Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Changes in How University Students Pay for Meal Plans

When I was a student at university the meal plan was very simple; I paid an amount up front and for four months I got to eat my fill in the cafeteria three times a day. However, things have changed for my son who just started university. I think the new system gives him too much flexibility to overspend my money.

The food plan my son has is just an account that he can draw on with his student card. Food items have individual prices and the amounts get deducted from his account. We get to guess in advance how much to fill the account with, and he gets to spend it as he wishes. If he makes expensive choices, then I will have the thrilling choice of filling up the account again or letting him go hungry (not likely).

Kids have to grow up eventually, but I was hoping to delay letting him control significant amounts of money until at least his second year. My son is quite sensible, but why let him buy sweatshirts with his food money? I can see how this can become quite expensive for some families. On the other side of this potential overspending the university stands to make some extra money.

I had hoped to be able to prepay all the necessities and tell my son that if he ran out of money for extras, then tough. It looks like this isn’t possible.


  1. I had the card payment system back when I was a frosh in 98 at the University of Waterloo. I think the meal plan was quite expensive, especially considering it's caf. quality food.

    I don't know anything about parenting, but I valued the mistakes I made during my university years. I learnt to become an adult.

  2. I had this card system as well in my University days. You could buy a large, medium, or small plan. My large plan ran out of money in November, but fortunately there were some light eating and generous females who still had loaded small plans and let me eat with them.

    The plan was non-refundbale, so the girls didn't mind sharing. But it would have been nice if the University would have explained the costs more clearly up-front, as well as some budgeting tips (daily specials, etc.)

  3. In our day we had to save money for chalk and maybe to buy a new slate to write on!

    Most of the Southern Ontario Unies seem to do this because a large amount of their populations don't hang around on the weekend, so they started tinkering with their meal plans and then figured out how to get more money out of the students, by giving them FREE WILL on spending their meal money! Capitalism at work!

  4. @Anonymous: My son's meal plan seems overly expensive as well. I'm all for having him learn some lessons, but I was hoping to delay this lesson for one more year.

    @Echo and @Big Cajun Man: One aspect of this that I don't like much is that the university benefits from students who don't control their spending. At the same time this system takes control away from parents (or whoever is paying for school for the student).

  5. This might be an opportunity in the making. If next year your son is going to be living out of residence? Are they able to see how much they are spending weekly of the sum on deposit. If you could establish a maximum amount they should spend based on how much is on account it might help him to control his choices on a daily basis. I'd be pointing out to him that next year food will be a major expense along with rent/utilities etc. if living out of residence.
    Since the kids do all eat off campus periodically there will be days when he doesn't use his daily expense quota. Good luck with this one, hope to hear some updates on this one as to whether you have to top him up frequently or not.

  6. Western has been using this type of plan since at least 94. The local businesses have since come on board with offers to take the Western meal card (Subway, Domino's, various pubs and so forth).

    Those are the places you have to warn your son about.

    Residence meal plans (when I was there) were created based on the notion that the student would do most of their meal purchases at the rez cafeterias. As such, the "meal plan" carried a large subsidization with it. The student's meals weren't anywhere near market price for the same kind of food because the rest of the food cost was hidden in the overall cost of the "residence meal plan".

    So the meal card balance didn't actually decrease all that quickly. The catch was / is that the affiliated restaurants charge full price for their meals - so the budget disappears faster than the original planners might have expected.

    I found it a good exercise in budgeting myself, but it would depend on the character and tendencies of the student in question. I certainly knew a lot of people that blew through their meal plan by Christmas.

  7. My son does have access to restaurants such as Subway, etc., which is a concern. As things expand in this direction, the "food" account just becomes a bank account that can be drained for many sorts of purchases. If I'm lucky, he'll only make small mistakes and the whole experience will teach him some useful things without costing me too much money.

  8. Shooting from the hip: How about a policy similar to corporate expense accounts where some companies pay a bonus to the employee based on 10% (or whatever) of the unused expense limit.

    You could tell your son that if there is a balance left over, he can keep a percentage of it (maybe all of it?) to spend as he sees fit?

    Just thinking out loud...

  9. @Preet: That's an interesting idea. Of course, I wouldn't want him to take it so seriously that he goes hungry.

  10. My daughter has to put $3000 on her card (lowest plan allowed) and since she is able to monitor it, we have agreed that she only spends so $375 a month. However I know that Dec is a short month at school so that she can "dip' a bit into Dec's amount. We monitor this and she has adjusted her spending during the last 2 yrs to make sure that she doesn't overspend. Since this is non-refundable, the last day we make sure to go in and buy up enough nonperishables to use up any surplus funds.

  11. @Rena: It sounds like you have developed an effective system to keep spending in check. I'll have to try to develop something similar with my son.