According to a survey by the College Board, the average per meal price with a college meal plan is anywhere from $7 – $11. I don’t know about you, but that does not exactly scream “living on a college budget” to me.
I guarantee you that I could eat quite well for a lot less than $11, or even $7 per meal.
When you make the decision to go to college, you will be confronted with many extra costs that are often not included in the base price for your tuition and fees. These fees can include housing, a meal plan, books and supplies, transportation expenses, a parking permit, application fees, student organization fees, dorm furniture and accessories. microwave and fridge rentals for your dorm room, and a laptop.
These fees are included in the Cost of Attendance that is used by your Financial Aid office for financial aid purposes, but the true cost of college is often veiled by the Admissions folks.
Because of all these extra fees, it is even more important to save any money where you can. One of the best ways to save money in these “extra” categories, is to ditch your meal plan for much cheaper alternatives.
But My College Requires me to have a Meal Plan!?
When you arrive on your college campus as a freshman, your options for saving money on a meal plan are limited. Many colleges require you to live in on-campus housing, and also to purchase a certain level of a meal plan. This makes sense in theory, as colleges want to ensure that you have a roof over your head, and adequate food when you need it. This also takes stress off of you to find an apartment and restaurants, while you make the transition into college.
The money savings will come in when you evaluate the various levels and options within your college meal plan. Most colleges have multiple plans to choose from, ranging from a commuter option, all the way up to an unlimited meals option.
A very quick calculation will tell you the answer of which options will be best for you. If you think you will eat breakfast, then you can count on eating at least 15 meals per week. If you plan to eat on campus over the weekend, then you may bump that up to 18 meals per week. A typical college semester is 18 weeks. This would mean an average of 324 meals eaten per semester. You can then divide the cost of your unlimited meal plan by 324, and you will find your average cost per meal.
The average cost of an unlimited meal plan is $1600 for one semester. The simple math reveals that eating 324 meals on campus with the unlimited plan equals about $4.94 per meal. That seems like a fair price to me. I could eat much cheaper if I cooked my own food or bought food at restaurants with coupons, but that is a very fair price per meal. This meal plan also makes the least amount of money for the dining halls.
Once you drop below the unlimited plan, you find that the cost per meal can rise dramatically. For example, a meal plan option that is very popular on college campuses is a flex plan. This plan gives you 75 meals to be used in a dining hall at any point during the semester, and it also gives you $100 in points. These points can be used to buy snacks at the library, vending machines items, quick stop food items, and even items in the college bookstore. However, the price per meal for this plan, even including the $100 in points, easily reaches over $10 per meal.
The bottom line, college food costs are expensive, and are required for your first year on campus. It is important to factor in the stress of a college freshman, in addition to the extra cost of food. It might make sense to spend more money on an unlimited meal plan with a much lower cost per meal, for the peace of mind that you or your college student will be well fed over the course of the semester.
The freshman fifteen is completely up to the student!
Meal Plan Alternatives
Once you have gotten past your obligatory first year housing and meal plan requirement, many college students find that it makes financial sense to move off campus and buy your own food at your discretion.
Here is where you can explore some excellent food alternatives, and potentially save a lot of money.
If you live in an apartment, then there is no reason why you cannot begin shopping at the local grocery store, and preparing many of your own meals. This will take more planning, as you will likely need to pack a lunch and snacks for those long days on campus. You will also need to coordinate with your roommates to see who uses the kitchen when. A great way to save some money is to share meals among your roommates. You could all divide up the week and each roommate will cook a dinner for the others each night. This will almost guarantee you a hot meal 3 or 4 days out of the week. It also takes the stress off of finding something to eat every night.
Living in a college town is also one of the best ways to save money on food. College town restaurants make their living off of college students, and therefore offer excellent incentives to entice college students to eat at their restaurants.
This means that you will likely find “college student special” nights, and “free taco Tuesday” or “Buy one get one free Pizza Mondays”.
The alternatives are virtually endless on how you can save money on your food costs while in college. The more creative and ingenious you can be, the better.
The Bottom Line
It pays to be smart with your college meal plan choices. You can save money in the meal plans you are required to buy, and then save even more money by realizing when to cut the cord, ditch your meal plan, and find your own food.