Flex dollars are a type of campus spending money that many colleges and universities provide to students. They can be used at a variety of places both on and off campus. In this article, we’ll take a closer look at what exactly flex dollars are and the many things they can be used for.
What are flex dollars?
Flex dollars, sometimes also called campus cash or dining dollars, are funds that are included as part of your meal plan at college. They operate as a prepaid account that allows you to make purchases without using cash or your own personal debit/credit card.
Flex dollars are different from regular dining hall meals in that they can be used at other campus dining locations beyond just the main dining hall. This gives students flexibility (hence the name “flex dollars”) in where and when they choose to eat.
Colleges offer flex dollars as a way to provide students with easy access to food across campus. They essentially function as a type of campus currency that declines as you use it up each semester.
Where can you use flex dollars on campus?
There are tons of on-campus dining locations where flex dollars are accepted. Some of the most common places include:
- Coffee shops
- Dining halls
- Food courts
- On-campus restaurants
- Campus convenience stores
- Vending machines
- Campus catering services
- Sporting event concession stands
Essentially if a campus dining location accepts payment methods beyond just meal swipes, chances are they will also take flex dollars. This gives students a lot of flexibility when it comes to grabbing food on the go between classes or opting for a latte instead of standard dining hall coffee.
Cafés and coffee shops
Stopping by a café or coffee shop for a caffeine boost is a great way to spend flex dollars. Most campuses have at least one café, if not multiple coffee shop options like Starbucks, Peet’s Coffee or local brands. At these locations, flex dollars can be used to purchase typical coffeehouse fare like:
- Espresso drinks
- Yogurt parfaits
- Snack foods
Being able to quickly buy a pastry and coffee between classes using your flex dollars is very convenient.
In addition to swipes or meal passes, most campus dining halls accept flex dollars as well. This gives you a couple different options when eating at the dining hall:
- Use a full meal swipe to get all-you-can-eat dining hall access
- Spend a certain number of flex dollars for individual dining hall items
Going with option #2 can be great if you don’t think you’ll eat enough food to justify an entire meal swipe. For instance, you could just spend $4-5 in flex dollars to grab a quick sandwich, drink and piece of fruit.
Many colleges have large food court-style dining areas where students can choose from a variety of restaurants and cuisines. Options often include:
- Burgers and fries
- Mexican fare
- Salads and wraps
- Asian cuisine
- Sandwiches and subs
- Dessert stations
Campus food courts take flex dollars for all of these purchases, so you have lots of variety when deciding what to eat using your flex funds.
In addition to quick service food courts, many colleges also have sit-down style restaurants right on campus. These range from fast casual to nicer table service eateries. Flex dollars are accepted at all campus restaurants, so you can enjoy a nice meal without having to pay out of pocket.
Some examples of typical on-campus restaurants include:
- Nationally-recognized chains like Panda Express or Qdoba Mexican Grill
- Fancier restaurants with table service
- Student-run restaurants that are part of academic culinary programs
- Unique eateries specializing in one type of food like sushi or barbecue
For grabbing snacks, toiletries and other essentials on the go, on-campus convenience stores are the place to go. And flex dollars can of course be used to pay at these stores. Some things you can commonly purchase include:
- Packaged snacks like chips, candy bars, protein bars
- Microwaveable meals like Easy Mac or frozen pizza
- Refrigerated beverages like juice, iced tea, energy drinks
- Toiletries and personal care items
- Notebooks, pens, batteries and other school supplies
- Greek life merchandise like t-shirts and sweatshirts
- Over-the-counter medicines
Being able to run in and grab things like snacks or Emergen-C using your flex dollars definitely comes in handy!
Where else can you use flex dollars?
In addition to places on campus, there are sometimes certain off-campus businesses that accept flex dollars as well. A few examples include:
- Restaurants or cafés near campus that have partnered with the university
- Local coffee shops and eateries that many students frequent
- The campus bookstore, especially the bookstore café if there is one
- Select vending machines around town
- Laundromats or dry cleaners within walking distance of campus
- Nearby grocery stores and drugstores like CVS Pharmacy or Safeway
- On-demand food delivery services like DoorDash or Uber Eats
If there are establishments right off campus that accept flex dollars, students can easily run over and use their campus funds to purchase items. This adds even more flexibility and convenience when it comes to utilizing flex dollars.
To serve students better, some restaurants neighboring college campuses accept flex dollars. This allows students to use their dining funds off campus at places like:
- Sandwich shops
- Fast casual restaurants
- Pizza joints
- Burger spots
- Ice cream parlors
Being able to occasionally use flex dollars at popular off-campus eateries frequented by students is a nice perk.
Many campus bookstores have a small café inside where students can grab coffee, snacks, sandwiches, salads and more. These bookstore cafés often accept flex dollars since they are still university-operated. When making a bookstore run, you can also grab a coffee or smoothie without having to pay separately.
Food delivery services
Increasingly, on-demand food delivery platforms like DoorDash and GrubHub are accepting flex dollars. This allows students to order food delivery straight to their dorm or apartment using campus dining funds.
