How a College Meal Plan Wastes Money

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Last updated on October 15, 2015 Views: 715 Comments: 21

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 dayThree meals per day
Ithaca College$2,882$2,882
Rutgers University$2,035$2,190
SUNY Potsdam$2,185$2,250
West Chester University$1,189$1,281
Yale University$2,600$2,600

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.

Wasting money

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.

Article comments

Kathleen says:

I’m attending a private school and for my first-year, I’m opting out of the meal plan. I’m not too sure if this article is outdated or not, but the cheapest meal plan at my school is a little over $3,000 per semester. That’s a little over $6,000 per school year. Fortunately, my housing on campus has a kitchen that allows students to cook meals in. Therefore, I asked my parents to budget me $200 per month for groceries. $50 per week for food is more than enough. I was reading some of the comments and at $2,000 per semester, it seems reasonable enough. However, $3,000 per semester is crazy!! To conclude, I definitely agree with some of the points made in this article and found it insightful!

Anonymous says:

At my college, if you live on campus, a meal plan is required. The cheapest meal plan is still $1,620 and it’s a huge waste because
1. I don’t eat a whole lot to begin with
2. I work at a dining hall which allows me to get discounts anyway so that’s saving way too much money on something I don’t really need!
It’s effecting my bills and they won’t let me drop it despite how much of a financial burden it is and it’s driving me nuts! My schedules for both classes and work won’t really allow for too many visits to the dining halls and the area I live in is so cold that often times, once winter hits, people don’t really like taking the black ice-riddled walk to any of the eateries. And when all’s said and done, ill still have at least $450 by the end of term that I couldn’t use and I won’t get any if it back! Meal plans may make more sense when you’re a freshman but once you get to a certain level, having it be a requirement becomes complete bull!

Anonymous says:

$7 per meal is %%&[email protected]@[email protected]#$%^&* Why does the federal government allow colleges to subject students to a mandatory mean plan that costs them about $7 per meal. Students don’t eat $7 worth of food a meal and to finance that and charge them interest on it is not fair!! The meal plans in most colleges is more expensive than the cost of the dorm.

Anonymous says:

At my university, the meal plans are all “flex dollars”. You paid a certain amount for each meal plan which includes the operational fee, and you can spend it at any campus dining or convenience store. You can also always refill your meal plan and at the end of the semester, if you didn’t spend it all, it goes towards next semester’s tuition and fees, minus $10. And if you live in a suite that has a kitchen, you don’t need to purchase a meal plan.

Anonymous says:

Students in college should be allowed to grow up. We no longer make certain that children leave high school with life skills in budgeting and nutrition, once available as home economics to future housewives. Meal plans should not be required at college. Students should not be forced to eat the fried food fare and tired salad components available at school restaurant establishments for outrageous prices. On the other hand they should be encouraged to budget their money and plan their meals.

Anonymous says:

I spent 10 years in the Army and it has the same issues for soldiers living on base. I use to go out every weekend and not return until first thing Monday. However presumably food was prepared. One important option is to have cooking affiliates available so people have the choice to opt out of paying meal fees.

Cejay says:

My one semester in college eons ago I had a meal card. I had to eat in the dining hall because I had no extra money for anything else. But one bad thing was that our dining hall was closed on Sunday so we picked up a sandwich sack on Saturday. They were so bad that I finally caved and bought a jar of peanut butter and some crackers. That and a piece of fruit was my Sunday meals. They certainly came out ahead on me.

qixx says:

On some of the points plans you can do very well. I spent all my points at the end of the one semester i had a meal plan buying Pyrex Bakeware from one of the on-campus grocery stores. My meal plan was paid for by a private scholarship. The entire term, housing, tuition, and meal plan were covered. Percentage scholarships do not always have caps and rarely provide any overage. Dollar amount scholarships you usually get the overage on so you still might be better off without the meal plan.

Anonymous says:

In Canada the prices aren’t that bad and they work out to be a pretty good deal if you use them. My brother had a meal plan when he did his undergrad degree and he made good use of it. He had to spend so much time studying that not worrying about finding time to cook was a life saver. He did eat all three meals though.

Anonymous says:

You also have to take in the amount of food per swipe. College athletes consume a lot more food to fuel their work outs so getting a meal plan is usually cheaper option that cooking for themselves.

