Flex Dollars: The Gift That Keeps on Giving (or Not)

Lizzy Donker 

Junior Editor

So you’ve finally made it to the middle of the semester. In need of studying fuel, you decide to take a trip to Stirling’s for a quick pick-me-up. You get to the counter, order your overpriced vanilla latte, and are met with the awkward “you’re out of flex dollars” from the Stirling’s worker who is probably thinking, “I don’t get paid enough for this,” after telling someone they have no flex left for the tenth time that week. This is an inevitable occurrence that every Sewanee student experiences. Of course, you saw it coming. That didn’t stop you from late-night “Pubbing,” or from getting something from Cup and Gown every time you’re in the library because you’ve worked hard and “you deserve it.” You put yourself in this position. Maybe you’re one of the responsible ones, and you’ve repeatedly asked to see your flex balance after the Stirling’s worker has already aggressively crumpled up your receipt. Or, if you’re like me, and you choose to subscribe to the “ignorance is bliss” mindset, you scan your ID without ever checking your balance, and with each scan say a little prayer that it goes through. Until it doesn’t.

This is not an uncommon occurrence at Sewanee, nor at any college campus with some sort of dining dollar system. But, like many other things, the Sewanee experience is especially unique in that these flex dollars seem to run out way too fast, particularly in proportion to the growing increase in food and beverages on campus.

Sewanee’s flex dollars have remained the same since their original creation around 2017. However, the cost of dining options at Sewanee seems to have experienced inflation. Take Stirling’s menu for example. In 2021, the cost of a Dimmick Day, one of students’ most beloved sandwiches, was $9.25. Currently, the cost of the sandwich is $11.00. This $1.75 difference is almost a 19% increase in price that has not been adjusted for in the amount of flex dollars allocated. And that’s not even including the cost of add-ons. If you’re gluten-free, like myself, you currently have to pay an extra upcharge of $1.95 for gluten-free bread, making the current total of the Dimmick Day for allergens like myself $12.95. Seems a little steep, if you ask me.

After speaking to some Sewanee administration, however, it seems there may be hope for an increase in flex dollars after all. The Purple spoke to Sewanee’s Director of Dining Brent Tate, and Sewanee’s Associate Director of Dining Caroline Thompson, who said, “The concern has been heard.”

They explained the origins of flex dollars, originally called “pub-bucks,” that could only be used at Tiger Bay Pub. Now, however, “flex-dollars” can be used at a variety of places both on and off campus, including Stirling’s, Cup & Gown, Tiger Bay Pub, the University Bookstore, Sewanee Market, Shenanigans, The Blue Chair Cafe & Tavern, Green’s View Grill, and Lunch.

Students are also not limited to the allotted $150 flex dollars, but can add additional funds, or “domain dollars,” to their account, albeit still from their own pockets. Sewanee’s Business Services Director Jimmy Davis, spoke about the benefits of Domain Dollars.

In addition to students being able to add funds to their card, “Domain dollars were put in place to give parents or grandparents an opportunity if they wanted to give a birthday gift or a Christmas present,” said Davis. He explained that the University covers all of the expenses that go into Domain Dollars, they are simply “another way to enhance the student experience.”

Davis also spoke on the benefit of Domain Dollars to the University’s downtown business partners, “It’s a benefit to those partners and it’s a great benefit to our students.”

Despite the benefits of the Domain Dollar system, there is still student complaint over the original allotted amount of only $150 flex dollars. Given Sewanee’s already steep tuition and minimum work-study wages, it seems a safe assumption that not all students have the extra funds to add to their Domain Dollars.

Thompson and Tate spoke to the origins of these complaints. According to Tate, “Probably pre-Covid, I guess, flex dollars have always been the same amount.” He explained that due to this flat pricing, changing the amount of flex dollars wasn’t really on the radar.

Thompson also added that she hadn’t really heard many complaints about the flex dollar amount until the end of last year, but both she and Tate agree that “it’s understandable.”

Although Tate said this is an “institutional conversation,” not just a dining one, he said that “it’s something that we definitely need to and will take a look at.”

As far as the timeline of possibly changing the amount of flex dollars, Tate said “next fiscal year would probably be the time for change because that’s when budgets are created and budgets can be adjusted,” so it would be the “earliest and best time to address that issue.”

Despite the prospect of change, Thompson and Tate both emphasized the importance of student communication. “It’s vitally important that students communicate with us, whether they see us around campus or send us emails or use the QR codes for comments…this is their dining program and we are here for them,” said Tate.

 “Complaining to each other doesn’t help,” said Thompson. Both agreed that the use of social media apps like ‘Yik-Yak’ to voice concerns over student dining is not the best way. “The more we know the better,” said Tate. However, many students have voiced concerns through the QR code and feel that they remain unheard. 

So things are looking up, or so it sounds. The prospect of having at least one or two more free Stirling’s sandwiches a semester is certainly enough to make me feel hopeful. While I personally feel grateful for the dining program’s willingness to listen to the concerns of the student body and anticipation of making change, given Sewanee’s track record of listening to its student body, I won’t be holding my breath. Broke-student to broke-student, I still recommend budgeting out those $150 flex dollars in advance and cutting down on fancy upcharges like alternative milk if possible.

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