The Busy Woman’s Guide to Saving Money on Lunch

Reader L has a question about lunchtime…

Could you perhaps do a post on bringing lunches to the office versus going out? I’m new to the 9-5 world, and eating out every day seems so expensive, but I don’t really know how to pack a lunch that will last me the entire workday. I don’t want to keep snack food in my desk because I don’t want to attract rodents, or eat mindlessly all day. It’s also difficult to say no when new co-workers invite you along for a frozen yogurt or coffee run – it’s adding up. How do you generally handle lunch during the work week?

We’ve talked about this a few times on this blog — how to eat to fuel your energy throughout the day, how to avoid gaining weight when you’re eating out a lot for recruiting season, how to diet at the corporate gig, what to eat when you have no time to eat, and what foodstuffs I consider “office staples.” I don’t think we’ve talked about it from a finances angle, though, so let’s do that.

Let’s start with the proposition that it is always going to be cheaper to bring your own meal from home. Healthier! Better! Et cetera, et cetera. I will also say that for those committed to couponing, cooking, and hunting out the best deals, inSANE insane deals can be had — this post on “Eating Well on One Dollar a Day” impressed me beyond end, for example. But let’s also assume that if you had the time and energy to make that healthy, low-cost lunch every morning, that you wouldn’t be writing to us for advice.

That said — the easiest way to cut expenses is to focus on what you’re drinking. (Warning: These prices are based on my experiences in Manhattan — in less crazed cities the prices will, hopefully, be far less.) In Manhattan, a can of Diet Coke can cost anywhere from $1-$2.50. If you get one every day for lunch, for 50 weeks out of the year, you’re spending at least $250 a year on soda at lunch. You could switch to tap water instead, or — if you’re like me and need a caffeine boost in the middle of the day — you can buy your own soda to keep at the office. Sometimes you can find the 12-can boxes on sale — two for $6 is the best I think I’ve seen — but even at the normal price of $5.99 per box, that’s a far cheaper can of soda (about $.50), and you automatically save 50%.  (Pictured:  It Was on Sale, originally uploaded to Flickr by Kimli.)

Similarly, a love of specialty coffees like Frappuccinos can be an expensive habit — if it costs $4, and you drink it maybe 3x a week for 45 weeks of the year (just random numbers here) — that’s $540. Switching to plain black coffee, or bringing your own coffee, makes it far less.

As for food –

  • Understand where your money is going. For example, NYC is filled with choose-your-own-salad lunch spots, and adding a protein to salads often increases the price by $2 or more. So if you cook a batch of chicken over the weekend, or even just slice up deli meat to put on top of the salad, you’re automatically decreasing the price.
  • Work your favorite spots. A lot of lunch places offer “rewards” cards — buy 10, get 1 free — that can add up to a significant discount over the long haul.
  • Look out for deals in the pre-dinner time from 3-6. For example, a lot of bakeries will offer a 50% discount on breads and pastries in that time period — I’ve even heard of frozen yogurt places doing the same.  Just heading out with your friends at 3:30, rather than 2:30, could save you money.
  • Don’t adopt an “all or nothing” attitude. Even bringing lunch once a week can help immensely with the expenses — if your average lunch out is $8, bringing it from home just one Monday a week for 50 weeks is a savings of $400.
  • Even the lazy cook can save. I see cans of soup marked to around $1.50 at the supermarket pretty often — stock up, those are great if you have access to a microwave at the office (and easy to grab as you’re flying out the door in the morning). Similarly, a guilty pleasure of mine is a Lean Pocket (they do have whole grain ones, though!) — and when I see those on sale for around 2 for $5, I stock up. With two Lean Pockets in each box, that’s 4 different lunches (or at least hearty snacks) for about $1.25 each — not bad. And let’s face it, I’ve known a zillion busy women who kept their offices stocked with a jar of peanut butter and a box of crackers — both for cost savings reasons, as well as the I’m-too-busy-to-eat syndrome.

Readers, what are your tips for saving money on the office lunch?

Comments

  1. I have my groceries delivered via Peapod, which is AMAZING – and lets me order all the 16.9 oz bottles of Diet Coke I want w/out having to carry them – big savings. I also keep Smuckers’ ‘uncrustables’ sandwiches in my freezer for days when I’m too busy to slice fruit/make a real lunch.

    If you’re concerned about mice – an unfortunately valid concern – put your cereal in a plastic bin/bag, or store in your metal filing cabinet.

