One of the most common suggestions you will hear to cut back on spending is to take your lunch to work. I tell people this all the time and most of the time I get the eye roll with a look that says, “Like THAT will make a difference in my budget!”
The truth is, it eating out really does add up. When I transitioned from my work-from-home job back into the real world of working, I underestimated the impact as well. I had the budget to afford to eat out for lunch every day, so one or two days per week couldn’t hurt. And the project I was on had a wonderful cafeteria with a huge selection each day. So I convinced myself it was okay to make into a regular habit.
I moved from eating in that cafeteria a few days a week to every day pretty quickly. My new co-workers ate out every day and I felt compelled to join them frequently. I’m not sure if I got lazy or if I just got caught up in the crowd mentality, but as I started to look back on my spending, I was averaging about $6-$8 a day on lunch. I was on the project site four days per week — another fact I thought would save me from spending too much — but that still averaged out to be about $28 a week or $112 a month. This was something I could fit into my budget, but was it smart?
I’ve never been a person to eat out everyday mainly because I love to cook at home. Since it’s just me, there is no one else to eat the leftovers. Not only was I spending $112 a month eating out, I was also finding I was throwing out a lot of food at the end of the week because it was going bad.
Truth be told, I felt a guilty as I started eating out for lunch more often, because it just wasn’t something I was used to. Of key importance when budgeting is listening to these little twinges of discomfort, because they tell us we’re changing our habits.
It turns out this habit is easier to fall into than you might think. According to the EPA, Americans generate 34 million tons of food waste a year. That’s a huge number, but it’s hard to put it in perspective. Jonathan Bloom, author of America’s Wasteland, breaks it down a little further. He states that “12 percent of what we throw away is or once was edible. We can estimate that each one of us discards half a pound of food per day. That adds up to an annual total of 197 pounds of food per person.” Yikes.
What a huge waste of food and money we are all engaging in!
What made me ultimately reassess this portion of my budget was this: Not only was I spending $112 a month eating out, I was throwing away a portion of my grocery budget just by letting food go bad. I can’t really estimate how much I threw out in a dollar amount but even $10-20 a week seemed like too much. Just because I had the budget to eat out, didn’t mean I needed to do it.
I reassessed my budget and realized there were better ways I could be spending that money.
Given the extra money spent on your food budget and the potential for food waste, bringing your lunch to work should seem like a smarter option. I know it isn’t that exciting and may feel like a chore to you so here are 5 ways to make the transition to bringing your lunch a little easier:
1. Plan Ahead
Planning meals around having leftovers is one way to make it easier on yourself to take your lunch. Things like soups an casseroles are things that you can cook once and eat for a few days. If that gets boring to you, you can make some adjustments by freezing some of it and eating it later in the week. Do this several times over a few weeks and you will have a selection of foods to pick from. I post a recipe per week on my blog, most of which I freeze for later. This can give you some ideas on what to make.
2. Pre-Package Ahead of Time
When you’ve cooked something that you plan to take in your lunch, an easy time-saver is to go ahead and put the food in the containers you plan to take your lunch in. This makes an easy grab-and-go lunch when you are in a hurry. Changing the habit of putting all your leftovers in one big container to putting it in portioned smaller ones is easy, and totally worth your time.
3. Save Convenience Foods for Lunch
Keeping a few frozen meals on hand can be a quick way to have something different for lunch. The key is to build up a little surplus so you have some variety in your lunch options. Think of how easy it would be to bring your lunch if you have a freezer full of options! Sometimes I’m tempted to eat these things in the evening but I try to keep them on hand just for lunches when I’m in a rush.
4. Pack the Night Before
If you’re not bringing something frozen as a whole meal, packing your lunch the night before can save you the hassle of trying to throw something together in the morning when your in a hurry. If you can get into the habit of prepping your lunch the night before, you may find you’re much less likely to take off without it in the haze of the morning.
5. Invest in Quality Food Storage Containers
Taking your lunch on a regular basis means your containers are going to get a lot of wear and tear. It might seem like an expensive up-front cost, but having high quality food storage containers will save you from the disappointment of having your containers melt in the dishwasher or microwave! They’ll also prevent you from having annoying spills on the way to work.
While taking your lunch to work may seem like a boring personal finance tip, it can be beneficial to your budget, your health and the environment. While you save money, you might start to notice that you lose a few pounds too!
Jenny Kerr is a PerkStreet customer and midwestern gal who loves yoga, her Blackberry, makeup and Apple TV. She’s a personal finance blogger at TheJennyPincher, where she shares financial tips for single ladies. Jenny is a former banker and currently works as a consultant during the day. She’s also taught budgeting in a classroom setting.