You’re probably losing money on meal plan


Over the Summer, Brown University continued its annual hike of meal plan prices. The top tier plans (Flex 460 and 20 meals/week) rose over 6%, while the rest of the plans increased as well. Part of this is due to an bump in the dollar value of a meal credit (up 30 cents to from last year’s $7.30). However, this was also mirrored by an increase across the board in prices at campus eateries, which continue to far exceed the prices of the same products at local supermarkets.

Even without taking the inflated prices into account, some napkin math reveals that the dollar amount students and their families pay per meal credit can be as much as twice as high as the value of the meal credit itself. In the case of the Off-Campus 50 meal plan, a credit worth $7.60 at Brown Dining Halls will cost a student a whopping $20 dollars a pop. (Note: This does take into account both the guest meals and the dollar value of “flex points” awarded in each plan.)

For all of the possible meal plans the price per meal credit is:

The above information may point towards the 20 meal/week plan as the best deal, which is true… if you able to eat 20 meals a week on campus, every week of the year. This is a difficult task as Brown Dining Services only permits you to spend 3 meal credits/day. If a student is gone over a two-day weekend, they will lose 5 meal credits forever (or $47). Not to mention that between campus events with free food, the occasional friend’s parent taking you out to dinner, and occasional snacks make it difficult to spend all 20 credits every week.

But there is still a glimmer of hope for the meal plan: the all-you-can-eat dining hall. Yes the Ratty and the V-Dub are the only places on campus where you can’t just swipe a debit card and pay as much as (or much less than) students on meal plan do. While a single meal credit grants you access to all the chicken fingers and soft serve ice cream one could possibly eat, if you’re off meal plan, you will need to shell out around $10 for breakfast, $15 for lunch, or $19 for dinner to come inside. Taking this into account, I’ve created a chart that compares the cost of a meal plan to paying in cash or credit depending on how many meals you eat in dining halls.

Suffice to say, there is no conceivable reason other than a disguised donation to the university to sign up for the 7 meals/week, 10 meals/week, Flex 330, Flex 240, and off-campus 50 plans. If you sign up for these plans, odds are you’re throwing hundreds or even thousands of dollars at Brown

Bottom line: If you are someone who needs an extreme calorie intake and eats more than 50% of your meals at dining halls, you should get the 20 meals/week plan. If you love the convenience of eating on campus, but might be out of town some weekends, sign up for flex 460. If not, your best bet is the avoid the meal plan all together and pay in cash, credit, Bear Bucks, or debit when you need to.

It’s not too late! You can still cancel your meal plan before September 28th and only will be charged $50.

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One response to “You’re probably losing money on meal plan

  1. Nice work Jackson –

    There are almost limitless analyses you could do here and I definitely think you hit on the big ones – makes it really clear to see the value you give up on lower end meal plans (and how the off campus plan is insanity). It is definitely a process that gets attention every year 🙂

    The one piece you might be missing here – which is what was a real deal breaker for me when deciding on whether to be on meal plan – is what the mix of “all you can eat” vs. “a-la-carte” options would need to be to break even on your Flex 460. (The 460 is really the only one worth analyzing in depth – the 20/week is extremely straightforward and the rest of them are not even worth looking at).

    The student who goes on Flex460 is doing so in order NOT to eat in the dining hall for every meal so clearly the portion of the time they are opting for the lower value “a-la-carte” option (e.g. spending ~$20/meal for $7.30 in spending power) becomes material.

    Even adjusting for the fact that your “all you can” eat habits will be skewed towards higher out of pocket prices (students will typically eat more lunch/dinner at “all you can eat” vs. breakfast which means you are paying on average a higher price/meal vs. if you were to just weight 33/33/33 breakfast/lunch/dinner) you will see that the break even point between FLEX460 and out of pocket pricing is a really, really, high percentage of meals inside of dining halls – moreso that I would guess ~99% of Brown students would typically do while on a Flex type of plan.

    Not to mention there is almost certainly going to be some end of year friction in a student’s ability to precisely hit 0 on meals and $0.00 on points – even a few meals adds up to hundreds of dollars.

    Hope this helps!

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