Food spending: lunches out

Recently, a coworker/friend was talking about how he’s trying to bring his lunch to work more to cut down on costs. I told him that I tried that one month, but for all the hassle it was, it wasn’t worth shaving a small bit off the $150 or so I spend on lunches. He was flabbergasted that I manage to spend so little each month!

In 2011, my average monthly spending on work lunches was $140 or about $1,700 for the year. So far this year, I’ve averaged about $165/month. If you average those 16 months together, you get about $148/month, which probably averages out to about $7/day.

I find it absolutely fascinating that my coworkers and I all make (fairly) similar incomes and yet, we all view money in different ways.

To this particular coworker, lunches out were an expensive habit. He probably saw lunches out as closer to $20/day than my $7/day average. At $20/day, I agree that it is a pretty expensive habit to maintain, but at $7/day, it is significantly less of a trade-off and one that I am willing to keep in my life.

How do I keep my lunches spending down?

  • If I have a surplus of dinner leftovers, I’ll bring them in for lunch. (This isn’t very frequent.)
  • I often have morning and afternoon snacks that I buy at the grocery store on my way to/from work, which is far cheaper than buying stuff at the cafeteria or coffee shops, e.g. yogurts, fruits, and vegetables, and it also helps me to eat smaller portions at lunch time.
  • I buy good chocolates in bulk instead of from the vending machine and then keep them near my desk (but not on it so they’re less tempting) for when I have a chocolate craving. I find that this makes eating chocolate less of a craving and more of a small want, than the break of buying some from the vending machine.
  • I don’t drink coffee. I buy a good hot chocolate maybe once or twice a month.
  • I tend to frequent the lunch places that sell portions that are closer to what I need to eat to feel full. The $20ish lunch places tend to be fancier, but also have larger portions. There are plenty of places where you can get small soups, half-sandwiches, small salads, etc. Sometimes places will give you a discount if your meal comes with two side dishes, but you only take one, for instance. Or you can just order a side dish or an appetizer instead of the normal meal!
  • I try to only go to the fancier lunch places at most once every week or two.

Seeing how much some of my male coworkers eat, I’m pretty sure they’re incapable of eating out for lunch as often as I do and spending under $200/month. One coworker said that his daily average is closer to $15 than my $7. That difference sure extrapolates quickly!

With the cost being under 2% of my net income last year and my projected for this year as well, I’m not concerned. It makes life easier and provides a nice break in the middle of the day.

Readers, what do you do for lunch at work? What is your bar for spending like this?

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27 thoughts on “Food spending: lunches out

  1. I used to pack a lunch before my hours nearly doubled. Now I eat out every day. I try to keep it less than £10 (think what you can get for $10 if you’re trying to compare). Because we have a subsidized cafe, at least the prices make me think it is, I’m looking at less than £3 if I get a meal there. Good sandwiches but I get tired of the same thing, so I up spending a little more on Fridays.

    As for coffee, I’m almost entirely off a 4-6 cup a day habit and drink green tea, which I buy and keep at my desk. Same goes for snacks, it helps keeps the costs down and is easy to do!

    • When my hours double, I eat out for dinner – I just don’t have the energy to cook. Though sometimes it’s nice to make dinner at home and then keep working instead of eating out and going back to the office. I use both

      Hah. Subsidized cafe. You’re funny, Paul!

      4-6 cups a day? That has to be more a habit than a want. I’m working on my chocolate habit, slowly :P

  2. Mostly I bring in lunch. Going out is a big hassle and the cafeteria in the building isn’t great. We have lunch meetings and occasionally will eat lunch together impromptu (we used to do this more), but people generally bring their own or keep frozen dinners or burritos in the freezer.

    • Unfortunately in the area where I work, it isn’t a huge hassle to go out. Our cafeteria is good, but expensive.

  3. I mostly bring lunch, which is usually a sandwich (natural PB&J on wheat, or turkey on wheat) and a snack, which costs less than $3/day. If I buy a lunch, it’s usually a sub from Subway for around $4.

    Spending $7/day, or especially $15/day, is more than what I’d want to spend.

    • I tried bringing sandwiches for awhile, but I found that the bread tasted terrible after a week. I wish I could find smaller loaves of bread that would last me for exactly 5 lunches. In a location where I worked previously, my average was much closer to $4-5 per day.

      • There are some things I’ve been able to eat every day for years and luckily not get sick of them. Eggs, bread, oatmeal, etc.