As long as the delivery service is partnered with the university’s flex dollar program, students can enjoy the convenience of delivery food using flex dollars instead of shelling out cash.
How much do flex dollars cost?
The cost of flex dollars varies by college. At some schools they may be bundled into meal plans at no extra cost. At others, students pay a certain rate per flex dollar purchased.
For example, a meal plan may come with $300 flex dollars included. Or flex dollars may be sold at a discount in bundles – like $20 for 40 flex dollars. Often the more you purchase at once, the bigger the discount.
No matter how they are priced, flex dollars ultimately provide students savings compared to paying cash for campus dining purchases. Be sure to consult your specific campus dining program to find out the rates for adding flex dollars.
How to check your flex dollar balance
Wondering how much you have left in your flex dollar account? There are a couple easy ways to check:
- Log into your campus dining or meal plan account online – There is usually a website where you can login and view flex dollar balance
- Check at point of purchase – When paying with flex dollars, many cash registers display remaining balance
- Call or visit the campus dining office – Staff can look up your current balance
- Check student ID card – Some school ID cards have flex dollar data encoded on them that can be checked at kiosks
As long as you periodically check your balance, you can make sure you have enough flex dollars left to continue making purchases.
Tips for using flex dollars
Here are some tips to make the most of your limited flex dollar supply each semester:
Check off-campus acceptance
See if any off-campus merchants near you accept flex dollars. You may be surprised to find that your favorite café or local pizzeria welcomes campus cash. This expands your spending options.
To avoid running out too quickly, have a plan for pacing your flex dollar spending. Set a weekly or monthly budget to spread usage over the entire semester.
Combine with discounts
Look for special student discounts or flex dollar discounts at on and off-campus vendors to maximize savings. For example, you may get 10% off an order for paying with flex dollars.
Refill when low
When your balance starts getting low, proactively purchase more flex dollars. Waiting until you’re completely out could leave you unable to make a needed purchase.
It’s easy to overspend flex dollars on impulse purchases like snacks and coffee drinks. Be mindful of casually swiping for every little purchase here and there.
Roll over if possible
Some schools allow students to roll over unused flex dollars to the next semester. If yours does, only buy more when needed.
Use for necessities if cash is tight
If you have a limited student budget, reserve flex dollars for essential purchases like food and toiletries. Avoid overusing for non-essentials.
Pros of using flex dollars
Why use flex dollars instead of cash or credit? Here are some key benefits:
- Convenience – Make purchases easily without fumbling for change or cards
- Prepaid – Funds already loaded, so you can’t overspend balances
- Discounts – Lower cost versus paying cash at many locations
- On-campus use – Accepted at tons of dining spots across campus
- Off-campus use – Sometimes valid at select nearby businesses
- Speed – Purchases are fast, just a quick card swipe
- Campus card – Student ID card stores flex dollars for easy access
- Security – No need to carry cash or credit cards around
Overall, the perks of using flex dollars outweigh sticking to cash or credit for most campus spending needs.
Cons of using flex dollars
There are a few potential disadvantages to keep in mind as well:
- Limited acceptance – Can only be used in certain locations, unlike cash
- Expiration – Funds expire at the end of term if not used
- Overspending – Easy to thoughtlessly spend through flex dollars quickly
- Lost cards – Balance is unrecoverable if student ID card is lost
- Sales tax – Some schools still tax flex dollar purchases, unlike meal plans
- No financing – Must be prepaid, so no option to “charge” more
However, for most students the pros still usually exceed any potential drawbacks. Just be aware of policies and mindful when using funds.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can I use flex dollars for non-food purchases?
It depends on the school. Some strictly limit flex dollars to food-only purchases, while others allow them to be used more widely for things like school supplies, clothing, dorm items, etc. Check your university’s flex dollar policies.
Where can off-campus flex dollars be used?
Accepting businesses vary by school, but are usually located very close to campus. Types of establishments include restaurants, cafés, grocery stores, pharmacies, bookstores and convenience marts. The university website should list places.
Do flex dollars expire?
Yes, any unused flex dollars reset to $0 at the end of each semester or quarter term. Be sure to spend down your balance, because you cannot get a refund for any unspent funds when they expire.
Is there a way to get more flex dollars added?
Most campuses allow students to purchase additional flex dollars online, at the dining office, at special kiosks around campus. Look up the rates and policies on your school’s dining website.
Can faculty or staff purchase flex dollars?
At many colleges, faculty and staff can load funds onto their university ID cards to be used just like student flex dollars. However, the process for adding funds may be different than for students.
Do unused flex dollars carry over?
Whether or not they roll over depends on your individual school’s flex dollar policy. Some schools allow limited rollover, some none at all. Check with your dining office to understand their rules.
Flex dollars provide college students with a convenient, prepaid way to purchase food, snacks and other items across campus. Understanding where you can use them, how to check balances, and spending tips allows you to maximize their value.
Just be sure to use up any unspent flex dollars before they expire at semester’s end. And don’t let the ease of swiping lead to overspending. Used wisely, flex dollars can be an invaluable and budget-friendly tool during your college years.