Unlimited Food plus College Students = Financial Mess

This little financial mess kind of seems like it could have been preventable – college students taking advantage of unlimited food. No pun intended, but it’s almost like a recipe for disaster!

I recently heard about this story where college kids at a school in Vermont were taking advantage of an all-you-can-eat dining hall plan. It seems as though there was no extra money paid for additional servings of food. Now, how one defines the term ‘taking advantage’ can be open to interpretation.

One might look at it innocently, meaning that college kids might just eat way more than they should. This can certainly happen, and I’ve seen it happen to some degree. Once, to ridiculous extremes.

Money Conscious Friend From College

Way back when I was in college (undergrad), I lived in a dorm during my freshman year, before venturing out into apartment and fraternity land.  In the dorm, we could get 3 meals a day – breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We could go through the line once, which meant just one of each hot entree, side, etc.  Once we had the meal card swiped, we walked into the cafeteria to get drinks and some other very basic side items. These ranged from cold cereal and junk bagels in the morning, to plain bread at lunch and dinner. These additional items were unlimited. This wouldn’t pose a problem for people, since those were low-cost to the school and not too interesting to the students.

Well, I had a friend in the dorm who viewed this ‘unlimited’ option with bagels, cereal, etc as being a free for all. He simply wanted to get the most of his money, as he was paying for college himself through a lot of hard work and prior summer jobs.  What he did, in the morning, was drink several glasses of whole milk, eat a couple of bagels, a couple of bowls of cereal, etc.  Again, all about getting the biggest return on his prepaid food investment. And keep in mind, these weren’t the real 1 per person ‘entrees’ that were provided in the main line.

What was the result of his gluttony? After one month, he gained almost 20 pounds. All because he wanted to get the most out of his money.

Most people weren’t motivated by all you can eat of the afterthought food, but this guy was.  What was funny was the story he told about driving back home after that month to see his high school girlfriend who was then a Senior.  He said that she opened the door, and her big smile quickly disappeared as she looked him up and down. Her first words: “You’ve changed.”.


The Vermont Free for All Story

What’s interesting about this recent story in the news is that the university in Vermont apparently offered all you can eat, unlimited food – period.  It’s all you can eat, and kids can even go back to get special to go meals later in the day after gorging on the unlimited meal in the dining hall.  If they stuff themselves with 2,000 calories a meal, so be it. It’s all included in the unlimited plan, apparently!

Well, it seems as though students took advantage of this in a big way. To the extent of carrying food out of the dining hall.  Yes, even bringing in tupperware containers to take food out and back with them to their rooms. Even things like salt and pepper shakers were missing.

Running out of food apparently wasn’t a part of the plan for the dining hall though.

Oops, again.

So, what was a next step: banning backpacks from cafeterias! Apparently, they had to resort to doing this to try to stop the kids from maximizing return on investment through this arbitrage opportunity.

It’s No Surprise, Right?

The problem, as it seems, is that students seemed take advantage of the unlimited food. It’s that something for nothing urge once again! Or, maybe better put, it’s the idea of getting maximum return on investment.

The thing is, it seems like wouldn’t be a surprise that eventually, college kids would find a way to take advantage of a situation like that.  If you offer somebody a potential ‘abitrage opportunity’, they just might take advantage of it.

What would I have done? Well, I might have been tempted to take some food out the cafeteria too, if it was truly unlimited like at the school in Vermont. I mean, when we’re talking about college students with very little money, it just happens. Right or not, some squirreling gone wild would happen!

As an adult, I’ve learned that just because you pay for unlimited quantities of something, it’s possible to go way overboard in taking advantage of the situation. Take what you need without causing long-term damage :)

My Questions for You

Do you think this is an obvious recipe for disaster, giving college students an all you can eat plan like that?

What would you have done in that environment? Would you have snuck some extra food out of there?

Have you ever gone overboard in an all-you can eat environment, simply because you had a chance to make the most of your money spent?


