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Starving Student

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Between tuition and textbooks, rent payments and transit fares, there's only so much money that a poor university student living on bank loans and scholarships is able to put towards food. Even at schools with free tuition and labsnote  books still cost something and so do living spaces and heat as well as food. The Starving Student is a staple of higher education settings, where even those lucky enough to have financial support from their parents will still be thinking of money in values of mac and cheese boxes or instant noodles.

The starving student will often have a rigid budget and spend their entire academic career just scraping by for necessities like clothing and food (but not, of course, for alcohol, or coffee). Universities do offer free food at special events, finals stress relief weeks, and conferences (mainly to lure in attendance) but students frequently must RSVP for that event in advance and there's only food while supplies last. Most of the time, at universities that still even have cafeterias, students must pay to eat there.

This trope is often Truth in Television, as college loans are very expensive (growing more so in many places) and keep many students in debt for decades. This results in years of struggling to get by just to pay off their education, which has a higher priority than buying food. In some places students have to study so much and so hard they simply don't have time to work, and when their families aren't well-off either, this trope comes into play. In fiction, it is generally played for comedy, especially when the character is also a Big Eater, but it can be milked for drama at the drop of a hat.

This trope is ubiquitous to student living in the US and to a lesser extent, other English-speaking nations such as Australia and the UK, due to the extremely skyrocketing prices of education as well as the now virtually non-existent guarantee of immediate payback after graduation in the form of a promising career.

Cousin to the Starving Artist. Expect it to appear in a Broke Episode.


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  • This is very strongly implied and Played for Laughs in a Turbo Tax commercial. In it, yes or no questions appear on the screen along with a cursor. A scene plays that tells the viewer the answer before it is clicked. The question was "Did you pay off your student loans?" we cut to a scene of a woman eyeing her surroundings at a fancy party before sneaking over to the food table and loading her purse with shrimp. The cursor clicks "yes."

    Anime and Manga  
  • Cafe Kichijoji De has Toku, the college student part-timer who is so poor that he doesn't have enough money to store food at his run-down apartment. In one chapter, a couple of elementary school kids manage to recruit him as their underling by giving him some pork bun and a whole head of lettuce.
  • In Fruits Basket, main character Tohru Honda starts out as this. After her mother died, she went to live with her grandfather, but when her grandfather's house goes through renovations she decides to live by herself in a tent while taking up a job as a janitor for an office building. She later moves in with Shigure, Yuki and Kyo Sohma, though she still insists on working.
  • In Love Hina, a recurring subplot is Keitaro looking for a job to pay for his studies. Made worse in that he routinely loses money to the Pretty Freeloaders' hijinks.
  • In Maison Ikkoku, Godai works to pay for his studies, but he never has money for anything. And when he has some money, he spends it on presents for Kyoko.
  • The Quintessential Quintuplets: In the first chapter, Fuutarou's Establishing Character Moment has him order a barbecue beef menu, holding back the beef itself in his school cafeteria, while mentally congratulating himself for saving money that way. Shortly after we see that his family is very poor, and as a result he's not very picky about what he eats so long as it is edible.
  • In The Zashiki Warashi of Intellectual Village, Hayabusa's college student neighbor's meal plan consists of soaking instant ramen in water to exponentially increase its size.

    Comic Strips 

    Fan Works 
  • Inverted in The Peace Not Promised, where the teenage Severus is half-starved at home and uses his fully catered time at Hogwarts to recover. Even then, though, he has very simple tastes, content to live on porridge and black tea and brown bread, until his engagement to Lily motivates him to work on his physique so as to be less self conscious on their wedding night.

  • The Spider-Man Trilogy movies reflect this. Particularly the second movie which has Peter Parker struggling through college without money, his superhero identity compounding his hardships. His only reliable source of income is selling Spider-man photos to the Daily Bugle.


  • Such a student is the defendant in a Judge Ooka case; he is sued by a restaurant owner because he mentioned to a friend that he used the delicious smells of the restaurant to give imaginary flavor to the one bowl of rice he could have a day. Judge Ooka, being wise, declared that the sound of money was the correct payment for the smell of food.


  • A joke has a student go to a doctor, complaining constipation. The doctor examines him and writes a prescription: "Eat something."
  • A joke has a student collapse on a street. A crowd immediately assembles and some samaritan starts shouting for water. A student raises his head and says weakly: "And bread…"
  • An old and popular saying among German students goes as follows: "Eltern! Wollt ihr mich noch retten, schickt mir Geld und Zigaretten."note 
  • A Russian joke tells of a student entering a University cafeteria and ordering two sausages. "What a wastrel!" — gasps the audience. "And eight forks!" — continues the student.
  • A student finds a roach in their soup:
    • 1st year - throws both the roach and the soup away
    • 2nd year - throws the roach away, eats the soup
    • 3rd year - eats the soup with the roach
    • 4th year - what do you mean "finds"? They don't start cooking soup until they catch enough roaches to put into it!

