College Meal Plans: Worth the Added Expense or Not?

Large group of university students communicating while eating sandwiches on a lunch break at cafeteria.
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Meal plan arrangements and expenses at different colleges can vary greatly. You can pay hundreds of dollars for block meal plans that offer 25 to 100 total meals per semester, or thousands of dollars for 19 meals per week and extra dollars to spend on additional on-campus food and beverage items.

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However, no matter what amount you’re planning to spend, you should make sure it’s worth it before you sign on the dotted line. Otherwise, it’s like pouring money down the drain.

To help, here’s some advice from a former college student, along with what to consider if you’re struggling with whether a college meal plan is the right choice for you

Should You Invest in a Meal Plan or Cook for Yourself?

“In my experience, a meal plan helps,” said Jennifer Jones, founder of Beginner Guitar and a former college student who experienced semesters with and without meal plans.

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“Finances can be hard as a college student, especially for freshmen in their first year away from mom and dad. A meal allows for a crutch to fall on if you’re out of funds to eat out. It can also save you from having to buy groceries and spending time cooking for yourself.”

Do Universities Require Students To Have a Meal Plan?

Sometimes, you might not have a choice of whether to enroll in a meal plan or not, depending on what college you attend.

“At many schools, students are required to have a meal plan if they live on campus,” said Jones. “In fact, when filling out the application for housing, you cannot submit the application without choosing a meal plan. It is included in the price of your housing.”

For example, at UC Berkeley, undergraduate students living on campus are automatically enrolled in the Blue Plan, which is included in the housing contract. The Blue Plan provides 12 meal swipes per week and $300 flex dollars (dollars equal to cash) per semester to supplement the meal plan.

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However, at Florida State University, on-campus students are not required to purchase a meal plan during any term.

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So, Is a Meal Plan Worth the Added Expense?

To find out if a meal plan is worth it, you’ll need to do a little research. Here’s what to consider. 

Estimate and Compare Costs

First, write down the cost of the college meal plan you’re considering. Next, figure up an estimated cost of how much you would spend if you didn’t have the meal plan.

For example, budget a realistic weekly amount for groceries plus — if applicable — a few takeout meals each week. Then, compare the two costs and see how much you could potentially save by investing in the meal plan or buying your own food.

Consider How Often You’ll Use the Meal Plan

Consider your class schedule and the hours of the campus dining options. For example, will there be certain days or times that you will be off-campus and won’t be able to take advantage of dining on campus? Or will you be in evening classes that last until after dining options are closed?

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Find Out if Unused Amounts Roll Over

Another important consideration is whether unused meal plan swipes and flex dollars will transfer to the next semester. Schools vary in their policies. For example, Oklahoma State University has a maximum rollover amount that will transfer to the next semester, whereas the University of Oregon resets rollover amounts to zero at the beginning of a new term.

Benefits of Having a Meal Plan vs. Not Having One

“There are definite benefits to having a meal plan versus not having one,” said Jones. “Like I said before, a meal plan ensures that you have something to eat every day even if you have little to no cash. This helps with food insecurity and its impact on learning. In dining halls, there is usually a broad array of foods and usually three meals a day.”

She added, “With that being said, the only downfalls are financial. It costs more money to purchase a meal plan, but I think it’s well worth the cost.”

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About the Author

Cynthia Measom is a personal finance writer and editor with over 15 years of collective experience. Her articles have been featured in MSN, AOL, Yahoo Finance, INSIDER, Houston Chronicle and The Seattle Times. She attended the University of Texas at Austin and earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in English.
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