  2. i feel like most of my ideas are just seconding others, but here’s what works for me:
    -making big batches of things that freeze well (for example, there’s this kale, white bean, and pasta casserole that i love) and portioning them in those individual ziploc containers
    -buying frozen or packaged entrees (steering towards lower sodium and all-natural stuff, not only for health but for taste reasons too!). costco is great for this – they sell this organic vegan burritos that are so tasty i didn’t realize they were vegan until i had eaten a whole box of them
    -since i pack lunch, i let myself buy coffee. i stick to plain drip except for really hectic days, though.
    -whenever i make a particularly delicious dinner and there happens to be extra, i package it up and freeze it.

    i also keep an eye on a number of food blogs to get new lunchbox ideas. thekitchn.com usually runs lunchbox articles every so often that give great, creative ideas that don’t always require a ton of work.

  3. What I’ve found is super easy is a hearty pasta salad – I’ll boil some pasta, chop up some chicken (or use those Perdue shortcuts pre-made chicken slices), add some veggies (a heated up frozen variety mostly), add some seasoning and olive oil, and package it all up. To add variety, I’ll vary the spices if I’m eating it for more than one day in a row.

    Also, I’m a big fan of the Healthy Choice fresh mixers, and they’re cheapest for me at Target around where I live (just under $3), so I stock up my drawer with those.

    I’ve found that I have to snack throughout the day, so I’ll keep peanut butter, Tru North pistachio crackers, Soyjoy and Luna bars at my desk. I’ve essentially given up soda and only have it occasionally, so I tend to sip water throughout the day, or hit the Flavia machine when I want a tea.

    I’m also on a budget, so I’m always scanning the sales and stock up when there’s something I love. If you can have the discipline to not buy something unless it’s on sale (like the above-mentioned items), you’ll be saving money all the time. My mom really drilled this idea into my head when I was little, as she worked in a grocery store and knew instantly how much things should cost, and how much was too much.

    I’m still trying to convince my boyfriend that it’s incredibly silly to buy yogurt when it’s 80 cents when he could just stock up on it when it’s on sale for 50 cents!

    As for the social aspects of going out, I continually struggle with this at work. For nearly three years I was the youngest in a department of three, and the other two people were making much more than me so there was no way I could justify the $10 salads each day. The best suggestion I have is to not totally avoid these situations because of your finances, but be upfront that you can’t do it every day. If you make the effort to save on your lunch when you do bring it, you’ll have some extra to go splurge on that frozen yogurt every once in awhile. It’s a hard balance to have, but it will be a boon to your career if you are seen as personable and not a hermit every day at noon.

  4. Forestgirl :

    In terms of the bringing food vs. going out with co-workers question, is your office one where your co-workers bring their food back to the office to eat together after they pick it up outside? If so, just tell them you’ll join them when they get back because you brought food. I do that sometimes, and it isn’t a big deal. (Of course, if they are actually eating at a lunch place, you can’t do that.)

  5. One thing that’s made a big difference in my budget, but may not work for everyone is I bought my own espresso maker for my office. It is a nespresso citiz with milk frother. The latte’s it makes are quite as good as the really great ones I can get in my espresso-obsessed city, but I like them better than starbucks. After the initial investment, it’s about 50cents for the espresso and 25cents for the milk (I bring a half gallon of 1% in every other week from home). I make espresso for others and it’s very small and neat. I have to clean the milk frother and the cups, but it’s tidy.

    The downside is that the coffee comes in aluminum containers and aren’t good for the environment, and you need to have a sink to rinse things, a refrig for your milk. It’s not very noisy at all, and I love the ritual of making my own. It keeps me away from the espresso cart, which also keeps me away from the cookies and muffins and scones and crap that always seems so appealing when I’m down there.

    • Great idea — I have been considering bringing in a small french press. You would need very little for phenomenal coffee — just some hot water & milk/sugar if you like that sort of thing. Oh, and ground coffee. But very basic & makes the best coffee in my opinion. For those w/o access to hot water cooler (or who prefer freshly boiled water), you can easily bring in a small electric kettle or just keep a water boiler thingie in your desk (they’re super easy to use & store and cost like $5 — you just stick in a cup of water & plug in.)

    • My husband brought in an espresso machine at his job and it was such a hit that he and his coworkers pooled their money and got a better espresso machine, that can dispense shots more quickly. He first got the idea when he worked in an office where people did a daily Starbucks run and some people were spending $25 a week on coffee – he loves coffee but didn’t want to spend the money. He bought a cheap machine and took it to work. Then he’d drink his espresso and then go on the run with his coworkers, similar to what others have said. Those are important social times in a lot of offices.

