If you’re in college, you know how expensive it can be. Between tuition and books, you can rack up substantial student loan debt very quickly.
But did you know that one of the most overlooked expenses that can add to your education costs is the college meal plan?
While they are a quick and easy option when you live on campus, they can be expensive. In fact, college meal plans can add thousands of dollars to the overall cost of your attendance.
What’s more, many universities make them mandatory for at least first-year students. And with the way schools structure their meal plans, you could end up losing a lot of money.
But if you’re willing to forgo the convenience and skip the university-offered food program, you could instead save thousands of dollars over the course of your education.
How college meal plans work
Schools ultimately design university food plans for students’ convenience.
Therefore, rather than worrying about shopping and preparing your own food, you just show your university ID or scan a card and get access to a buffet of options throughout the day.
And, college meal plan costs are usually paid upfront along with your tuition. So you don’t worry about the cost whenever you stop in for a quick snack.
Some schools allow you to pick an option that works best for you and your eating habits. For instance, you could choose to pay for just two meals a day rather than three.
Others may offer grab-and-go options, so you can skip the cafeteria when you’re in a rush.
The problem with a college meal plan
The average meal on a typical school food plan may cost between $5 and $9, according to HowMuchIsIt.org.
But that number is assuming you eat every meal you signed up for on the college meal plan. Which many students do not.
With a busy class schedule, activities, and homework, your time can get tight. Perhaps you end up skipping a meal and grab a granola bar instead.
And that’s exactly what your college expects (and hopes) you’ll do.
Since you pay your meal cost upfront, you often forget just how expensive your meals are. You may not think anything of skipping dinner to order a pizza because the money you spent (or borrowed!) for your meal plan is already out of your mind.
Plus, college meal plans are often more expensive than if you’d just shopped and prepared food for yourself.
For example, at Elizabethtown College, a small private school in Pennsylvania, a silver meal plan that covers 200 meals will cost you $2,665 for a semester. Over the course of four years, opting for this meal plan would add more than $20,000 to your college costs.
By contrast, the U.S. Department of Agriculture a few years ago reported that a family of four can eat on as little as $146 a week with a thrifty food plan.
With that math, a whole family could eat for the length of a semester for less than the cost of a silver meal plan.
Alternatives to the dining plan
If you are not required to have a meal plan, you can save a lot of money by being resourceful.
When you live in a traditional dorm, you may be able to keep simple appliances, like a mini-fridge, microwave, or hot-plate. If so, you can make both filling and cheap meals right in your room.
Alternatively, if you or a friend have a car, you can make weekly trips to the grocery store to pick up easy ingredients for simple and nutritious meals.
You could also potentially use public or student transportation to local stores and malls where you can do your shopping instead.
If you don’t have a car and public transportation is not an option, that does not mean you are stuck with the meal plan. Grocery delivery companies like Shipt often deliver right to college campuses.
Or, you can sign up for Amazon’s Prime Pantry and get groceries delivered to your door. You’ll pay a slight premium, but it’s still cheaper than the cafeteria.
Also, keep basic staples like bread, lunch meat, condiments, ready-to-heat soups, or prepared food from the supermarket in your fridge.
While the pre-made stuff is more expensive than cooking from scratch, when you sit down and do the math, you’ll likely find it’s still much cheaper than opting for the meal plan.
And if you have an apartment with a full kitchen, with a regular refrigerator and stove, you can save even more money. Work with your roommates to come up with a cooking schedule to share the labor and cut down on expenses even more.
Rethinking the college meal plan
There’s no doubt that college meal plans are convenient.
But when you are trying to control your education costs and limit how many student loans you take out, making some sacrifices can end up being a huge help.
Skip the dining plan, and you can save yourself thousands.
For more information on saving money while in school, check out this article on how to find cheap textbooks.
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