Say Goodbye to the University Meal Plan

The experienced college student has a handful of essential words that he/she comes to learn all to well: free, poor, cheap. There is probably no more financially difficult time than the four years at the university. If you think about it, it makes perfect sense. When else are you paying anywhere from $18,000 – $50,000 (or more) in expenses each year and earning little or no money? You may find that you have some support from parents or scholarships, but I am sure that every college student that doesn’t want to rack up as much debt in school loans as possible is asking themselves one thing: how can I save money?

You Are What You Eat

I am sure you have heard of the saying, ‘You Are What You Eat.’ Most often this is applied to your health. If you eat healthy, you will be healthy and if you eat unhealthy, well, you get the picture. The same is true with your finances. One of the biggest money-consuming category of individuals’ (or families’) finances is food. The american diet has transitioned from eating a home-made dinner around the table to eating out and eating out often. This is all because of a the convenience factor (and poor financial planning).

If you are a college student, think about the last time you made a midnight run to a fast-food joint. Or should I say, try to think of the last time you didn’t make a midnight run to a fast-food restaurant? I realized I was spending a lot of money for a late-night snack when I was in college (even though I had a meal plan). The simple truth is that you can save a lot of money by cutting back on eating out.

Get Rid of the University Meal Plan?

Once you have been able to control those midnight cravings, it is important to ask yourself whether the convenience of the university meal plan is that important to you. If it is, than you are better off sticking with it and limiting yourself to the number of times you eat out. But, if you are like me and want to save as much as possible, why not try to buy your own groceries and make your own meals.  This way you aren’t paying for the salaries of the food staff with your student loans.

Case Study

Some of you may be wondering if you can really save that much money by buying your own groceries and making your meals.  Here’s a great example of how I saved lots of money. My university charged somewhere around $1100 per semester for 10 meals a week. The plans with more meals per week were even more expensive (but slight less per meal). There were about 16 weeks in the semester, so it averaged out to about $6.88 per meal. (1100 / 160 meals = 6.88).

When I discovered how high this was, I decided to take things into my own hands. I cut down my spending to $100 per month for food. This was quite the extreme, but it is easy to do and doesn’t require just eating ramen noodles. I was able to save over $700 per semester by simply eating food that I prepared myself.

You may not be as committed as I was to save money, but even with slight cut backs, you can save lots of money. Read about the other frugal tips that 20’s Finances has to offer.

*featured image provided by: ugod via flickrCC

37 Responses to Say Goodbye to the University Meal Plan

  1. I have done all of my university in the evenings while working so I never had a meal plan like this but my brother did. He said it was convenient for studying but he often chose the less healthy option that was offered. He put on a lot of weight when he did his first degree because of what he ate and his lack of activity. Now that he is doing his second degree which is more focused and isn’t part of a meal plan he is doing much better. In fact now, we wonder if he eats enough.
    In retrospect, was the meal plan worth it, I don’t know. At the time, he was moving out of province to a new city and my parents wanted to make sure he got food. How many 18 year olds are going to bother cooking right?

    • Yes, when I ate on the meal plan it was pizza and burgers half of the time. 🙂 I am glad I don’t eat university cafeteria food anymore.

  2. My school does not allow students living in dorms to bypass the meal plan. However, I have an apartment this year and thus buy and cook my own food. Aside from the convenience (I can eat whenever I want, not just when the caf is open), I am eating more food that I like. I eat a wider variety of foods and have found some great, inexpensive options. I am probably saving over $600 this semester by cooking for myself.

    • Wow, that’s great work! Yes, universities create rules to help increase revenue (and other reasons as well). You have to get creative some times.

      • It isn’t legal to force students to buy the meal plan simply because they live on campus: go to the campus meal plan office with a note from your doctor about any kind of special diet (just tell the doctor the situation), and the meal plan office must release you from the forced meal plan expense.

  3. Of course, if you live on campus you may be stuck with a mandatory plan 🙂

    Admittedly, I never crunched the numbers when I was younger. It would have been nice to read a post like this to at least get me thinking about how much more it costs.

