You may just be on a really tight budget; you may unexpectedly have much less money or credit on your meal plan than you anticipated at this point in the semester. No matter your situation, however, it's down to the wire. So just what can you do to stretch every last nickel out of your meal plan?
1. Don't buy beverages. Is it nice to have an iced tea, Diet Coke, Red Bull, or other drink with your meal? Of course! But chances are those drinks are costing you a small fortune. Opt for water (from the tap, not in an overpriced bottle) as a way to satiate your thirst while saving money. If you really like something to drink other than water with a meal, consider bringing in your own can of soda or limiting yourself to one beverage purchase a day.
2. Don't buy empty snacks or carb-heavy meals. Those Doritos looks awfully tasty and so does that side order of fries. Unfortunately, however, both will cost you a lot of money and leave you feeling pretty hungry in a short amount of time. If you're super tight on meal plan funds, you need to make the most of what you spend. Instead of buying snacks or carb-heavy sides, opt for items high in fiber and loaded with protein and/or fresh fruits or veggies instead.
3. Buy for nutrition and for the "full" factor. Is that grilled cheese sandwich one of the cheaper things on the menu? Yup. But there's a reason for that. While it may be tasty, it will also leave you hungry and won't provide a lot of nutrients. Try a veggie burger instead or a salad with some grilled chicken. They'll provide more nutrition and will keep your belly full for much longer ... meaning you'll save money because you won't be looking to buy more food in another hour or two.
4. Buy something that will leave you with leftovers. A piece of pizza is fast, easy, and cheap. But the $3.50 it costs you will also leave you with nothing leftover. Instead, opt for a long sub sandwich that you can cut in half. If you eat half now and half later, you'll get two meals for the price of one. Additionally, if you have food in a to-go box, you can enjoy your next meal somewhere other than a dining hall and you can avoid the temptation to buy more food on impulse.
5. Don't buy items that are drastically cheaper somewhere else. If you can buy the same item at a grocery store, farmers' market, or corner store for substantially less than you have to pay for it on campus, cross it off your list of things you can use your meal plan for. A quick trip to the store to buy things like yogurt, soda, fresh fruit, and healthy snacks can save you -- and your meal plan -- a small fortune. And when money is tight, those nickels all add up.
6. Don't buy things you can make for yourself in your apartment or residence hall. A box of Cheerios and some milk will cost you much, much less at the grocery story than they will in the dining hall. And since you can easily make this "meal" on your own, there's no reason to use your meal plan for it. Conversely, however, things like a caesar salad with grilled chicken are nearly impossible to make on your own. If you're going to use money in the dining hall on food, make sure it's for a healthy, tummy-filling treat instead of a convenience food that you could make on your own with little effort and much less money.