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Dining plans are expensive and the choice you make can save you, or cost you, a lot of money. College is already a heavy financial load so it is important to choose wisely if you don’t want to add to the financial burden. There are several questions to ask in the decision process:
What does the school require?
This should be your first line of investigation. Does your child’s school require a dining plan? Some colleges do not. Does my student’s dorm choice require a dining plan? There are some schools, I’ve been informed, where the residency in certain dorms requires a dining plan. Are students who live off-campus required to have a dining plan?
Can a dining plan contract be changed or cancelled during the semester?
From the feedback I’ve received, the short answer for many schools is a big NO which is why this is such an important decision. The longer answer includes whether or not your student joins a sorority/fraternity. At many schools, the dues for your student’s sorority/fraternity includes a meal plan. Take for example my daughter; she does not live in her sorority house but her dues include lunch and dinner five days a week at the house. At her university, the only way you can alter your dining plan after you sign the contract for the semester is if they join Greek life and even then you can only lower it to what they call the ‘Greek Plan.’
Where can the dining plan be used?
Larger universities may have several dining hall options. Can the plan be used at any of the locations? Also, some universities allow dining hall dollars (in some form) to be used at any on-campus dining establishment including chain restaurant options like Dunkin Donuts, Starbucks, etc.
What and how much does your child normally eat?
This should be weighed heavily in your choice. My daughter, for example, is not a breakfast eater. She’ll usually have a cup of coffee and grab a protein bar or some other snack to munch on around 9 or 10 in the morning. Now, you might have a 6 foot son who is a bottomless pit and eats three full meals or day (or more). We obviously should not be getting our children the same dining plan.
My best recommendation…
Based years of feedback from parents you might be surprised at my recommendation. If your school does not require a meal plan, do not get one and if your school does require a meal plan, get the smallest one they offer. I’m not suggesting that you let your child starve so let me explain. As you’ll likely find out, your dining plan contract is, at minimum, a contract for an entire semester (maybe even an annual contract). You not only can’t get out of it once you’ve signed on dotted line, but you can’t even change the plan UNLESS you are choosing to increase it. That means if you sign up for the mac daddy plan of unlimited swipes per semester only to find out that your kid hates the food, your SOL (sh%$# out of luck).
So, if you’re not opting into the meal plan how will your child eat? What I suggest is either getting your child a credit card (or putting cash into their bank account to use their debit card) to purchase their meals – at least at the beginning. After a few weeks you can evaluate what they are spending on food and where they are spending it. If you find that your student is eating three times a day at the campus dining hall, you’ll probably find it cost effective to opt into the meal plan, which they will let you do at any time. If you see that your student, after the first week or two, is rarely eating in the dining halls, a dining plan would be a waste.
My test revealed that after the first week of school when my daughter was trying out the food and deciding she didn’t care for it, she ate in the dining hall 5 times the entire semester and even then, it was to go along with a friend who she was keeping company! Imagine if I had bought her a dining plan? What a waste! I received an email from a mom who found herself in a similar situation and, based on the number of swipes her child used during the semester, she determined that each meal swipe cost her around $50! Plus, she was locked into that meal plan for the entire academic year!
I get that every child is different. Maybe your student will love the school’s food and maybe they’ll eat every meal there – or maybe there are no other options on or near campus. If my daughter had a meal plan, she would be using a meal swipe (at around $8 per swipe) to grab a cup of coffee and granola bar or a bowl of cereal for breakfast if she had even left enough time for that. Instead, between she and her roommate, us moms bought a Keurig coffee machine, a microwave, and a mini refrigerator. We took them on an initial grocery run where they bought coffee pods, cereal, instant oatmeal, protein bars, protein drinks, juice boxes, and waters (among other things). We also bought boxed milk that doesn’t spoil and doesn’t even require refrigeration until after opening.
My goal was not to deny her food but instead, to pay for things she would actually eat. Her campus happens to have many chain dining options on campus and I knew this is where she would most often eat. What I found was, on average, my daughter was spending less than $10 on food each day and she was actually eating what I was paying for. You might be thinking that my daughter was eating fast food junk all the time but in fact, my daughter makes pretty good food choices, not that she doesn’t indulge every now and again. You might also be thinking that $10 per day could quickly add up to the cost of a meal plan, which might be true, but she didn’t want to eat in the dining hall – that money would have gone to waste. For the most part, she ate ‘breakfast’ from what she had in her room and she could grab quickly each day because she wasn’t one to schedule any extra time in the morning to make it to breakfast. My daughter also joined a sorority. Her dues included lunch and dinner Monday through Friday cooked by their house chef who catered to the likes and dislikes of the girls so that was where she ate the majority of her meals.
The bottom line…
The message I’m trying to get across is there is no one answer for each student. I will tell you, however, that I’ve never met a parent who was sorry they DIDN’T get their child a meal plan but I met plenty who had MAJOR buyer’s remorse for getting a meal plan or for the meal plan they chose. If your university isn’t going to give you your money back or let you reduce your plan, take your time and make the decision after you see where and how much your child is eating at school. While the school might not be willing to give you your money back, they will be happy to take it at any time so you can always opt in if your evaluation shows that option to be the most cost effective.
If you opt out of the dining plan as my family did, you might also want to come to an understanding with your child about what you consider reasonable food costs. While I was more than willing to pay for her to eat, I was not going to fund my daughter going out to fancy restaurants or getting unlimited specialty coffee drinks at Starbucks. Those things would have to come from her own spending money. What does your university require? What did you choose to do? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.