      We have a Senseo single-cup brewer at my work and it gets a lot of use. Those of us who drink coffee (half the people in the office do, half don’t) pooled and bought a whole bunch of coffee pods off of Amazon, and then people take turns bringing in cream or creamer (the office provides sugar and powdered creamer, which we all hate). We have an espresso machine at home as well, so I go out for coffee maybe once a month. It does save a lot of money.

  6. I usually bring leftovers; we make an extra portion for dinner the night before and my husband puts the portion from the oven/stove right into a container for me and then into the fridge.

    I have a little black lunch bag (from market day – it was free) that I bring my lunch it. It’s stylish – looks like a tiny purse – and holds quite a bit. And then I don’t have to worry about carrying my container in my hands or a brown bag.

    another option is to buy something from the deli/store before going to work. I’m not on the east coast, but our Super WalMart or other similar stores have a great cold deli section with a wide variety (and healthy too!!)

    As for snacks (which I’m notorious for) I currently have a bag of almonds, a jar of natural peanut butter, crackers and some Kashi bars in my storage area above my desk. I try to pack enough for lunch so I don’t need them, but when I’m hungry or my lunch wasn’t satisfying, I know those are “good” foods for me; they fill me up and I’m not mindlessly eating them. Okay, the almonds are more mindless, but it’s a filling food.

    • For anyone looking for a great filling snack I would recommend goji berries (love almonds, too)! I don’t know how but they literally revive me. Super good for you, too. Really help on long days when you can’t see straight.

    • I second the almonds.

      Anyone who has a Walgreens in their area – the almonds there are so much cheaper and I personally think the smoked flavor are much better than the brand names.

      They also have these jumbo honey roasted cashews that are just caked in course sugar and seasalt that are nothing short of amazing. And they are always on special where you can get 2 cans of nuts for $7 or $10.

      I take the train/walk to work and don’t have a grocery store near me, so any of my office staples are purchased at a nearby Walgreens (7-11 is just way too expensive!)

  7. Anonymous :

    I’m another one with food allergies necessitating that I make my own lunch. I make a salad basically every day. I take it to work in this awesome container: http://www.containerstore.com/shop/kitchen/foodontheGo/foodContainers?productId=10010739

    I actually emailed my salad “recipe” to a friend a while back and so I’m copying and pasting it here. I buy enough supplies for a week at a time and just keep it all in my fridge and make my lunch the night before. Sorry the instructions are a bit dumbed down, but it was for a guy friend who claims to be completely clueless about how to prepare food.

    Base:
    Arugula/Baby Spinach/Spring Mix, about 4oz

    Protein (pick one or two; I usually do meat + nuts)
    Chicken breast, baked and chopped, about 1/4lb (I bake three or four at once and it lasts me at least a week – to bake them, spray a baking dish with Pam, salt and pepper the chicken breast and put it in, spray the top with Pam. For a pound of chicken bake about 50 minutes in a preheated 50 degree oven)
    Chickpeas
    A sliced-up strip of bacon
    Steak tips, sliced (I sautee it in a pan with salt and pepper or bake it like the chicken; it will last a week or so so you can do a bunch at once)
    Honey-roasted walnuts or pecans, about .5oz

    Fruit (pick 2-3):
    1/2 green apple, chopped
    2-3 strawberries, chopped
    Dried cranberries, about 1tbsp
    Pomegranate seeds, about 2tbsp
    Other dried fruits

    Other veggies (pick one):
    Sweet corn, about 2 tbsp.
    Sliced avocado (slice the avocado right before you eat it – don’t do it the night before)
    Cherry or grape tomatoes

    Cheese (pick one):
    Goat cheese, about 1oz (esp. good with strawberries)
    Blue cheese, crumbled, about 1oz

    Dressing (pick one):
    Spicy Peanut Dressing from Trader Joe’s
    Cilantro Dressing from Trader Joe’s
    Raspberry Dressing (especially good with steak and blue cheese)
    Goddess Dressing (esp. good with chickpeas)

  8. Thank you for all of your suggestions. I am one of those people who needs to buy lunch everyday, mainly because I like a lot of variety and I also like to eat things for lunch that I cannot make for dinner, either because it’s too complicated to cook, my DH doesn’t like it, I don’t have time to grocery-shop for fresh fish, etc. But, I just wanted to point out that food that you bring to work, while much cheaper than eating out, still has a cost – so Kat’s post is not really correct because one day a week would not save me $400 ($8 times 50), it would save maybe $200 ($4 savings times 50). I feel that since I don’t have cable tv, any magazine subscriptions, gym membership or a housecleaner, and I only get my haircut maybe twice a year (sad, but true), I save much more on those things and I deserve my treat of eating lunch out everyday, with or without my colleagues.

