The Real Cost of a College Meal Plan
How much will it cost to eat at college?
It first occurred to me that I might not need to buy quite as many groceries about the third time I poured an unopened and expired gallon of milk down the drain after my son left for college. I was in the habit of buying 4 gallons of milk a week, but it turns out that my college kiddo was drinking 3 1/2 of those gallons because the rest of the family now survives on around 1/2 gallon a week. Hmmm… at almost $4 per gallon, that is a savings of $14 a week on milk alone.
I decided a little more calculating was in order.
Comparing our grocery costs per month for the last 4 months he was home to the first 4 months he was away at college, I spent an average of $184 less on groceries each month. I did the same comparison for our restaurant and school meals and found a savings of $233 per month. (Keeping in mind that we eat out WAY too much and I am a bad mom who allows her kids to buy their lunches at school every day.) The grand total of our food savings was approximately $1668 for September-December 2014. Is this cause for celebration? An extra $1700 just lying around unused!!!
But before you book a trip to the beach, there is some sobering news.
This news is that your kiddo will still expect to eat while away at school and you will have to choose one of the college’s exceptionally delicious and budget-friendly meal plan choices. (Very few exceptions are given to this requirement, especially for freshmen, who are pretty uniformly required to live on campus with only a small refrigerator and microwave to share with a roommate. My son arrived to find that the refrigerator was already completely full of his roommate’s Orange Crush cans.)
Good thing we chose the “unlimited meal plan” – all the milk he can drink – because there was no room for any in his refrigerator. The unlimited meal plan at Baylor University costs $2855 per semester. We also bought an additional $100 in Dining Dollars for him to use at the various campus fast food restaurants – Starbucks, Chick-Fil-A, etc. Looking at his bank statements, he also spent an average of $63 a month during the fall semester on groceries and restaurant meals. So, here is the really scary, bad news about how much college food costs:
Fall Semester Food Costs
Unlimited Meal Plan: $2855
Dining Dollars: $100
4 months of groceries and restaurant meals: $252
Less savings on food at home: $1668
The scary cost of food at college per semester: $1539
Entering the spring semester my milk drinker decided he was tired of eating so much school food and asked to cut back to the “The Works Plan” – 16 meals per week and $100 in Dining Dollars. His grocery and restaurant meal costs increased to $89 per month (perhaps he was able to negotiate more refrigerator space with his roomie).
Spring Semester Food Costs
*The Works Meal Plan: $2267
$100 Dining Dollars (included):
4 months of groceries and restaurant meals: $356
Less 4 months savings: $1668
The scary, but better cost of food at college: $955
*For comparison: an area state school listed a meal plan comparable to the Baylor “Works Meal Plan” at $2052 and an area private school listed one at $2270.
I can’t tell you the actual cost of feeding your college student away from home because every situation is different. My calculations are meant as a guide and process to use in budgeting for a plan. If you have used a different method or wish to share your experiences with college meal plans, please comment.
About Laura Dennis: I am a wife and mother of 3. My oldest left the nest last August to attend Baylor University. My other children are 16 and 14. I live in Tulsa, OK and enjoy volunteering at my childrens’ schools, writing, reading, hosting church community group and bridal showers for my friend’s kiddos who are taking an even further flight and getting married (yikes!). You can find more on her website and follow her on Pinterest.
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