    You’d think that a college would be in bulk and be able to provide at a cost lower than you’d be able to do.

  4. Get rid of the meal plan? That was the best deal in college. I roomed with some friends and we would walk to the cafeteria and chow down. All you can eat! What more can a college student ask for?

    Cory – Are you staying up tonight to watch your Alexa rank change? You did it! Congrats!

    • haha. Yes, all you can eat, but it costs more. 🙂 Really? I have been checking alexa, but I haven’t seen it change. How do you seem to get the updates before me? haha

  5. Meal plan is very convenient. Although you can save money, it would be more time consuming and more of hassle… But, I am sure there will be many college student who is willing to save money by staying away from meal plans.

    • Yes, you are right. The meal plan is a huge convenience. If you are desperate to stay out of debt or save money, it can be a great way to save money.

  6. Good point 60k. Yes, actually where I went to school I was able to find an apartment for half the price of housing. But, areas in the Northeast, for example, it is much harder to find such a difference in rent unless you have a roommate (or more than one).

  7. I didn’t live on campus when I was in college. I was very disappointed to find there was no meal plan option for commuters – I ended up eating out almost every day instead. It kills me now to think of all the money I could’ve saved over 4 years.

    • Wow, that is disappointing. I am sorry to hear that. Yes, eating out instead of having a meal plan isn’t the way to save money. Good thing you have come to your senses. 😉

  8. Back when I was in college, I did the plan for a few semesters, but it was pricey and all the way across the campus. I started missing half of them, so I stopped getting it…

    Congratulation on your Alexa score (you should have it beat in a few days).

  9. I stayed at home when I did undergrad and with roommates in my grad school. Meal plans really are a rip off. I had them for 1 month before I got settled in, I could cook for 1/4th of what it cost for the meal plan. And after I settled in with roommates it was cut even more drastically as we shared and one person cooked only twice a week. It was a great arrangement.

  10. You’re right. The meal plan is for convenience. Way to take charge of your savings. You actually have an extra bonus in eating healthier, too. I may be stretching this, but you have a third bonus. You will save in the long run with extra medical expenses. All for cutting out your meal plan!

    • Thanks! No, I don’t think you are stretching it. I think we need to consider our health costs when calculating costs.

  11. Convenience is such a huge factor when deciding between the meal plan and cooking your own food. I remember I would spend the time I saved by not cooking for extra studying. So it’s a little bit of a trade off.

  12. LOL I got so fat my freshman eating in the dorms at UCLA. 3 meals a day all buffet style.

    Got smart during my second year when I started working out and going to the gym. Since breakfast was buffet.. I had 8-10 eggs every morning (all egg white) for my morning protein fix.

    You can only cut back on meal plan if you live off campus and have your own car though…

    • It isn’t legal to force students to buy the meal plan simply because they live on campus: go to the campus meal plan office with a note from your doctor about any kind of special diet (just tell the doctor the situation), and the meal plan office must release you from the forced meal plan expense.

  13. Good advice.

    A few other things to consider:
    When you are choosing a college, choose one which serves some nutritious meals. When my daughter and I were visiting colleges, we were most impressed with Macalester College in Minnesota has a catering service prepare their meals, and they are fabulous!The menu board in the entrance is color-coded, there are different colored symbols next to each menu description, so you can quickly and easily work around dietary restrictions. If I remember correctly, it’s something like blue icon for seafood, brown for beef, red for pork, green for vegetarian entree, light green for vegan (no eggs or dairy), and tan for locally-sourced food.
    Of the schools we visited, Claremont McKenna in California and Grinnell in Iowa also had delicious food and many choices.

    I would recommend the meal plan for the first year, because the cafeteria is where you get to know more people. Eating together is a bonding.

    If you are on a limited budget, consider how much of your meal plan will be subsidized by financial aid. An expensive meal plan may cost you less, after financial aid, than you buying and cooking all your own groceries.

    When you do cook for yourself in the student apartments, I suggest finding a recipe you like and making lots of it. Freeze the extra in single-serve portions, so you have “convenience” food for later.