I have a confession to make: I ate out lunch for every work day over the last two weeks. I could say that it was some great pre-meditated money experiment that I had budgeted for in order to show others how much it truly costs to eat out for lunches instead of packing a lunch from home…but then I’d be lying. It came about mainly due to exhaustion, the time change that stole an hour from my schedule, and laziness.
On the bright side, I was able to put myself into the shoes of people who eat lunches out at work in order to offer some helpful insights into their world (as it is something I rarely do). The cost for such perception? $44.68, or almost 37% of the total cost for us to eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner for two people for two weeks (we typically spend $120 every other week on groceries and always pack our breakfasts, lunches, and eat dinners at home). And that was just for one person to eat one meal per weekday!
Despite the high cost of eating out for lunch, I found that some people do it because they need to space themselves from their work, office, or the people around them. In this case, you can pack a lunch but find a nearby park or a bench outside where you can sit and relax away from your computer screen. At my office there is a television tuned into CNN in the cafeteria downstairs; if I need to get away I just take my packed lunch and catch up on the news of the week. I realize that there are also other reasons to eat lunch out, but this series Save Beyond Your Means is all about finding ways to squeeze more of your paycheck into your saving account, so I am basically ignoring the other reasons to help everyone save some money.
$$$$$ Eat at a Restaurant: This is by far the most expensive way to have lunch. It can be a nice break in the day to eat at a restaurant, especially if you can extend your lunch break. Try to eat at restaurants with lunch specials, or just eat out when you have clients and it can be written off as a business expense (or otherwise legitimately paid for by your employer). Also, try to make eating lunch at a restaurant a treat instead of a routine; for example, if you currently eat out 3-4 days per week, cut it down to just Fridays as a mini-celebration of the weekend to come.
$$$$ Eat at a Sandwich Shop: A chain sandwich shop that I eat at occasionally is Subway. I use a Buy One Get One Free coupon and then save the extra sandwich for the next day’s lunch.
$$$ Eat at the Grocery Store: Whole Foods and Central Market are not the only grocery stores where you can eat your lunch. In fact, you can find lunch-worthy food from any grocery store. Pick up a single yogurt, check out the produce section and have your pick of any fruit or vegetable you want, pick up one of the small premade party trays…the options are endless. Also, you can find some great manager’s specials in the middle of the week to take advantage of because they need to be eaten within a day or two. While on my “eating out lunch” binge the last two weeks I scored a fruit and cheese tray for $2.49! I also found something I did not know existed: big frozen burritos for around $1 each. In a pinch you could certainly grab one of those and microwave it in the break room.
$$$ Pack Your Lunch with Premade Foods: You can always find coupons for premade foods and frozen entrees at the grocery store. While this is certainly not the healthiest option, there are some healthier premade foods creeping up in the frozen food and other aisles of every grocery store (if this is something that concerns you I definitely suggest looking at the labels of all foods that you purchase, even foods labeled as healthy/natural/etc.). Also you could purchase premade guacamole, hummus, or other dip-type foods and then re-portion them in reusable plastic containers. If you don’t currently have reusable plastic containers and you usually buy lunchmeat, buy the kind that comes in Gladware for the next few weeks and save the containers for future use.
$$ Pack Your Lunch with Homemade Foods: This is the option that I use most often. The $5 Dinner Mom has a great book out on breakfast and lunches for $5 or less (the servings are typically for four people at that cost). Tired of tuna fish sandwiches? Try her cranberry chicken salad sandwiches. You could also bring in a baked potato to make in the microwave (or a sweet potato for a healthier option) and bring in some toppings. Check out Lunch in a Box or Just Bento for some bento box ideas.
$ Pack Your Lunch with Leftovers: It is time-saving and cheap to snag an extra piece of lasagna, chicken, soup, or anything else you’ve had for dinner and just pack it for lunch the next day. It makes your morning run more smoothly (at least in my experience) because you don’t need to pack a lunch, and some dishes just taste great the second day. It is also less wasteful, unless you are all ready in a normal routine of eating your leftovers before they go bad.