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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). 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. Though due to the nature of many events that encourage political correctness, they may often be only for women, LGBT or ethnic minorities and bars away men, heterosexuals or Caucasians/whites.


This trope is often Truth in Television, as college loans are very expensive (growing moreso in some places) and keep many students in debt for years. This results in years of struggling to get by just to pay off their education, which has a higher priority than buying food. 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 the American student due to the extremely skyrocketed (and still rising) 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  

  • 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.
  • Most of the cast of Honey and Clover, especially because they're art students.
  • 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.
  • In Fruits Basket, Tohru Honda was this in the first episode, while she was living in a tent.
  • In Sword Art Online, Shino "Sinon" Asada is this, since she lives alone in her apartment and has to make do with a limited amount of money each month. It's bad enough that she has to admit that selling Hecate, an anti-material rifle in Gun Gale Online that's very powerful rare and of great personal significance to her, would go a long way toward helping ends meet.


  • 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.
  • This is why Laura of Student Services goes into prostitution.



  • 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.
    • The same story is told in Central Asia and Middle East about Hojja Nasreddin when he was appointed as a judge.


  • A joke has a student go to a doctor, complaining constipation. The doctor examines him and writes a prescription: "Eat something."
  • Another one has a student to collapse on a street. A crowd immediately assembles and some samaritan starts shouting for water. A student rises his head and says weakly: "And bread…"
  • An old and popular saying among German students goes 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.


  • Older Than Print: The Clerk of Oxford (essentially a philosophy student) from The Canterbury Tales is an example.
  • Raskolnikov from Crime and Punishment was like this.
  • 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 this 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.
    • Although, 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.
  • Taken to ridiculous extremes (like everything else) in The Young Ones.
  • In Three's Company, this is why Jack moves in with the girls. He's a starving cooking school student.
    • Very easily a Truth in Television, as 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.


  • Symon, the titular character from Der Bettelstudent (The Beggar Student).

     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).
  • You play one in The Trail Of Anguish, forcing you to stay in a rundown dorm.
  • Dead or Alive: Dimensions reveals that Kasumi attempted to be an Ordinary High-School Student in-between the events of 3 and 4, but it doesn't work out very well; Kokoro finds her collapsed on the road with a high fever.

     Web Comics  

  • Basically the entire cast of PHD.

     Web Original  

  • Foul Bachelor Frog is a meme (of the advice dog variety) which shows a frog making comments on the stereotypical college student's life. Part of the memes are about this trope, while others are about Wacky Fratboy Hijinx or A Date with Rosie Palms. (At other times, Foul Bachelor Frog is just lazy: several of the memes are about how he has lots of food in the fridge, but chooses to starve because none of it can be prepared in less than two minutes. Or else he is rich enough to order take-away all the time because he doesn't have any clean plates.)

     Real Life  

  • Marie Curie was literally one of these while attending the Sorbonne — which was actually a mostly free college, as it is today. She really did live in a garret in the Latin Quarter, surviving on pennies and often forgetting to eat. She passed out at least once at school (between classes, not during class as in the movie).
  • The New England Journal of Medicine described, in the late 1990s, several cases of scurvy (Vitamin C deficiency) seen in students who had chosen a severely restricted diet - consisted almost entirely of instant noodles - because of cost.
  • Due to the 2008 economic recession, many American universities have had to open food banks and pantries to feed their low-income students, some of whom are also homeless or unable to pay the most basic of bills. It is no longer unusual to see or hear about college students going for days without a single meal.
  • Likewise, at the primary and secondary levels in the US, many schools run free lunch programs for low-income students to avert this trope.
    • In fact, free school lunch programs originated precisely because President Harry S. Truman was so disgusted by the high rate of military enlistees being rejected as a result of medical ailments that were cause by childhood malnutrition, so when someone who is a big fan of military spending speaks disparagingly about school lunches being a waste of the taxpayer's money? The free school lunch program was established in the interest of national security.
    • Some Title I schools are lucky enough to be adopted by charities that provide free breakfasts and lunches on days the schools are closed. Without these programs many of the students would go hungry on weekends and school holidays. is an example.
    • Until relatively recently, few people were aware that one of the main functions of the Black Panthers was to provide free hot meals for poverty-stricken black schoolchildren who didn't have any.
  • 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.
  • This trope is also the reason that some places have laws stating that college students (at least those living on-campus) have to buy a meal plan from the school (that is built into their financial aid/tuition package, and must be priced affordably). This way, they are at least assure of getting basic meals (breakfast, lunch, dinner) in the dining hall.
  • Ironically, Jules Verne wasn't one in his student years, as his father, a wealthy country lawyer, supported him in hopes of Jules inheriting his law practice. It's only after Jules turned to literature and dropped out of law school, that Verne-senior withdrew the support, making his son a starving artist for a time, until he found a steady day job as a stockbroker, where he worked for several years until making it big with the Five Weeks in a Balloon.
  • While he was a working writer and not a student, H. P. Lovecraft existed on pennies much of the time and was pretty ingenious about contriving meals. He got all excited when he had to buy an oil heater for his New York apartment and found out it came with a stove attachment so he could have "hot dinners! No more cold beans and spaghetti for me!"


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