Here’s What You Need to Know Before Buying a College Meal Plan

Before heading off to college, you need to budget for its many expenses. On top of tuition, course materials, and room and board, many people also forget about one important line item: food! (See also: 9 College Expenses You Aren’t Saving For)

The unfortunate news is you often don’t have a lot of options for combating the high cost of college campus meals. But at least you can go into the situation informed, so you can make appropriate budget allowances. Here are six things every student should know about college meal plans:

1. Residential students are often required to buy one

First of all, you may think that you have the option of whether or not to buy a meal plan. Turns out that if you’re a student living in university quarters, your school will likely require you to buy one. Make sure to read the fine print, because freshmen can be required to pay up for a “platinum” plan. For example, for the 2017-2018 school year, the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey required its freshmen living on campus to purchase an unlimited $3,200 per semester meal plan.

Even students living in dormitories with kitchens can be required a minimum buy-in for food costs, according to The New York Times.

2. “Lighter” meal plans are often only available to upperclassmen

If you find that a top-tier meal plan is excessive and you want to downgrade, you may have to wait a few semesters (or years). It’s not uncommon that lighter versions, such as a 10-meal per week plan, are only available to students with a certain number of semesters under their belts. Freshmen may be required to buy plans with 15 to 19 meals per week.

3. Rollovers may not be allowed

Some schools allow you to apply unused meals from one week to the next, and others don’t. To help you make the most out of your meal plan, check the applicable rules regarding rollovers. Tight rules may make skipping meals at participating cafeterias and vendors a big financial waste. You don’t want to skip a meal you’ve paid for, only to have to pay for off-plan food later when you’re hungry.

4. Cost per “swipe” can be higher

Some college dining plans provide cards with a preloaded number of swipes that students can use at participating on-campus eateries. Sound good? Well, the problem is, that convenience comes at a cost: Cardholders often end up paying more “per swipe” than somebody paying for the same meal with cash.

If you’re looking for variety, going the DIY route is more budget-friendly. Instead of swiping for overpriced coffee at the on-campus coffee shop, invest in a small coffee pot for your dorm room. By buying your own ground coffee and milk, you should be able to crank out two Americanos with milk per day for a total cost of about 60 cents. (See also: 8 Money-Saving Hacks Every College Student Should Try)

5. Meal plan expenses aren’t eligible for tax credits

Many college students are eligible for two great tax credits:

  • Lifetime Learning Credit: This credit allows you to deduct up to 20 percent of your first $10,000 in qualified education expenses, up to $2,000 per taxpayer.

  • American Opportunity Credit: This credit enables you to cover up to $2,500 of undergraduate college costs.

Unlike expenses for course-related supplies or tuition, meal plan fees aren’t eligible toward either one of these tax credits. Even when required as a condition for enrollment or attendance, meal plan fees aren’t considered qualified education expenses. This is especially frustrating, because up to 40 percent of the American Opportunity Credit is refundable, even if you don’t owe any federal taxes. (See also: Don’t Skip These 8 Tax Breaks for Students)

6. Higher costs contribute to higher student loans

According to Student Loan Hero, the average 2016 graduate took home $37,172 in student loan debt, up 6 percent from 2015. With their average student loan burden going up, students have to look for ways to drive down costs. And increasingly expensive college meal plans aren’t helping.

According to U.S. Department of Education data, the average college charged about $4,300 for a 19-meal per week contract for the 2015 academic year, or $7.50 per meal. In the same year, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found the average American spent just $4,000 eating at home for a 12-month period (that’s just $4 a meal!). That means the average college student with a meal plan pays 87.5 percent more per meal.

It turns out that cutting back on that pricey college meal plan doesn’t just help you ward off the extra pounds, but it also helps keep the student debt monster in check.