Chowing Down on the Cheap
I save the least important subject of the site for last. You will always have a food budget, and eating right costs good money. In terms of its toll on health and wellness, cheap food is rarely worth the price. That said, you can eat well and save money as a student if you forego the more common options presented to you. Let’s dive into some of the food options and plans distinct to the college experience.
Cafeteria Plan Metrics
I would venture to say that most students start out their college life frequenting the cafeteria for at least the first year or two. Particularly for those in the dorms, the cafeteria only makes sense in that cooking is quite limited and restaurants far more expensive.
When dining in the cafeteria students have two choices for purchasing their meals: The meal plan and the pay-per-visit option. Typically a college will offer a meal plan that charges one flat rate, which entitles the purchaser to a certain number of meals per week. This is one such example from an actual university:
|Board Rates||Semester||Academic Year|
|21 Meal Plan per Week||$2,460||$4,920|
|15 Meal Plan per Week||$2,265||$4,530|
|10 Meal Plan per Week||$1,865||$3,730|
As you will notice, the higher the number of per-week meals you purchase to the lower the cost per meal becomes. This particular college has approximately 14 weeks of school per semester. Therefore the per-meal cost of the 10-meal plan breaks down to about $13.32 per meal while the 21-meal plan breaks down to $8.37 per meal. That’s a substantial difference, right? Correct, but that’s where raw math gets you in trouble in this area.
Keep in mind that to get the full savings benefit of 21 trips to the cafeteria you have to eat three meals per day, every day of the week, for the entirety of the semester or school year. In other words, the 21-meal plan is only that much cheaper if you actually eat all 21 of your meals per week in the cafeteria. Rarely will students actually do this. Those who sign up for the plan in order to save money often find themselves leaving money on the table once they begin eating cereal in the dorm in order to enjoy that last ounce of sleep, spend their weekends out of town, and stretch out on the lawn with a brown bag lunch or chip in for pizza delivery when studies get brutal. A student must consider her actual intentions and eating habits before simply signing up for the cheapest plan on a per-meal basis, so she can choose the plan most appropriate to her. Many times it may even make more sense to pay per-meal than to sign up for a plan.
Likewise, students living off-campus may avoid the cafeteria altogether or use it to simply cover their slack here and there. For these students, paying per visit may save substantial sums and not impel them to use the cafeteria when it doesn’t otherwise make sense.
Dorm Room Meals
Just because you live in a dorm does not mean you have to constantly and consistently make use of the cafeteria. As you can see from the real life example of one college’s meal plan, cafeteria meals aren’t always cheap. Nor are they always convenient. One has to, after all, make it to the cafeteria during certain hours in order to enjoy a meal there. This becomes harder than you might think at times with packed schedules, cross-campus distances and illness being three common reasons to forego the cafeteria at times.
Thus, the savvy student will learn to make meals within the limits of the dorm. Sure, you can’t pack a stove or oven in there and most schools forbid potentially dangerous heated surfaces such as hot plates and griddles. But colleges commonly allow equipment such as mini fridges and microwaves and you can also usually add in a crockpot and a small propane grill kept outside. Keep on hand dish soap, a small knife, basic cooking utensils and a collection of paper plates and you can whip up just about anything you need to get by. Dorm dwellers can eat cereal or reheated breakfast burritos in the morning, eat a bagged sandwich lunch, and then return to the dorm to enjoy meat off the grill or a bubbly crockpot casserole dish.
All you need to make this type of arrangement work is a little foresight and the ability to work in tight spaces and keep things clean. Also, consideration counts if you want to make this a regular habit, particularly as you work with meals which may have strong aromas. One trick I discovered early on was to use my crockpot extensively (meals can be made the night before and placed in the pot for heating during the day while you’re in class) and to have it simmer in the hot water heater closet, which is adequately ventilated and lets smells out through the exhaust pipes. And take it from me, your roommates will complain a lot less about the aroma of a hot and hearty beef stew if you share it with them.
Obviously, if you live off-campus in housing that includes a kitchen, you really have no real need to use the cafeteria or nearby restaurants; you can choose to use those as you want to. As a student, the chief obstacle to cooking for yourself is the time involved. College life is not always conducive to spending an hour or two in the kitchen and as a result many students burn cash in return for convenience.
So do it differently. Invite on-campus students with a knack for cooking to use your kitchen in return for a cut of the action. Divide the labor and costs of a meat and potatoes meal with your roommates. Make dinner assignments between roommates so you’re each only spending a night or two cooking. Make a big batch of meals when you do have a block of free time and divide it into portions to freeze andeat later. Or make it worth your while to spend the time in the kitchen by preparing meals as a side job of sorts, perhaps selling dinner portions to friends for a fraction of the cost of the cafeteria fee.
However you can figure out to make home cooking work, do it. It will save you a ton of money in the long run.
A Word on Restaurants
Whenever I work with a couple to tame their overspending, dining out is usually a major culprit of the problem. It’s very easy to make eating out a habit and when you do, money can slip away quickly, and needlessly. Any time you can cook for yourself you not only eat better, healthier meals but you also do so at a fraction of the cost of someone making the meal for you. A burger on the grill with all the fixings might cost a buck or two to make at home, but at a restaurant a similar quality meal might cost many multiples of that.
Granted, going out to eat with the gang always spells for a good time. But make this the rare special event and budget accordingly. Also, and I speak for wait staff everywhere, be sure to bring along enough money to tip well. That server bringing your food out may have school loans to pay and every little bit helps.