        • Oh I don’t get sick of ham and cheese sandwiches – the bread goes stale. I ate the same sandwich every day through all of elementary and high school. I would happily do that now too if the bread would stay fresh longer. I have cereal and orange juice for breakfast every day, pancakes on the weekend. My food choices are pretty predictable, haha…

  4. My coworkers have a “Salad Club” where they bring in these huge healthy chicken salads. It costs $10/week to participate, which is only $2/day for lunch. I’ve considered joining it.

      • Yep, exactly. The head guy makes them in bulk and dishes it out. They’ve all lost weight too (which I think was/is the club’s main purpose).

  5. I average about $7 a day too whenever I buy my lunch. I hate spending more than $10 because I just feel like it’s overpriced and not worth it. To be honest, when I pack my own lunch I probably spend more since I like to make really good dishes with lots of ingredients or I make sandwiches with a ton of different veggies. Sometimes it is just easier and cheaper to buy a footlong from Subway at $6, and then I eat half for lunch and half for dinner.

    • I hate spending more than $8…. Oddly enough, that hasn’t gone up with my income in the last few years.

      Subway footlongs are perfect for that! Haha, finally someone else who also has the same idea :)

  6. Interesting, I find it super easy to bring in lunch. It saves time during the work day and usually tastes better.

    I also have been (lately) scoring free lunch by attending lunch time seminars on various topics. This is only useful if you are actually interested in the topic (or are otherwise required to attend because it is training) because spending an hour at lunch is a big time suck. Plus the food is generally not very healthy compared to my typical lunches.

    I do go out for lunch when I don’t have enough to cobble together something at home, when I want to socialize/network with a coworker, or when I’m craving something delish. The amount varies depending on the reason I’m eating out, but my favorite places are about $10.

    • If I’m going to spend an hour at lunch not working, I would far rather spend it socializing or relaxing than going to a work talk – that pretty much counts as working to me.

      Maybe it helps that you have a roommate (aka husband)? I definitely found when I lived with roommates that bringing my lunch was easier than going out. It doesn’t help that my team is full of single guys and they don’t care about spending ridiculous amounts on hipster pizza and sandwiches and burgers for lunch or happy hour…

  7. The bar is completely relevant to what you make, your lifestyle, etc. If somebody is drowning in debt or makes $30k a year, then eating out at lunch is egregiously irresponsible. Obviously if you make a good living with $0 debt, then it’s a choice. Spend consciously. The result of conscious spending will vary amongst utility-maximizing rational entities.

    • So agreed. I’m spending consciously in being too lazy to make lunches, but generally not eating out for dinners.

      All of my good female friends who have moved in with their boyfriends always complain that their food costs have gone up a ton, so I don’t think that moving in with a guy would make food any less expensive for me. Living with a female roommate in college certainly did though. We split orange juice, bread, ham, cheese, milk, etc. which allowed us to buy more in bulk.

    • What?! But guys eat so much more food :P It really depends on the relationship… Some relationships, I’ve gone out more. Some relationships, I’ve cooked more.

      • I can easily eat on less than $20 a day and I go out for 3 meals.The only thing I buy at the grocery store is cereal and granola bars.

        If I had a girlfriend, especially a live-in one, I no doubt would be eating healthier (and thus spending more for more nutritious meals)

  8. I don’t spend money on lunches out – even when I forget my home-packed lunch, like one day this week! What really solidified my habit was dieting, though we enjoy the financial benefits as well. I wanted total control over my food and all the options available to me at work all had way too much sugar/carbs. I don’t even eat the free lunch given to me every week at lab meeting because it’s always pizza or sandwiches. I’m happy my husband was also able to give up buying lunch at work without a fuss so that we could direct that money elsewhere. I usually cook a slow-cooker meal on the weekends and eat that throughout the week, plus I cook meat a few nights per week and bring portions, and I steam vegetables in the morning to take as well.

    I certainly don’t begrudge you your lunches out, even daily – it seems to be one of your few indulgences!

    • Thanks Emily :) I’m really terrible at spending money, but somehow I figured out awhile ago that this and a fancy chocolate habit make me happier, so I’ve stuck with them and I’m so glad.

      I don’t blame you on the free pizza or sandwiches – I usually don’t eat those either. Sounds like you guys have a pretty good pattern going :)

  9. I usually bring my food everyday. It takes a lot to get me full and a healthy lunch will usually cost me over $10 if I ate out. So instead I bring my lunch and save a lot.

  10. I usually eat out 1-2 time a week. And lately I’ve been going to this local cafe for their grilled vegetable and goat cheese sandwich ($7.60 including tax). It’s a very nice treat for myself, and I tell myself it’s relatively healthy! I would go a little nuts if I never went out to eat at lunch.

    • That sounds amazing! I would definitely go crazy if I didn’t at least leave my office building and go outside at lunch time. I am a huge fan of cheese sandwiches :)

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