By Paige DiFiore, Credit.com
It’s no question that college tuition is expensive, but the other costs of school are often overlooked. One of the biggest ones? A meal plan. In most colleges, meal plans are a mandatory cost, but don’t fret — there are many ways to get the most bang for your buck from your college meal plan. It just takes a little bit of research and some wise decisions.
Know Your Meal Plan
Knowing your college’s meal plan system is the first step. Different meal plans require different money-saving strategies. Generally, colleges have two types of meal plans: pay-per-swipe plans or pay-per-item point plans.
Pay-per-swipe plans require you to purchase a certain number of meal swipes for the semester or year. Each swipe gets you into the dining hall and allows you to eat as much or as little as you’d like for a flat rate (whatever the cost of the swipe was). For example, if the meal swipe cost $12 and you only eat an apple, you’re paying just as much as the student who ate four slices of pizza, ice cream and two tacos.
You can calculate the cost for each swipe by dividing your meal plan cost by the number of swipes you get. Some college websites list the cost of a swipe. Costs can vary based on time of day — generally, breakfast swipes are cheaper than dinner ones. These are best for students with a big appetite or who love to indulge in a variety foods. They aren’t as beneficial to those who are picky eaters or have small appetites.
Pay per item plans are similar to the concept of a secured credit card. You choose the amount you’d like to convert to points for your personal campus dining account. You can’t spend more than the amount you have on your account. These points are used to pay per item. For example, if you buy a sandwich and a drink, you’re charged the price for the sandwich and the drink. It’s not unlimited food and drink for a flat rate. You can generally add points to your meal plan. You can only spend what you put on your account. This is great tool for learning budget control.
Generally, colleges don’t let you choose which plan you use. They likely already have a system in place — it’s smart to ask about it during college tours. Even though you can’t choose the plan, you can control how much you spend.
1. Reduce Your Plan
In most colleges, meal plans can be reduced by switching your dining plan amount. Keep track of what you’re spending to see if it’s more financially savvy to have fewer swipes or less cash in your meal plan. Stay realistic — not having enough on your account might lead to more nights spent ordering take out, which can be bad for your budget.
2. Keep Track
Keep track of the swipes or points you’ve used and how many you have left. It’s probably easiest to do so on your phone because it’s almost always with you. This helps you budget your meals and avoid having a lot of leftover swipes and points that might expire at the end of the semester or year. Plus, most colleges have websites or apps that allow you to check how many swipes or meal points you have left.
3. Check Expiration Policies
At most colleges, your points or swipes expire at the end of each semester or year. Check your college website to review their specific policy. As the expiration date approaches, make an extra effort to use up whatever will not carry over. Some colleges even allow you to use these points to order food and drinks in bulk.
4. Mix Food Stations
If one station isn’t working for you, don’t waste money on something you don’t want. Try combining stations. A piece of chicken from the grill is a great topping to add to a simple salad from the salad bar.
5. Take Food to Go
While some schools frown on this, sometimes you’re on-the-go or just want a snack for later. Bringing plastic bags or small containers to the dining hall can be a great way to have leftovers.
6. Bring a Travel Mug
Instead of buying coffee or other drinks, bring mugs or travel cups with you to the dining hall and fill them up.
7. Check the Menu in Advance
Most colleges put their weekly dining hall menus online. If there is nothing in the dining hall worth paying for, opt for a different eatery on campus or cooking something in your dorm.
8. Have an Affordable Back-up Meal
This is wise for when you’re in the dining hall and your budget is tight. Some of my cheapest go-to backup meals were a toasted bagel or a simple salad. Chances are there’s at least one or two things that, while not your top choice, can still be a decent, budget-friendly meal.
9. Choose the Right Time
Like in the real world, college dining halls have a breakfast, lunch and dinner rush. The more you visit the dining hall, the more you’ll learn when these times are. This is typically right after evening classes, right before morning classes and around noon. If possible, visit the dining hall before peak times so you have more options to choose from.
Also, avoid arriving at the tail end of popular meal times. For example, my campus dining hall served “light fare” after lunch and before dinner, from 3 p.m. to 4:30 p.m., which meant there were limited dining options and it wasn’t worth the cost of a meal swipe.
10. Ask About Your Dietary Needs
Many schools offer options for those who are gluten-free, vegan or vegetarian. Get the most out of your meal plan by ensuring you can eat safely and comfortably with alternative options.
11. Plan Ahead
If you have limited swipes, plan carefully. It might be better to use a swipe for a filling dinner than for a light breakfast where you only want coffee and cereal, things you can buy and make in your dorm.
12. Check Local Restaurants
In some towns, some local restaurants and cafes accept meal swipes and dining plan points as a form of payment. This is especially convenient when you’re nearing the end of the semester and are seeking ways to use up your points before they expire.
13. Get Rid of the Plan
While this isn’t recommended for most freshmen with limited access to kitchens, if you end up in a living situation with a kitchen you may want to nix the meal plan altogether. Just be careful — if you cut the meal plan and end up never cooking in favor of ordering pizza every night, it can be easy to blow your entire budget very quickly.
14. Keep Food in Your Dorm
It can be cheaper to make your own trips to the grocery store for some foods, especially when on the pay-per-item plan. For example, if your go-to morning breakfast is a bowl of cereal, buying a box of it and a half gallon of milk to keep in your dorm can be the cheaper, more convenient option.
Or, if you find you’re not that hungry it’s good to have some crackers and microwavable meals to avoid wasting a costly meal swipe.
15. Charge Your Meal Plan on a Cash Back Card
If you’re going to be paying for it anyway, see if you can charge your meal plan cost to a rewards credit card. By doing so, you can earn cash back for an essential cost. Most good rewards cards require a decent credit score, so it’s wise to check yours before applying. You can check two credit scores for free with Credit.com.
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This article originally appeared on Credit.com.