Tuition and fees aren’t the only things that college students spend money on. You also need to consider your food budget, campus meal plan, and entertainment budget, among other expenses associated with your college education.
A significant portion of college students’ overall budget is spent on food, even more so as food costs are rising worldwide. Unfortunately, it’s also hard to set your food budget, as college meal plans and dining hall costs vary greatly depending on your meal plan, whether you eat home-cooked meals or have a meal subscription. It also depends on how often you eat out. Fortunately, there are many creative ways to save on food expenses, even if you have bought a meal plan.
But how much do college students spend on food? And what does the average college student spend on food and other living expenses? We’ll examine how much a typical college student outlays on these expenses and how to save money with a college meal plan.
Cost of Meal Plans
In the US, most universities offer a range of meal plans, costing around $4500 for an eight-month meal plan or about $19 a day. These include three square meals a day. Compare this to the average American household, which has a food budget of $3,935 per year, so undergraduates spend considerably more on eating on campus than they’d pay if they bought groceries and cooked their food.
Rather than the fixed cost for an 8-12 month highest tier meal plan, some schools charge per meal instead. The average cost under this scheme is between $9 and $10 per meal cooked, twice the amount the average person in the USA spends on food. Some college students prefer to use Air Fryers while preparing their meals.
How do College Meal Plans Work?
Colleges can substantially increase their profits and operational costs by outsourcing dining services to an independent food company. Many universities are already working with service providers that can supply some or all of their dining services.
Most educational institutions ask their food suppliers to charge a reasonable price, but they don’t usually have a policy of passing the savings on to their students. Most schools use this opportunity to generate additional revenue through commission.
Some schools have partnered with beverage companies to provide soft drinks to students who’ve signed up for a meal plan. They charge their food and beverage suppliers a substantial commission in these cases.
Why are Food Costs Rising at American Colleges?
As you can see, many colleges have turned food and dining services into a secondary source of income, which has not always worked out well for students. In addition, expensive meal plans mean students can struggle to pay for even a lower meal plan.
Eating off campus is considerably cheaper than buying a meal, especially if you’re eating healthy, but it can also be time-consuming. You need to buy groceries, cook on your own, and budget your food expenses — all of which can be challenging to fit around a hectic study schedule.
Undergraduates are expected to eat on campus for the first few years at least. In addition, a college meal plan subscription is mandatory for students at some American universities, even if they prefer other options.
Many college students enjoy spending time with their friends in the cafeteria.
How to Choose the Best Meal Plan for your Budget
Budgeting makes sense for any student who has completed the first two or three years of college and has the choice to arrange their meals. Of course, you probably won’t have a choice for the first one or two years, but you must sign up for a mandatory meal plan.
However, most colleges offer a range of plans, so choosing the plan that best fits your preference, diet, and budget is important. These handy tips will help you choose the most reliable and affordable plan.
- Consider your Requirements: Convenience is the most important factor for some students. If you fall into this category, opt for a high-tier meal plan. These will be expensive, but with the additional cost, you’ll enjoy a high level of convenience and high-quality food. This can be a good option for students who don’t eat off campus and will wholly rely on their meals in the cafeteria.
- Think about your Dorm Facilities: If your dorm has a kitchen or you are allowed to live with your parents, it’s usually better and cheaper to sign up for a low-tiered meal plan and cook most of your meals at home. These are ideal for students living off-campus.
- Avoid Meal Plans: Calculate the total you spend on food per day if you are on a college-based meal plan and compare it with the average cost of eating at home. For example, if your college charges a flat $4500 fee for a three-meal-a-day plan for eight months, you’ll be spending $18.75 on food daily. That’s likely to be much higher than the cost of home-cooked meals. Therefore, it’s better to avoid meal plans and cook for yourself at home instead.
Tips for Keeping your Food Budget as Low Cost as Possible
Create a Formal Budget
It can be tempting to overspend on food when you don’t have a budget. Before grocery shopping, prepare a list of items you need to stock up on. Knowing your budget will help you better plan your food and other expenses. This is especially important if you eat out frequently.
Buy in Bulk
An easy way to save on food is by shopping in bulk. Look out for sales and discounts and stock up on long-life items that you know you’ll eat, like canned foods and non-perishables. You can even do this with perishable items like meat: freeze it and cook it later. Raw meat can be kept in the freezer for up to three months.
Choose Your Grocery Store Wisely
The grocery store you choose can also play a role in cutting down your food expenses. Instead of shopping at smaller stores close to where you live, seek out affordable supermarkets that offer fresh and high-quality groceries at competitive prices. Some grocery stores have loyalty programs for regular customers – download their apps to access special deals.
Cut Down Your Dining Expenses
If you have a meal plan, the three meals will likely suffice. You don’t need to go out often or splurge extra snacks between meals. If you have evening or late-night cravings, replace those cafeteria visits with homemade snacks. This way, you can count calories and save on food expenses.
Invest in Kitchen Equipment
A small investment in basic kitchen equipment can translate into significant savings on food during your college years. In addition, you won’t have to buy a meal plan, nor will you need to eat out daily.
A fully-equipped kitchen means you can cook food on your own and enjoy healthy meals without spending too much on food.
The Bottom Line
The average American spends considerably less on food than college students with a meal plan. So, if your college will let you, skipping meal plans is the best way to save on food expenses while you’re in college. If not, choose a low-tiered meal plan, avoid eating out too often, and make your snacks.