It only takes the swipe of a card to get yourself a steaming, hot meal.
At Penn State, your student ID holds both your dining dollars and LionCash. Dining dollars go to your tuition bill, and students choose from three different price levels. LionCash, on the other hand, is money that you (or your parents) deposit that transfer onto your ID. Certain places on campus, like the Dining Commons, give a 65 percent discount on food items when you use the dining dollars. In the beginning, I signed up for the cheapest meal plan level. I didn’t intend to spend a lot But I quickly realized I was wrong.
I spent one-third of my Meal Plan by the first week of September.
Coming to college was scary at first (and after being here more than a month…it still is) and so I turned to food for comfort in the first weeks. A school ID with purchasing power can be easily abused—especially by someone (like me) who never used a debit card and rarely bought meals before. Hungry? I can just go, swipe my card and eat.
The only obstacle is long lines. Pro tip: Don’t go to the Dining Commons at 6 p.m. or the HUB Food Court at lunchtime.
So how did I end up spending so much money on food in so little time?
For starters, I gave little to no thought on how the meal plan actually works. When eating at one of Penn State’s buffet style or a la carte spots in one of their Dining Commons, you can get a large discount on your food. These places give you want the biggest bang for your (dining) buck. The problems start when students stray from the dining hall
Imagine it’s Monday. You’re tired. But wait! The Chick Fil A in the HUB is open, and you’ve been craving their waffle fries all day. You head to the HUB and pay for your food. But you make the mistake of paying with your meal plan. Newsflash: The food chains in the HUB do not offer any student discounts. All my five-dollar fruit bowls from Jamba Juice add up fast.
The lightning-quick checkout process makes it even worse. In the beginning, I didn’t know whether to pay with meal plan or LionCash, and the cashiers usually didn’t bother to ask. Instead, they would charge it to my meal plan. Not a good plan!
Another mistake: Stopping by the Market Place in East Halls to conveniently buy things like cereal and fruit for my dorm. I thought I was being smart by doing this. But I mainly overspent. I missed the delicious strawberries I would eat at home, so I bought them for an expensive price at the market.
I also bought greens at the market to eat healthy, only for them to wilt and smell up my fridge days later because I didn’t eat them fast enough. Funny how I don’t have trouble eating cookies before they go bad.
Unfortunately, your schedule may make it hard to find time to eat cheap in the Dining Commons. Some days I don’t finish class until 3 p.m., just when the Dining Commons closes.
After spending one-third of my meal plan, I found ways to master my meal plan at Penn State:
- Only use your meal plan at places that offer a discount.
- Look at the price before you buy at the Market Place, and use LionCash, not your meal plan. The sliced fruit is more expensive than the whole fruit. The box of Cheerios is more expensive than the (amazingly tasty) Honey Bunches of Oats cereal.
- If you buy fresh produce, make the time to eat it.
- Pack protein bars, apples, crackers, etc. for days when you don’t have time for a sit-down meal but still need an afternoon pick-me-up. Or maybe just to sneak it in class when the professor bores you.
- Keep non-perishable food in your dorm, like cereal, breakfast bars, oatmeal, mac and cheese (Annie’s is my personal favorite.
- Go to the Creamery for cheap bagels. You can toast it yourself and put on as much cream cheese as you want (get the honey cream cheese; you will thank me later).
- Know your LionCash balance and set a weekly budget. Remember, LionCash gets you more than food on and off campus. How do you think I bought my Penn State shirts and knee socks for the football games?
I know how it feels to crave something yummy to eat or want to buy something fun to wear. When a plastic card lets you buy what you want, no cash required, it turns dangerous real quick.
Fortunately, I got a grip on my buying habits. And I eat a lot smarter. I may still gain the dreaded Freshman 15, but I won’t lose too much money doing it.