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In Defense Of: $5.95 Late Meal

It's 3:28 p.m.

You plunge headfirst into the absurdly long late meal line, inadvertently hip-checking John Nash and whacking that cute guy you've secretly been posting about on Tiger Admirers for the past month with your backpack.


After gathering yourself and apologizing to the frightened freshmen who witnessed the entire scene, you begin to eagerly anticipate the moment when you can comfortably sprawl on your common room floor, late meal goodies spread all around you, about to indulge yourself while crying about being single. As you hand your spoils to the card-swiping lady and see the number on the cash register gradually approach $5.95 (plus tax), you reflect happily on your conquest. Then, it happens. Always when you least expect it, you hear the seven earth-shattering words that set fire to your soul:

"Do you want to charge the rest?"

What? WHAT?! No, this can't be. You've carefully calculated everything to the penny, but the numbers don't lie. You quickly glance over your shoulder at the nine impatient people waiting behind you, and finally, you accept defeat. "You're only over by a few cents," you are comforted by the nice lady who has just brought your whole world crashing down. Please. Only idiots pay at late meal. Maybe you could casually return one of your carefully chosen chocolate chip cookies, but that's not how you do. It's all or nothing, and you choose the latter. You insist that you don't want anything, despite her protests that she can't "keep" the food you've already touched, and you leave with shards of your dignity. Nevertheless, you are empty-handed.

The $5.95 late meal limit has been known to destroy many a Princeton student's pride (or at least ruin his or her day until late meal dinner, when vengeance can finally be achieved). However, what if I told you that this limit is a godsend, and that without it, life at Princeton would be reminiscent of a post-apocalyptic world?

To explain, Princeton students aren't given many choices, and for the most part, that's a very good thing. For instance, if we could choose the residential colleges we were placed into freshman year, the unlucky folks pushed into Wilson and Forbes when Whitman reached capacity would probably have staged a coup d'etat by now. The only reason those poor people are still optimistic in the jail cell and no man's land (respectively) they call home is because they know they had no choice in the matter, and neither did anybody else. Also, did you know that 60 percent of students who switch to B.S.E. cite "not having to make choices" as their primary reason? Picking a concentration can be made easy, too. When it gets down to the wire and you can't decide between astrophysical sciences and comparative literature, just declare Woody Woo and call it a day. It turns out that it doesn't even matter, as our future careers on Wall Street are pretty much decided for us anyway. Talks discussing alternative career choices are even helpfully dubbed, "Beyond Wall Street."

In the same vein, the $5.95 late meal limit simply helps restrict our choices.


If you're like me, getting late meal is a delicate art — I don't "grab" late meal, I "win" late meal. The goal: getting the most out of $5.95. Though the endless supply of yogurts, sushi and artificially flavored drinks is enticing, I stick to my method. First, I empirically determine the marginal utility of each item. After running through every combination falling under $5.95 and assigning weighted ranks based on cost, it comes down to the coin flip, and 50 trials later (factoring in standard deviation), I have my winning combination. This process takes about 28.3 minutes on average, but heck, it's worth it.

Imagine what would happen if the limit were raised to, say, $8. Combinations would exponentially increase, calculations would take dramatically longer, and, well, all hell would break loose. Should you get two Powerades, one muffin and three cookies or a small quesadilla, cereal and chips? People's brains would turn to mush as the influx of choices drowns them, metaphorically. One wrong decision could mean an unpleasant post-late meal experience, ruining an entire night and preventing the enjoyment of late meal for the rest of the week.

Could you even imagine having no limit on late meal? I wouldn't be surprised if people began ransacking Frist with pillowcases, filling them with as many pudding cups and chicken tenders as possible. Yet, it would never be enough. You could always fit one more Snapple or one more cup of grapes, and that would destroy you, preventing you from achieving full happiness. People wouldn't make it out of there alive.

What I'm trying to convey here is that sometimes, we need limits, and late meal is no exception. The only thing preventing us from going mentally insane is the fact that we’re too cheap to actually pay for our food. Also, if you’re all, “OMG, like, I just want to lose three pounds,” then be glad that a cheesesteak costs $5.25. We should thank the $5.95 limit because much like grade deflation has proven, there can, indeed, be too much of a good thing.

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