Anonymous says:

My daughter had a meal plan at Penn State the last two years and it worked out great. You buy whichever meal plan you wish, we chose the middle plan, and all she had to do was swipe her card and it would deduct the money for that meal. There was no limit of how many meals per day or week she could use. When we would go to visit her, she would “treat” us to dinner with her meal plan. She is a good eater so she took advantage of the salad bars, wraps, soup, etc. They would have different themes on different days. At the end of the sprint semester when I picked her up, she had about $60 left so we went to the cafeteria and they allowed the students to buy cases of stuff, such as water and soda, to use up their plan. We used up every last cent. Living in a dorm, she had no facility to cook anything so without the meal plan, she probably would have lived on fast food and junk. In her case, it was well worth the money.

skylog says:

i used my plan when i was freshman here as well. i never had any issues, and looking at it, it seems to be a “better” plan than some others listed here. it has been a couple of years, but yes…they did not like hot plates in the dorm very much.

go lions!

tigernicole86 says:

At my school, there were lots of options… and all way overpriced. There was 12, 15, 18 and 21 meal plans and flex where you paid 1500 for $1000 worth of food but you could use it whenever, especially at the end of the semester when they would have a “case” sale at the end whenever they had way too much soda or candy. I actually did well, only missed 2 meals my entire first year of school and always figured my meals so that I would have something extra to get me through the entire week. Then I started working at the cafeteria and it didn’t matter much about my meal plan. =D

Anonymous says:

My school not only wouldn’t let you roll over meals AT THE END OF EACH WEEK, but they also would only let you use the equivalent dollars for each meal once per “meal period”. So if you goofed up, and had 3 or 4 meals left on Friday afternoon, you were stuck and could only use up one or two buying junk food at the college convenience store. Luckily for me, I had developed an esophageal disorder in college and I had my physician write a letter which released me from the meal plan requirement.

shellye says:

Couldn’t agree more…my daughter had a 7-meal per week plan, and didn’t even use it that often, since she ate out a lot, then discovered the joys of cheap microwave pizza. Oh, to be 18 again…

Anonymous says:

I never used a meal plan in college since I usually didn’t spend it all or wanted to go out. I usually ate fast food or bar food, and stayed away from the cafeteria.

Anonymous says:

Even if you ate every meal in the cafeteria, it’s still not necessarily a good deal. You might spend “only” $2 per day on breakfast (price difference between two and three meal plan, assuming about 10 week semesters) but that $2 could have bought you a box of pop-tarts or a package of bagels or whatever, and then the other $12 for the week would have stayed in your pocket.

Anonymous says:

Totally agree.

Now, I have to say that it’s been a while since my undergrad days. However, I’m sure college students still keep the same wacky hours, and skip cafeteria breakfasts quite a bit. Plus, there’s the element of grabbing fast food or getting pizza – just going off the meal plan periodically. Kids do it, and aren’t always strict about sticking to what has been paid for. This is excacerbated when someone else is paying the bill, like Mom and Dad.

As a grad student, multiple years out of undergrad, I noticed that a points system was in place at that school. I remember seeing an undergrad in the library cafeteria just buying all kinds of junk in order to avoid losing the points (or credits, whatever they called it). This library cafeteria had marked up the food at that point, which told me that it was no secret that these prepaid plans often result in much wastage.

Definitely good to be aware of options and specific costs – and if a meal plan is purchased, make it one that is actually sensible and realistic.

wylerassociate says:

When I lived on campus, I was on a 2 meal plan because I didn’t eat lunch at the cafeteria. Depending on a student’s schedule, it’s a good idea to select the 2 meal plan.

cubiclegeoff says:

I rarely had breakfast during freshman year when I had a meal plan. The plan I had gave you your 3 meals a day or whatever at the dining hall. Another plan gave you a certain amount per day so you could choose to eat at a different style dining hall, or go to the coffee shops instead of depending on the dining hall for everything. And some were an amount you had for the semester and once it was gone, you were done. Most people on that plan ended up buying cases of frappuccinos and candy bars and things to spend the rest of their money near the end.

Anonymous says:

So true! In many instances, the student skips breakfast because of time constraints or sleeping in. Schedules may not give enough time for lunch. Living away from home provides freedom and choices.