A Buffet of Meal Plans for Hungry College Students

Bacon Wrapped Eggs & ArugulaSeniors: ¬†Forget the sky-high costs of tuition and books.¬† What about food?¬† It’s not only an ongoing necessity of human life, it often puts a substantial strain on your wallet.

“Crunching” the Numbers

As tuition rises, the cost of food follows the same path.¬† For the average single male or female, the monthly cost of food towers at around $300.¬† For starving college students (literally) with part-time jobs, that’s a pretty hefty chunk of change for a single living expense.

Let’s say you work at Home Depot part-time for $10 an hour, 15 hours a week.¬† That’s roughly $500 (including the deduction of federal taxes).¬† That would leave you with a measly $200 for your other needs.¬† Like a disappearing act in a magic show, over half of your spending money is instantly gone from your food budget!

Knowing this, the majority of colleges attach the obligation for fist-year freshman to purchase one of their meal plans.  Problem is, one meal plan may leave your tummy rumbling, while another drowns you in an abundance of food, only to be wasted. 

So, what exactly are your options?

  1. A fixed meal plan opens the college’s cafeteria at set times to students, who may pick and choose the food they pile on their plate, much like a buffet.
  2. Dining Dollars“, on the other hand, reflect the same qualities of a line of credit, although it’s strictly limited to food purchases.¬† This “food credit” card is only accepted at pre-selected restaurants and food establishments, along with the school’s cafeteria, of course.These aren’t limited to the state and university system.¬† Community colleges, such as Hawkeye Community College, also offer “dining dollars”.¬† They allow students to pick specific amounts which they convert to these dollars, and in return, an extra 10% of their money is loaded onto the card.¬† If you put in $50, you receive $55 on your card.
  3. Individual meals or customized dining is also a possibility.¬† For instance, Centre College in Kentucky offers an elaborate spectrum of choices, ranging from 16 to 10 meals per year combined with what they call “Flex Dollars”.¬† Their plans combine the best of both worlds: meal plans intermixed with their “Flex Dollar” system, credits which may be redeemed at any Centre dining location.

One College is Not Like the Other

While these give you a good idea about the kinds of meal plans available, every college differs.¬† Some are pretty pricey, like Yale’s, which costs a little over $3,000 per semester.¬† Even though they’re a requirement at some colleges for freshman, your best bet may be to sign up for the lowest meal plan at first.¬† If you end up needing more, go for the next higher up the following term.

If you decide to divert away from meal plans entirely, try to make wise decisions.¬† Don’t eat a package of ramen noodles every night for dinner (we want you to be healthy!), but also limit your purchases at higher-cost stores like Whole Foods.¬† When you do shop at organic-oriented stores, keep an eye out for sales.¬† Be healthy, but not broke!

Westface College Planning can help navigate the financial aid process from start to finish, including how meal plans fit into your aid package. To learn how we can help you call us at 650-587-1559 or sign up for one of our Tackling the Runaway Costs of College Workshops or Webinars.

Photo Credit: Mark Manguerra

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