Growing up, my parents had a rule: they would only buy my sister and me things that we needed. These things included necessities such as jeans, socks or food. If we wanted brand-name clothes or the latest toys, my parents told us that we were welcome to buy them ourselves with our own money.
This rule led me to take my first job, at age nine, as a newspaper delivery girl. Yet, once I had my very own money, I did not run out and buy the newest Barbie doll on the market. Instead, I carefully considered its worth, saved my money and scouted prices at various stores before making my purchase. I became an educated, savvy shopper in order to make my money last.
This brings me to the UR meal plan. This jump – from childhood Barbie-buying to collegiate burger-eating – may seem illogical, but consider how we learn our spending habits. Our parents teach us to value money, and culture teaches us to buy, buy, buy! UR teaches us neither. In fact, UR’s meal plan separates all value connected with the purchase of food. This disconnect leads to frivolous spending that has no consequences.
Here at UR, students are required to have a pre-paid meal plan every year. Since the money is spent before we arrive on campus, we should certainly use up our entire meal plan, or we will lose the money we have already paid.
I am a senior, so I have the good fortune of being permitted to purchase the smallest meal plan available. I then supplement my on-campus purchases with off-campus trips to Wegmans and the Public Market. When I am in the real world using real money, I carefully consider prices. If crackers at Wegmans seem overpriced, I don’t buy them. I know that I can get a better price on apples at the Public Market than at Wegmans, so I wait until Saturdays to buy my produce. All of these are easy ways to save a few dollars and to get the most for my money.
On campus, the practices of pricing food products and conserving money are not only worthless, they are impossible.
First, let us examine the club meal system. Monetarily, club meals have no specific value; therefore, their worth depends upon how much food you can buy with them. The best value you can get for a club meal is an all-you-can-eat dinner at Danforth: $9.95. (The cost is more than the most expensive club meal: $8.60 on the 140 Club Plan.) Thus, to get the most for your money, you should eat dinner at Danforth every single night of the semester.
However, as many freshmen are quick to learn, the number of club meals allotted by most meal plans – particularly those for underclassmen – far surpasses the number of dinners a student can eat. Therefore, these club meals must be used at other times, for other food combinations.
Because the money has been prepaid, students become less-than-discerning when it comes to getting value for their money. Everything starts to revolve around convenience and immediate satisfaction. Rarely does a student consider that the tea and bagel she just bought would actually cost less than $2 were she to buy them in a grocery store (as opposed to $5, which the campus coffee shop just charged her). Moreover, if she uses a club meal to pay for them, she just spent the equivalent of $8.60 (on the 140 Club Plan) for a $2 meal. Even if she were aware of these facts, though, there is still nothing she can do. She must buy a meal plan, and she already paid the money. Meal plans should be used up by the end of the year, so why should anyone care what things cost?
I became astutely aware of my changed “spending” habits when I studied abroad during spring semester of 2007. During the fall semester, which I spent at UR with a prepaid meal plan, I bought a bottled beverage every morning. The ITS Cart was conveniently located on my route to class, so I developed the habit of picking up a drink on my way. I never worried what the drink cost, because I had 1,400 declining dollars to use up by the end of the semester. During the spring semester at the University of Sussex, which has no meal plan, I quickly began to practice my savvy shopping habits. Needless to say, I did not buy a single bottle of water during my stay there (tap water is free!), nor did I buy frivolous snacks on my way to or from the University of Sussex. Without any meal plan to “use up,” my focus switched back to money-saving practices like price-comparing and sale-watching.
The meal plans for UR underclassmen are unreasonably large and unrealistically expensive. Shouldn’t the meal plans for all four years of undergraduate school – not just the senior year – aid students in wisely managing food dollars and food choices so that students will be better equipped to function in the real world? After all, isn’t that the purpose of attending college: to become a functional, capable, responsible member of society?
I feel that most students’ spending habits are negatively affected by the UR meal plans. They do not teach students to be responsible consumers; what is more, the larger plans required of underclassmen encourage frivolous spending that has no consequences.
Now that I have only 535 declining dollars to last me the next four months, I find myself watching the cash register dubiously as my purchases are rung up. Eight dollars for a bag of grapes? Four-odd dollars for a box of crackers? Even though the ITS Cart is currently missing from the back of Rush Rhees Library, I no longer miss it. Now, I carry my own water bottle.
Goldstein is a member of the class of 2008.