Meal plans at college are convenient. A student’s food costs are wrapped into each semester’s tuition bill, allowing them to focus on academics and college activities rather than finding the money for each meal. Many colleges offer similar meal plan choices, and the two most popular options are plans that offer either three meals a day or two meals a day. In addition to the ability to swipe a card to qualify for a meal, many dining plans offer points to be used for additional food expenses, whether in a dining hall, a campus fast food establishment, or a convenience store.
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The prices for the meal plan vary from school to school. Meal plans are expensive, and most students don’t take full advantage of them. Here are some examples of how much a typical meal plan would cost per semester at some schools. At some schools, the two plans cost the same amount. The difference would be in the number of “points” one may receive for extra meals, and since these point systems differ from school to school, I don’t include them in the table.
|Two meals per day||Three meals per day|
|West Chester University||$1,189||$1,281|
Many schools require students living on campus to sign up for a meal plan. These prices not only pay for the food, but help defray the college’s costs of running dining halls on campus, and all students share these costs regardless of whether they use the dining halls.
Choosing a meal plan
Most colleges and universities offer a choice between a two-meal-per-day plan and a three-meal-per-day plan. There may be additional options offering fewer meals, and the plans also often different combinations of meal points or flex points. In general, if you must choose a meal plan, choose a plan that matches your habits. If you’ve never been a breakfast eater or if you’re a night person, the three-meal-per-day plan will likely be a waste of money for you, assuming it costs more than the other plans. You won’t magically begin eating breakfast just because you receive that meal as part of your semester bill.
Similarly, if you haven’t been much of a cook at home, you won’t become one at college. These two trends are likely to continue, but can be reversed with some discipline and effort. If there’s no impetus for change, though, expect to continue living and eating with the same patters.
The college knows that you probably won’t eat every meal provided on your plan. For plans with points, colleges some how get away with expiring the points at the end of the semester or year without rolling them over to the next semester or providing the student a refund. To take full advantage of the meal plan and the price you pay, students must eat every meal and use every point, and that’s not a realistic expectation.
Cooking to save money
Cooking is an alternative to eating every meal in the dining hall. Unfortunately, some dorms don’t have facilities for cooking. There may be rules against keeping appliances in dorm rooms, and you may not have access to a refrigerator and a microwave. If you do live in a dorm with a shared kitchen, whether living in a suite, where a number of roommates share a common area, or a dorm where there is a kitchen on each floor, you’ve probably paid more for your housing costs than if you were to live in a dorm on campus without these facilities.
If you can cook, do it. You might be able to choose a lower-volume meal plan. Some colleges offer meal plans that include fewer than two meals per day, though options may be limited, especially for first-year students. You can save money by buying a smaller meal plan and make up the difference by cooking additional meals.
Many college students waste money with meal plans primarily because they don’t think about it. If someone else is paying the tuition bills each semester, or if student loans are covering most of the costs, the act of paying for daily expenses is several steps removed from the act of incurring those expenses. This disconnection between eating and payment reduces the awareness of how much things really cost.
College students who care about their financial future must be aware of what they are spending and find ways to reduce costs, a particularly difficult task when there is no immediate feedback or consequences to the choices. Dining plans make it possible for colleges and universities to overcharge you, so look at all your options, make the best choices, and increase your awareness of the costs of dining on campus, off campus, and cooking.
Updated October 15, 2015 and originally published June 15, 2011.