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Dining Costs Eating up College Students’ Budget

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As the cost of college skyrockets, students are searching for ways to cut expenses. A good place to look is on their dinner plates.

Food expenses can wreck a budget if a busy student eats out regularly. What might surprise you is how much a student spends eating in.

By eating in, we mean using the meal plans colleges offer at campus dining halls. Unfortunately, “offer” is not quite accurate. Most colleges require students to sign up for meal plans at some point in their time on campus.

The fact is a lot of schools are getting fat on those plans. The best way to keep food costs from sending you deeper into debt is to prepare your own meals as often as possible.

Yeah, it’s not as easy or fun as ordering a pizza, but eat-out dollars add up faster than the calories on a deep-dish supreme with extra cheese.

The average restaurant meal costs $12.75. Most food establishments charge a 300% markup on food, meaning that average meal actually costs $4.25 to make.

The average American eats out 4.2 times a week. Exact data is sketchy, but it’s safe to say the average college student eats out more than the average American.

Most aren’t spending $12.75 on every meal, but even the Dollar Menu at McDonald’s quickly adds up to about $5. Students are also huge consumers of snacks and beverages, many of which come out of vending machines, some of which take credit cards as payment, which tells you all you need to know about the prices they charge.

You don’t have to be an Economics major to realize that $2 bottle of Diet Coke from a machine cost about 40 cents in a grocery store. That reality doesn’t stop college students from spending more than $11 billion a year on snacks and beverages, according to

It’s no coincidence that the rise in eating expenses coincided with the introduction of credit card scanners into vending machines in 2006. Higher-priced items could be sold to a uniquely hungry and thirsty market segment – college students.

About 75% of college students use credit cards and the average balance is $3,173, according to the U.S. Federal Reserve. Considering the average credit card interest rate is about 16%, that $2 Diet Coke is actually costing $2.32 if the credit card isn’t paid off promptly.

None of this should qualify as shocking news since eating out always has been a relatively expensive proposition. What’s shocking is the rising cost of eating on a college meal plan.

The average U.S. college or university charges about $4,500 for an eight-month meal plan, according to the Hechinger Report, a nonprofit education reporting project at Columbia Teacher’s College.

College Meal Plan Costs Nearly Double in 10 Years

That breaks down to about $18.75 a day for a three-meal-a-day contract. That may seem reasonable, but it’s almost double what meal plans cost on average a decade ago.

Some of that increase is due to colleges upgrading their dining facilities and menus in hopes of being more attractive to potential students. Many now offer made-to-order omelets for breakfast, seafood buffets for dinner, vegan and gluten-free options and all-you-can-eat dessert.

Is this college or a Caribbean cruise?

The meal plan at upscale Wellesley College cost $7,442 per year, almost $36 per day, or $12 per meal. Northeastern charges $3,495 per semester.

At Texas A&M, the residential meal plans range from $1,190 to $2,305 per semester. Auburn students get by relatively cheap at $995 per semester.

The hitch is that at many schools, students have to pay even if they never set foot in the dining hall. The mandatory rules vary, with some colleges requiring participation for on-campus students or in certain academic years.

Whatever the requirements, it’s common for students to miss meals. That’s fine with the colleges, which have already collected money in advance. But it means that students are actually paying double if they’re eating somewhere else.

Even if they ate every meal available on the plan, that average cost of $4,500 for eight months is almost $600 more than what a single person spends on food in an entire year, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Colleges say the meal plans are healthier than the food students might otherwise eat, and that on-campus dining is a convenient timesaver for busy students. That’s true in some cases, but not if the student has a good do-it-yourself meal plan.

It can be difficult if you live in a dorm, but a mini-fridge, microwave or hot-plate can take care of a lot of those challenges. Just having the basics like milk, cereal, bread, fruit, lunch meat, soup and peanut butter and jelly will take care of most meals.

A slow cooker is an easy and convenient way to cook a dish that will provide three or four hearty meals. Just throw the ingredients in the pot, turn it on and return hours later to dorm room that smells like mom’s kitchen.

It’s not glamorous, but this is college. Students are supposed to be poor and starving. Getting a college education is what allows them to become rich and fat after they graduate.

At least that’s the theory. The reality is the cost of getting a college degree is so high that a lot of graduates will be paying back student loans far into those supposed fat-and-happy years.

Total student loan debt hit $1.4 trillion in in the fourth quarter of 2017, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s quarterly report. The average debt at graduation for a bachelor’s degree was $39,423.

The report did not say how much of that debt could have been avoided if students had kept their credit cards in their wallets, shied away from vending machines and prepared their own meals.

But like calories, those choices add up. And if students aren’t careful, they might have to lug around that extra weight for a very long time.

About The Author

Bill Fay

Bill “No Pay” Fay has lived a meager financial existence his entire life. He started writing/bragging about it in 2012, helping birth into existence as the site’s original “Frugal Man.” Prior to that, he spent more than 30 years covering the high finance world of college and professional sports for major publications, including the Associated Press, New York Times and Sports Illustrated. His interest in sports has waned some, but he is as passionate as ever about not reaching for his wallet.


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