  9. What awesome tips here, and the links back to the threads on ‘how not to gain weight at work’ etc. were really helpful too!

  10. I tend to keep snacks in my desk that are sufficient for filling in gaps, or for making a meal on a busy day. I usually have a few packs of carnation instant breakfast, a couple of instant oatmeals in the prepackaged microwavable containers, a jar of peanut butter and something to eat with it (apples, bananas, crackers), a couple of varieties of crackerduls, and microwave popcorn. I rarely buy a drink during the work day. I stock up on several varieties of drinks at Sams every few weeks and slowly bring the supplies to my desk. I also like to keep a few tea bags and packages of hot chocolate.

    BTW, that photo could easily have been taken in my kitchen. I have a serious Diet Coke addiction. The most refreshing way to start the day is with hot shower and a cold DC!

  11. I bring breakfast items to work and then I’m covered if I have to eat both meals in the office. My staples are:
    – Oatmeal (I like the McCann’s Instant kind, plain)
    – Whole-wheat waffles
    – Yogurt
    – Granola
    – Bananas
    – Peanut butter
    – Protein bars (Pure Protein brand)
    – Cottage cheese
    – Other fruit (sometimes a container of pre-cut fruit salad from Whole Foods)

    I am not a big soup person; most are heinously salty, to me. I sometimes will bring lunchmeat and cheese and crackers, enough to last a week, on a Monday but that’s dependent on remembering to buy it on Sunday, which doesn’t always happen. I have also done the Whole Grain Lean Pocket thing but I get sick of them after about three days. The breakfast thing works for me – I can eat breakfast three meals a day, if need be; I love it. Plus breakfast tends to be filling, low-fat and easy to prepare, compared to a lot of “lunch” foods.

  12. For a couple years I did the eat out every day thing in Midtown Manhattan when I really wasn’t earning enough to do it. But, a 2 hour one way commute including 45 minutes walking meant I just couldn’t carry a whole lunch. I saved money by never buying a drink- I’d have a cup of water in the office before and after. I also tried to stick with just a “main” course. A cup of soup, or half a sandwich, or a small pack of sushi, and supplement with a granola bar or piece of fruit I’d brought from home later in the day.

    Now that I can bring lunch again, I mix it up. Leftovers some weeks, salads others, and a pb n j every now and again.

  13. Anonymous :

    I make lunches on Sundays and store in short, wide-mouth glass canning jars in the fridge. On my way out each morning, I grab 4 of the small jars- one has Greek yogurt which I mix with agave, another has either tuna, egg or 3-bean salad, the third has cut-up fruit (whatever is in season) and the last has a handful of unsalted nuts with a slice of asiago cheese or tiny hunk of brie. I make green tea and fill a thermos each morning. I work at least 12 hours a day, and I space the food out throughout my workday. My husband and I share a light, late night dinner when we both get home. When our kids were still at home, my husband and I both worked fewer hours and made lunch each night before bed for the kids and ourselves. Lunch included: a bottle of water; a sandwich of egg salad, tuna salad, BLT, peanut butter and jelly, or mozzarella, basil and tomato; a piece of fruit and a few cookies or a peppermint patty. I go out to lunch with colleagues occasionally, but our office regularly has days when everyone just brings in salad fixings- lettuce, croutons, dressing, carrots, etc… which we set up buffet-style and share a healthy meal together.

  14. I do the buying cases of pop thing. (I hate paying $1.25 for the pop machine when a case of 12 is $4 or 5.) I hate lugging it into the office though – I’m always afraid people will think I’m cheap, even though it makes perfect sense.

    Plain coffee costs less than cappucinos for sure. But if you’re looking to save even that ($2/cup does add up over time) and you’re not picky about the coffee you drink, I keep a jar of instant coffee at my desk. (Sadly, my instant coffee tastes better than the free coffee in the office.) I usually buy coffee once a day and drink the instant if I need a second. You can also keep tea bags at your desk.

  15. I keep a few lean cuisine meals in the freezer and a few cans of soup in my desk. I also keep semi-healthy snacks like nuts and popcorn and lowfat string cheese. During the summer, I try to stop at the nearby farmer’s markets and pick up some fresh fruit or vegetables to keep in the office; tomatoes, apples, and peaches are my favorites.

