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Savvy Ways to Get the Most Out of Your Meal Plan

Author: Financial Success | Image: Financial Success

If you are a new freshmen at Iowa State living in the dorms, chances are you’re getting used to using your meal plan around campus! Even if you aren’t required to purchase a meal plan, it can be a decent deal for some students. If you’d never think to search Pinterest for “microwave brownie-in-a-mug recipes,” a meal plan might be for you.

But as helpful as having a meal plan can be, students may also find that they easily blow through the entire plan in a couple days – leaving them strapped for snacks and cash for the rest of the week. Or, opting to order a pizza instead of using a few of your remainder meals for the rest of the week. So how can you not blow your meal plan this semester? Start by choosing the right plan.

Choose the right plan

Typically, meal plans come with a certain number of meals per week, and most have dining dollars included, which you can spend at cafes and other eateries on campus. The best way to not blow through your meal plan is to purchase the right plan from the start. Balance is key here. You don’t want to waste cash on a 21-meal-per-week plan if there’s no way you’ll eat three meals a day every day in the cafeteria. But you also don’t want to buy just 10 meals a week only to find that 10 is not enough.

When it comes to choosing a meal plan, you need to figure out your preferences. Do you usually eat a full breakfast, or do you prefer to grab a granola bar on the way to your 8 a.m. class? If it’s the latter, you’ll save a chunk of change by cutting down your meal plan and buying a box of granola bars every week.

If you’re the type of person who needs three square meals a day to even think straight, a larger meal plan might be for you. But even then, if you think you might cook in your dorm room microwave or meet friends for dinner after class, don’t go overboard with the meal plan.

Make a plan

Now that you’ve chosen your ideal meal plan, make a plan for how you’ll use it. You’ll be less likely to blow through your available meals (and dining dollars) if you know ahead of time how you plan to use them. For instance, say you prefer to eat a big breakfast, but then just snack the rest of the day. Plan to get up in time for breakfast in the cafeteria every morning. Use the money you save by purchasing a smaller meal plan to stock up on healthy snacks that you can eat throughout the day.

You may even want to get out your class schedule and plan your meals around your classes. Maybe you’re so slammed on Tuesdays and Thursdays that leisurely lunches at the cafeteria aren’t even an option. If so, plan other meals for those days, and allocate those meal plan lunches for other days of the week.

Tweak as needed

Honestly, choosing a using a meal plan can be difficult during your first semester of college. You really just don’t know how to schedule your life because everything is all so new. For many freshmen, a larger meal plan is a good idea. At least you won’t starve or spend a fortune dining out.

But as you go through your years at college, you may find that you tweak your meal plan and between-meal snacking plan as your life and schedule changes. So pay attention each semester. Are you running out of meals too quickly? Are you not using as many as you could? Or are you just running into the cafeteria for a single English muffin you could easily (and more cheaply) fix in your dorm room each morning?

Use Dining Dollars and CyCash sparingly

It is all too easy to have $200 of dining dollars on your account at the beginning of the semester and it may seem like all the money in world. But soon, after endless trips to the vending machines and Caribou coffee, you’re going to run out of cash. Instead of adding on more Dining dollars and CyCash, (costing you more in the long run) try and budget your remaining dollars. Those $4 gourmet lattes do add up quickly, so consider making your own coffee in your dorm, and get those specialty coffees every once in a while, as compared to daily. This will be a quick way for you to make those dining dollars last.