Gross: Meal plans are a bad financial decision

Iowa State University offers five different meal plan options. The cheapest option, Bronze, is just under $3000 a year, while the largest plan, Cyclone, stands at just under $4000 a year. All meal plans also come with an allocation of Dining Dollars, usable in dining halls and C-Stores.

Hailey Gross

When most incoming freshmen sign up for their first semester, they automatically tack the expenses of on-campus housing and dining onto the already hefty tuition costs.

Living in the dorms, going to the dining centers with friends, and spending time on campus are parts of the college experience, right?

For many, living in the dorms and getting a campus meal plan are great ideas, especially if their parents are paying for their university venture. It’s easier to get accustomed to campus layout and find friends if you spend the majority of your time with underclassmen.

However, it becomes quickly obvious that no matter how convenient the UDCC, Seasons, or Conversations may be, they are anything but cost-effective.

In a perfect world, we’d all be eating three healthy meals a day, but realistically, it seems that most students with campus meal plans eat maybe two full meals a day, supplemented by Dining Dollar purchases.

Iowa State apparently agrees with that thinking, as the default meal option choice is the “Gold” plan, with an average of 14 meals per week. This option also comes with $200 in Dining Dollars. The annual rate for this meal plan runs at about $3,628, and averages to approximately $7.18 per meal. As a point of reference: a student could get a decent meal from Subway or Panda Express at the MU (for approximately $6.50) three times a day and still be saving money.

Now, $7.18 per meal is not an extravagantly high price, but it’s much higher than what an individual could pay per meal if they make their own meals at home. Living in an apartment, I spend approximately $150 per month on groceries, which equates to $1,800 a year. That’s almost exactly half of what the Gold meal plan costs. Additionally, when you’re buying your own groceries, selection and frugality are under your control; if you have time to bargain-hunt and cut coupons, you can save even more money.

The Gold plan isn’t even the most expensive of the options available. The least cost-effective meal plan runs at about $9.23 per meal, and meal blocks average out to between $9.33 and $9.64 per meal.

For students who live in dorms, cooking meals at home isn’t really an option. But rather than conceding to overpriced meal plans, they should simply get out of the dorms. No amount of convenience can excuse the nearly $2,000 saved.

So, why are on-campus meal plans so expensive? The justification is that the three major dining centers on campus are buffet style, offering all-you-can-eat selection. When you realize that, then the $7.18 per meal price tag doesn’t seem so bad. Most buffet restaurants are more than $10.

As buffets go, the dining centers are a bargain. But do we really need dining centers to be all-you-can-eat? I know that I would be willing to pay less for a more reasonable amount of food. Meal packages like those that can be purchased at Clyde’s or Hawthorne, with a main dish and a few sides, could be much better, both in cost and in health.

Entering a dining center and having an unlimited array of food set out before you can lead to poor nutritional decisions. That infamous “Freshman 15” can probably be partially attributed to the buffet-style dining centers. When you take the price into account, you might even feel the need to get the most out of your money, going back for second, third, or fourth plates.

There’s nothing wrong with pigging out every once in a while, but having all-you-can-eat meals every day is completely unnecessary.

However, it’s probably unrealistic to expect the university to change the policies and business models behind their dining centers. Instead, more people simply need to realize how big of a rip-off the on-campus meal options really are.

Think about having an extra $1,800 in your pocket each year. The money you save by not having a campus meal plan could take a huge chunk out of tuition or living expenses, and who doesn’t want to graduate debt-free?

Even if customs like residence halls and dining centers seem like “tradition,” they aren’t worth paying that much for. Being a responsible adult (as we all fancied ourselves when we graduated high school) includes making smart financial decisions. Cooking meals at home and managing your own groceries can be the first, and maybe best, of them.