    I’m also very lucky that my boyfriend is a great cook, and he enjoys cooking up batches of good food over the weekend, leaving tons of leftovers. I take in a tote bag full of home-cooked food on Monday or Tuesday and that food often lasts most of the week.

    Keeping good coffee at the office eliminates the urge to go out and buy something. The last 2 places I work, I eventually volunteered myself to keep the coffee stocked, meaning I could pick it out to make sure it was actually good coffee. Also, most of my workplaces have provided soda and bottled water free for employees. My ex worked someplace that stocked crappy coffee and refused to change brands, so he and 2-3 office mates went in together on a coffee and espresso maker and brought their own of coffee to brew.

    The goal of all these practices is to only ever eat out when I’m really craving something in particular or when I’m going out with other people (and that’s less about eating than it is about building and maintaining social and/or professional connections).

  16. When my husband started his newest job, the office coffee was undrinkable. So in order to keep him from buying one or two cups of coffee at the shop everyday, we bought him a small French Press coffee maker. All you need is coffee grounds and hot water. Every office has hot water. We buy his favorite coffee beans and grind them up at home. He takes them to work in a zip loc baggie and stores them in an airtight jar. Working pretty well so far.

    • Anonymous :

      I started doing the same during the recession and it is great! I don’t even like to buy coffee anymore as they don’t make it as good as I do!

    • Experienced :

      Along the same lines, Liz, in my current role, I’m on the road a few days every month. Going back to a habit from early in my career when my motivation was lack of funds, I’m filling my old Stanley thermos with a pot of fresh coffee for the road. Tastes great, saves pennies, and also the time you would spend stopping for coffee. The Stanley (think industrial strength!) keeps coffee pretty hot all day long if you first warm it w hot water. Bonus points for a cup of coffee at the end of the day! I know -I’m a nut and caffeine achiever!

  17. Energy does not have to be stoked by constantly noshing in the office – that is a myth. Three meals a day is/are plenty. It is kind of gross to eat in the office – so be a little careful how you do it and what you eat. Also, it is good to walk out – if possible – each day to buy your take-out – if you want to eat at the desk – that little bit of exercise can’t hurt. In my office, there was a woman who drove her car about 5 miles each way at lunch time to buy take-out, and then of course brought it back to the office to eat. Talk about carbon footprint.

    • Seems a little harsh, 75. Do you mean that YOUR “energy does not have to be stoked by constantly noshing in the office” and that “it is kind of gross to eat in (YOUR) office”? That I can understand.

      As someone who is often tied to my desk for 10 hours straight, I do need to nosh a bit to keep my energy up and I don’t find anything gross about eating a peach or a packet of almonds in my office. Apparently your mileage *does* vary.

      I’ve got to agree with you on the 10 mile trek to take-out. That’s not something I would do, the gas along would make is cost prohibitive, but who am I to judge?

      • Corporate Tool :

        I agree with UnSub (are you a Criminal Minds fan? It’s all I can think of when I see your screenname), some people have no choice but to eat at their desks, if you clear up afterwards, it shouldn’t have to be “gross.”

    • It’s not just about energy. Some people have medical issues that require them to eat more than 3x a day to keep the blood sugar up. I get migraines and my doctor recommends I have a snack in between meals to avoid getting a headache from low blood sugar.

    • Anonymous :

      Competitive athlete (and lawyer) here – if I ate only three meals a day I would be emaciated and unable to perform in my sports or my job. I bring my meals (no carbon footprint) and I close my office door to eat. I really can’t see how this is hurting anyone around me.

  18. In my country the culture is a bit more spartan so it is normal to only break for lunch, bring sandwiches most days and just drink the coffee the office supplies. Now, I mostly work at the client site and each place has its own style of restaurant and brand of coffee machine. Coffee/tea/etc. is always free, but I try to stick with black coffee and tea for health. Lunch prices vary wildly. I ususally bring lunch 3-4 days a week; sandwiches with cold cuts, cheese, alfalfa…then buy some buttermilk and salad. Friday we all go out for fish, and wednesday I often meet with a colleague that in on assignment at the other bank next door. Dinner is free if you work overtime; the secretary will order for you and your team and you eat together in the office. You can also buy dinner and get reimbursed, but this is mostly when working abroad.
    My current client puts free fruit for everyone. I do buy fresh coffee in the morning to drink on the train, a normal cappucino.

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