Learn how your housing and meals impact your total cost and tips to help you budget
College Costs

After tuition costs, the next large fees associated with your college bill will be your “Room and Board”.

This is essential on-campus housing and meal plans you plan to utilize at the college. As you may have seen in DecidED, we ask where you expect to live when you upload your award letters. Your options are:

  • Living in a dorm on-campus
    • Your college bill will include both your housing and food costs. 
  • Living with family at home
    • You may not have dorm or food costs as part of your college bill, but you may need to budget for this under your Life Budget. DecidED can provide you with estimates.
  • Living in an off-campus apartment
    • Your college should have provided an estimated amount you will need to cover off-campus housing and food costs, these costs will be under the Life Budget if they are not paid to the college.
  • Not sure!
    • If you select not sure DecidED will show you the costs as if you were planning to be on-campus (you can update this as needed)

Hint: your housing situation changes the total costs you may need to budget for, and it can significantly affect what you can end up paying and budgeting in regards to food costs (meal plans).


If you plan on living on-campus, you will most likely be required to select a meal plan option. Your college may offer you different options to select from, knowing your meal habits and needs can help you select the right one for you. This guide will break down how a meal plan works, what is recommended as a basic meal plan, and hacks for spending less on food.

MEAL PLAN 101: Terminology

Campus Dinning Options:

Dining Hall – Most similar to a cafeteria; usually has different stations you can order food from, with most dining halls functioning as all-you-can-eat once you spend a meal pass to enter the hall.

  • À la Carte – Some colleges allow you to eat elsewhere (outside of their dining hall options) by purchasing meal swipes or points as needed outside of a full meal plan. Depending on how much meals cost in direct cash, you may want to purchase a small amount of points or swipes to use occasionally or to supplement a meal plan that is running low.

Food Court – You will have a selection of restaurants and/or fast-food eateries operating on or near the college that may accept students’ meal plans as a method of payment.

Guest Pass – some meal plans may come with guest passes that can be given to a friend or family member who is visiting you. Guest meal passes are more common on campuses that have per-meal plans rather than point plans.

MEAL PLAN 102:  Types of Meal Plan 

Light Meal Plans – cost less but also give you fewer meal points or fewer meal swipes, depending on how the college structures the plan. A light plan may, for example, give you access to 14 meals a week (which means two meals per day, including weekends).

Medium Meal Plans – give you access to standard three daily meals (breakfast, lunch and dinner) through meal swipes or points.

Heavy Meal Plans – give you enough points or swipes to eat beyond a standard daily three-meal plan. A few colleges even offer limitless plans that allow you to eat as much and as often as you want, although this costs significantly more than other potential plans.

Commuter/Off-Campus – this type of plan is a step below “light” plans. Depending on the college, they can give you enough points or swipes for one on-campus meal a day.


Here are some examples of what a meal plan could look like at your school—some just offer “meal swipes” while others offer a combination of “meal swipes” and “flex dollars.”

How swipes work: Swipes are the amount of meals that you will be given per week. These meals are served at locations called either, “Dining commons/ halls/restaurants,” and are served as Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner. These meals are usually buffet style, so fill up to your heart’s content!

Tip: You can only use these meals at designated locations, meaning that you will have to travel back to these locations throughout the day for your meals so you should plan accordingly.

How Flex Dollars work: Flex dollars count as money that you can use at any location on campus. Flex dollars can be used to buy anything from coffee to snacks to school supplies.

Tip: Your flex dollars fly fast! You only get a certain amount per semester, so make sure to keep an eye on how many you have before you splurge on snacks.

Typically, meal plans don’t always “roll-over” to the next semester. This means that whatever you don’t use this semester, you lose!


In general, you will need less food than you think. If you are living on campus, we recommend that you go with a plan that lets you eat at least twice a day (14 meals per week). Typically, colleges let you upgrade your meal plan at any time so we recommend that you start with a smaller meal plan and then upgrade to a bigger one if you find that you need it.

Hint: Double-check that your school’s meal plan policy allows you to upgrade in the middle of the semester. You can sometimes find this information on the college website under dining/meal plans under their FAQs. If not listed their make sure to reach out to the college Dining Hall office at the school to confirm,


  • Pack tupperware in your backpack so that you can fill it with food during one of your meals
  • Consider purchasing a mini-fridge that you can use for your college career or use the refrigerator in your dorm’s communal kitchen. (Note: Not all dorms have kitchens and when they do, fridge space can be limited.)
  • Find free food at clubs and school events
  • More and more schools now have a food pantry on-campus so absolutely check into this if you find yourself tight on money


If you are commuting to school, then we recommend seeing if your school offers a commuter meal plan. The reason we suggest this is because:

  1. You will be spending all day on campus and will get hungry.
    • This means that you will end up purchasing food either on campus at full price, or at a surrounding restaurant.
  2. Storing food is going to be challenging.
    • Finding a refrigerator to store your food or a microwave to warm it up can be difficult.
  3. Eating with other students in the dining commons is the best way to make friends!
    • This is your time to relax, unwind, and talk about what interests you or bond over the same struggles you are going through.


Then you are essentially commuting to school, even if you intended to live on campus. The good news here is that you don’t need to spend money on food on or around your college campus. This could mean you’re spending more on food where you now live. Your school may already have an emergency aid program set up to help support you with your basic needs. See if your campus is on Edquity.

For more tips and tricks for finding the Most Affordable Plan check out this information from Affordable Colleges Online.