Sunday, August 1, 2010

A Tale of Two Meal Plans

By Frugal Son

In many ways, I am fan of college dining halls. They offer a convenient, healthy,
and, increasingly, tasty option for students living on or around campus. As dining
halls approach the quality of restaurants, however, prices have followed suit;
all that soft serve ice cream and the lovely fruit arrangements aren’t free! At
some universities, I would hazard a guess and say most, freshman living on
campus are required to purchase a meal plan, and since these can cost upwards
of $1,000 per semester, it definitely pays to do a bit of research. Case in point: At LSU, where I go to college, several meal plans were offered, each with a different amount of meals and “Tiger Bucks” (a cash equivalent that could only be used on campus).

My meal plan was paid for by a scholarship, but even so I wanted to do a little
research on the prices of meal plans. I thought that it should stand to reason
that the bigger the meal plan, the cheaper each individual meal should be;
economy of scale, right? WRONG! The largest meal plan was actually about 50
cents per meal more expensive than one of the middle ones. After noticing this
inconsistency, I decided to delve a little deeper into the devious world of meal
plan pricing. My shocking find was that it was actually CHEAPER to purchase
individual meals and use a “customer loyalty” card—every 11th meal was free—
than even the cheapest of the meal plans.

Flash forward a few years and, finally, the incongruity has been fixed: now
individual meals range from about $5.50 / meal (with the largest meal plan) to
nearly $8 / meal (with the cheapest). Order has been restored to the universe;
however, this goes to show that it can pay to take the time to do some simple
math. Another question you can ask yourself is whether the price of a meal plan
is justified AT ALL. Two meals a day for a school week at $8 / meal comes to
$80…that’s a lot of groceries! The average meal listed in this cookbook requires
only $2.50 of groceries…for two people!

Of course, the convenience, ease, and quality of dining halls—not to mention
that, in my experience, it was a social center—is not to be underestimated, but
by reducing your dependence on them you can save a lot of money and learn a
skill that will serve you well for the rest of your life AND make you a sought after
commodity for your cooking “genius.”

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