  • Older Than Print: The Clerk of Oxford (essentially a philosophy student) from The Canterbury Tales is an example. What little money he manages to acquire mostly goes towards books and he mostly lives by borrowing from friends.
  • Kvothe's struggle to come up with his tuition money drives a large part of the plot of The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man's Fear.
  • Marius from Les Misérables becomes a poor starving student after he's kicked out by his grandfather. Many of the other students help him out at various points, especially Courfeyrac who shares a flat with him for a while. Considering the poverty many of the other characters face, Marius's plight doesn't seem too bad by comparison.
  • Adam Lewis from TimeRiders, even though he's already struggling, he borrows thousands from his parents to go abroad, deciding he doesn't care if he'll be broke for the rest of his student life.

    Live-Action TV 
  • While they aren't students anymore, one episode of Scrubs notes that JD, Turk and the other interns (apart from Elliot, whose parents pay for everything) have to steal hospital supplies (e.g. toilet paper, pudding, no big-ticket items or drugs) in order to eat while making payments on student loans.
  • In Three's Company, this is why Jack moves in with the girls. He's a starving cooking school student. Good cooking schools can be ridiculously expensive. Though students are usually able to eat their projects afterwards.
  • Implied with Malcolm in Malcolm in the Middle, who is last seen in the finale quite cheerfully slaving as a campus janitor in between attending class — at Harvard. One of the plotlines of the episode had involved the family worrying that they wouldn't be able to afford his tuition and the choice between getting an education and going on to do great things, or taking a corporate job offer with a six-figure salary.
  • The boys in The Young Ones live in near-squalor in a shared house while attending Scumbag College.

  • Ewon Jung of Totally Captivated, an orphaned Scholarship Student who falls in with a group of loan sharks, calculates a conman's loan in terms of boxes of ramen at one point and will go along with almost anything for a free meal.

    Video Games 
  • In Broken Sword, Nico mentions that she had to drop out of university because of this trope (she couldn't afford art supplies, although she was able to eat potatoes when she was doing printing with them).
  • In Octopath Traveler II, Osvald reveals in travel banter with Partitio that he was one of these during his student days. Osvald was low on money and at one point was forced to choose between food or books. He chose books, and his resulting hunger caused him to rack up a huge bill at the apothecary.
  • Persona 5: Yusuke is both a Starving Student and a Starving Artist. He's left penniless after leaving his guardian's atelier to say in his school's dorms on his own. He frequently complains about hunger, walks instead of paying Tokyo train fare, and takes as many opportunities to mooch meals off the rest of the group as he can, though it's almost entirely Played for Laughs. It's implied he still manages to make a decent amount of cash from his scholarship, various art contests, and presumably the cast's Dungeon Crawling escapades, but he's more focused on buying expensive art supplies to fuel his obsession than he is with food. In Dancing in Starlight, he's seen growing daikons in a pitiful makeshift garden in his dorm room, and apparently takes cold showers to avoid paying for hot water. Part of his issue is revealed during his social link: his mentor and guardian was revealed to be a greedy fraud who sold the works of others as his own artwork and was Secretly Wealthy while pretending to be poor, causing Yusuke to associate earning money through art with greed and being a sell-out and consequently reject all means of using his art to support himself. Working through his link involves helping him overcome this idea and accept that he can make money selling artwork while still being true to himself.

    Visual Novels 
  • Comes up for several characters in Being A ΔΙΚ, unsurprisingly, given its setting in an American college.
    • The MC, who was hardly well-off to begin with, is mentioned as having taken student loans to attend B&R, and picking up money left around free-roam areas is a commonly used mechanic to get some quick cash; dialogue indicates that the money he receives from his mother's inheritance, $5000, is a significant amount to him. That said, his poverty is somewhat downplayed due to a degree of Gameplay and Story Segregation: he often can spend money on dates, strippers, restaurant girls, and Jacob's artwork, alcohol never seems to be a problem (though admittedly he is typically only drinking at parties), and the topic of food costs does not come up even before he moves into the DIK mansion which presumably has Rusty paying for basic supplies.
    • Maya's situation is much more dire; her father's Financial Abuse due to his opposition to her and Josy's relationship has messed up her credit history so badly that she cannot even take out student loans without ruining it entirely, which is why she is so desperate to join the HOTs after hearing the rumour of them paying for tuition.
  • In addition to being a Starving Artist, Kathy from Daughter for Dessert is also a broke college student.

    Web Comics 
  • Adam in By Mistake On Purpose is a doctoral student of botany who resorts to seeking odd jobs from other characters as his stipend doesn't pay enough to cover his food bill as well as his rent and other expenses. Is shown in one episode to have spent at least some the money he earned thus on a tattoo instead.
  • Basically the entire cast of PHD is composed of grad students living on limited stipends. They primarily live on free food available at campus events and instant ramen.

    Real Life 
  • Marie Curie while attending the Sorbonne — which was actually a mostly free university, as it is today. She really did live in a garret in the Latin Quarter, because it was close to the school and she could walk there, saving on bus fare. She managed to survive on pennies and often forgot to eat. She passed out at least once at school (between classes, not during class as in the movie). Her doctor told her to move in with her sister and brother-in-law, both doctors, but they lived too far away from the school and were both party animals in their off hours, making it difficult to concentrate.


Video Example(s):


The Quintessential Quintuplets

"How To Save Money on School Lunches": A simple guide by Fuutarou Uesugi.

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