So think of what little kids like: bring grape, orange or root beer 2 liters instead of coke or pepsi. Adults love an occasional “blast from the past.” Also, in the big discount grocery stores, the cheaper the generic or store brand cookie, the better! Remember, it’s the trans-fat that makes it good ;-).

And just so you know, I had this same problem in college. I always made a joke out of it and brought a giant family size bag of Doritos. No bowl or anything. I’m telling you, they were always the first things gone!

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Katana February 7, 2013 at 6:42 pm

One thing I love is a bulk food store. If a bag of sugar is looking expensive, you can often buy near exactly what you need at a bulk store. Sometimes they have single items of things usually bought in bigger boxes, like single tea bags. Sometimes it’s a cheaper way of getting just what you need. I also find the dollar store has most kitchen widgets, or if you know someone who goes out, sometimes they can give you some plastic cutlery and the like. While it may not be advisable to try and cut some veggies with a plastic butterknife, at least you can mix things this way. If you have some patience and a chocolate sale, some chocolate treats may be a thing to try, tinfoil or parchment pending. Since body melts at body temperature, keep a bag of it (check for holes!) on your lap and the chocolate should melt from body heat. I used to get dollar store gummies, dip them partially in the chocolate, shake briefly to get it smooth, and let set.

Hope this helps someone.

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Angela February 8, 2013 at 7:32 am

I had a young single friend just starting out when my daughter was very young. My husband and I had her over for dinner often and she would come early and keep my daughter occupied while we cooked. It worked great. Sadly she moved for a new job…. That situation isn’t exactly what you’re describing but the point is that there are many ways to help, not all of which cost money. Cleaning up, coming a little early to set up, running a couple of errands and so on is a gift of TIME to your host, and most of us could use all the time we can get.

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Anonymous February 8, 2013 at 3:39 pm

By the way, OP, I forgot to ask, do you socialize with these friends in any other capacity besides potlucks? When I suggested all the “free” activities I enjoyed in university (music department concerts, the art gallery, the gym/pool/skating rink, snowball fights/snow sculpture building, Frisbee, hacky sack, random sing-alongs with whoever happened to bring a guitar, movies in people’s rooms, “communal casseroles” made from the dregs of people’s refrigerators, and then cooked and eaten together, plus whatever events the R.A.’s organized), I guess I kind of assumed that you hadn’t thought of that already, so I’m sorry about that.

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Angel February 8, 2013 at 4:36 pm

I surely believe the OP when she says she doesn’t have a lot of extra $ to spend. When you are in college $10 or sometimes even $5 can be a lot! I couldn’t imagine that your friends would be concerned or keeping score of how much you contribute to a pot luck. There is nothing wrong with taking chips and soda. Those kinds of things you can ask your parents to take you to one of those big box stores and store them in your dorm room for when you need them. Or paper products. But even if you have nothing to bring there’s no reason why you should have to stay home. If they are really your friends they understand your situation.

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Anonymous February 8, 2013 at 9:51 pm

@Angel–If I were the OP, and I was stocking up on “potluck stuff” during school breaks, I think I’d go for the paper products instead of pop and chips, because there’s always that inevitable evening when you’re studying, and you get hungry, or you’re watching a movie (alone or with friends), or you’re bummed out about something and you need junk food to make it better, and “chips would SO rock right now,” and you don’t want to walk to the dining hall/variety mart/whatever, because it’s 10 p.m. in the dead of winter. Enough of those evenings, and your stash is depleted, and with Murphy’s Law being what it is, that’s probably about the time another potluck invitation will arrive. Paper plates, not being edible, don’t have the tendency to “evaporate” like that.

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Schnickelfritz February 9, 2013 at 11:53 am

Avery, you have no idea that yes, $5 or $9 is a big deal to many students. Have you never scrounged for change just to run a washing machine, or gas, or toothpaste, tampons etc? You haven’t lived if you have never had to go through that stage in life! It is almost a right of passage, and I can hardly think of anyone, crossing over to being independent of their parents, that did not ever have to scrounge for change, even if fully employed. It is part of the learning to manage your money, and learning to stretch to the next paycheck. There is that pride in not asking for continued hand-outs from your parents, so you eat mac and cheese or tomato soup for a few days.

My favorite idea submitted here – when you are home with your parents, or when you get a decent paycheck or gift of money, buy a few jars of peanuts to stash away for the pot luck.

As an aside, one trick I have learned for recipes calling for black olives, chopped red onion, tablespoons of shredded cheese, feta cheese, pimento, etc… go to the grocery store salad bar! You can buy the exact small portions of what you need, for merely a dollar or so, once weighed, instead of buying jars of stuff you may never use again before expiration. This has saved me so many times. when I want a special recipe but can’t afford all the ingredients. Or you can buy the small container of macaroni or potato salad, and garnish with something from the salad bar, or make dip with sour cream or whatever (I am not a big fan of dips, but most people are). Sour cream is often on sale for about $1.00 around here – go to the salad bar and buy something to add to it. For about $2 -$3 you can make something really nice.

I think a great gift for a student, would be a pack of those colored bowls and stainless serving utinsels from the Dollar store. Make a “party” basket and add some of the suggestions in the above posts. I buy those, and the serving spoons, to take to picnics. I leave them – I hate wanting to leave an open house pot luck, but my dish and spoon are still in use. I just leave the Dollar store products and I don’t have to re-dish to a styrofoam plate just to take my stoneware dish home.

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