  1. says

    I had an unlimited plan for my first semester as a freshman. I moved to a hybrid ‘dollar/meal’ plan my second semester (it had guest meals and opened up more dining options on/off campus).

    Yeah, the dining hall was a free-for-all, haha. I gained 17 lbs in that first year overall – but I was trying to gain weight (rugby). For breakfast, I would start eating with one group of friends, and by the time I had polished it off I’d be sitting with other people.

    So yeah, the incentive was there, haha. The funnier thing was the dollar plan… the dollars didn’t roll over, so at the end of the semester you’d see students carting a bunch of food back to their dorms since they didn’t want to leave any money on the table.

    • Squirrelers says

      PKamp3 – oh, I’ve heard of the dollar rollover problem. I recall someone (working in a cafeteria) telling me that some of the prices charged for things were sky high, yet students loaded up by the end of the meal plan. Use the prepaid credits or lose them!

  2. says

    This is definitely a recipe for disaster. In college we took salt, pepper and ketchup packets from the dining hall so we wouldn’t have to buy our own. We absolutely would have taken food if it was borderline legit. Most college students live with $5 in their bank accounts (I did!), and will take anything free they can get.

    • Squirrelers says

      Lindy – yeah, I agree that this is a recipe for disaster. Many college kids have little money, so they’ll jump all over these types of opportunities. I’m not condoning it exactly, just saying that college kids do such things.

    • Squirrelers says

      krantcents – understanding a problem and avoiding such situations can work. It’s good to have self-awareness.

  3. Sharold Friedrich says

    We have been visiting colleges with dd . The only college we found with this option is an all woman’s college. Far different from when I attended college 30 years ago.

    • Squirrelers says

      Sharold – these truly all you can eat plans are different, no doubt! Best of luck with the college visits for her.

  4. says

    We had that at our college. I don’t think it was so bad, though we weren’t allowed to take tupperware out. There was a rule like one piece of fruit or something. I’d occasionally sneak out a cheese sandwich.

    One important thing was that the meal plan was mandatory– so you couldn’t take food out to another student who wasn’t on the meal plan. Lots of opportunity for weight-gain but not so much opportunity for arbitrage.

    In high school we also had an all-you-can eat deal, but the food was so bad that people really didn’t eat much of it.

    In graduate school our undergrad students would steal things like salt-shakers, silverware, trays etc. from the cafeteria even though it was not all-you-can eat. Naughty students. At least they’d get returned at the end of the year during move-out, but still.

    • Squirrelers says

      Nicole – I smiled as I say your comment about how this sort of plan in your high school didn’t entice overeating. Thinking back to how the food was at my high school back in the day, I know what you mean. Still remember that grease from the the pizza they served daily….not like any other pizza I’ve eaten. Is there a such thing as imitation pizza?

  5. says

    This is actually a really funny post because I know about this all to well. Im in school now and have seen people casually take a tupperware dish out of their backpack and then stuff it with chicken, cereal, you name it. Maybe the colleges shouldn’t charge ridiculous tuition and stuff like this wouldn’t happen.

    • Squirrelers says

      Jeff – that tuition, which in many places is increasing at a rate greater than that of inflation, doesn’t leave room for extra money in many budgets!

  6. says

    We’re hard-wired that way as a species, aren’t we? Feast in times of plenty, because harder times are sure to come. Toss in a young metabolism and it’s a recipe for gluttony.

  7. Cat says

    We had unlimited food at my school, but with 4 serving times a day, there wasn’t any point to stealing it. I may have taken a bagel or fruit with me occasionally as a snack, but I don’t remember anyone breaking out the Tupperware.

  8. says

    We could go as often as we wanted to eat, but the food wasn’t so great so there was very little motivation to steal anything. I did take the occasional cookie or bagel out but nothing along the lines of what they’ve described here.

    • Squirrelers says

      Money Beagle – these people at the school remind me of those eating free food in the office. I posted on this in one of the Squirreling Gone Wild articles.

    • Squirrelers says

      Marie – I had never thought of the idea of dorm residents reselling to apartment dwellers. Now that’s an entrepreneur for you :)

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