Livin’ life on the frugal edge- My work lunch strategy

At times I feel like a bit of a soldier in my office, complete with frugal armor, and surrounded by sword wielding spenders intent on destroying their hard-earned income as fast as they can.  How can one simply see $10-$12 per day, OR MORE, exit their wealth empire without even flinching?  The sad truth is, they purchase a hot lunch each day from a local establishment at a hefty price.  Even worse, some will drive their automobiles to do this.


How I stock my work lunch

There is no one right or wrong way to pack a work lunch.  Some will bring food, daily, from home.  Since I bike commute to work, I prefer to skip carrying a backpack.  Instead, I utilize unused space in my office, as well as use a shared freezer, which is lightly used due to its secret location (behind a maintenance door).

I stock the office with a jar of peanut butter, raisins, diet mountain dew, multi-packs of chips or popcorn, almonds, and granola bars.  I stock a freezer, that I have access to at work, with a loaf of whole wheat bread.

An amazing potpourri of items I keep stocked for my daily lunch at work
Breakfast of champions? Not exactly, but other items I consume in my daily work lunch, which saves me thousands over time.

Each Monday when I begin the workweek, I buy groceries to re-stock it as needed, such as bananas and a carrot. If I ever forget this step, there are enough long-lasting items in there to allow me to create a lunch to get me through until restocking.  I am lucky that I have a Whole Foods market near work, which is within a short walking distance.  While it’s not the cheapest store by any means, bananas there aren’t terribly expensive and it’s far cheaper than buying a prepared lunch from a local restaurant.  So back off haters 🙂

Perishables, such as bananas, may be purchased through out the week. I am lucky to have a grocery store in short walking distance of my work office.

Don’t let bread spoil

I’m ashamed to admit that when I started buying loaves of bread to stock at work, I would keep them in my office without refrigerating them.  This would, inevitably, lead to mold where I had to throw out portions of unused bread.  That’s a frugal fail.  Therefore, I resolved to figure out a way to eliminate my waste. I learned, from a google search and research, that the best way to keep bread from spoiling was to freeze it, until needed.

My lunch bread, kept in a work freezer as seen here

I keep my bread in a work freezer, in an area that isn’t heavily used since this particular refrigerator/freezer is in a maintenance closet that keeps people from using it.  Each day, I pack a paper bag with everything I want to eat that day, and I head to the freezer to pick up two slices of whole wheat bread.  I then head to our shared work cafeteria/eating space where I use the toaster to heat the frozen bread.  Within two minutes, the bread is ready and I spread that bread with my peanut butter.

A toaster in an employee break room, where I toast my whole wheat bread before applying peanut butter

Pricing out my lunch

I think it’s always important to analyze what we are doing, financially, to see if it really saves money OR if there is room for incremental improvement.  Therefore, I am sharing with you my “typical” cost computation of my work lunch.  Are you ready for the exciting details?

As you can see above, in the column labeled “daily unit price,” I estimate the cost for the volume of each item I consume each day.  It’s likely that, in any given day, I won’t eat this much food for lunch. However, I will eat one of the items between meals.  Therefore, I calculate the “grand total” as all the food I may eat in a day, while at work.

The Verdict?

$2.73, that’s what I spend for an entire day at work, that’s it!.  Compare that to the $10-$12 others spend, each day, for a restaurant lunch.  It’s even more impressive when you realize that I make almost no effort to control the cost of my work lunch.  For example, Whole Foods is about the most expensive place on earth you can buy bread.  Still, two slices of whole wheat bread only set me back 0.53 cents.  If I made an effort to optimize, that $2.73 would come down further.

Where I eat my work lunch

The remainder of my food is carried in my brown bag, and I have a quiet place away from my desk, where I can eat my frugal lunch in peace.  Of course, the work break room is filled with vending machines and other temptations, but I rarely purchase anything due to being well stocked.  I grab ice for my diet mountain dew, and am able to step away from the work grind and and eat in peace.

Our employee work eating area is a lap of luxury, complete with comfortable chairs, TV’s, tables and even an outdoor eating patio.

I am aware that some people like to eat at their desks.  This has never been a particular favorite of mine.  As an aspiring early retiree, I try to step away from my work as often as possible.

The results and dividends of my work lunch strategy

I estimate I have saved hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars by eating a lunch that is grocery store purchased, vs. the much pricier options offered at area restaurants.  That savings, compounded in the stock market in a low cost index fund, means I have added a valuable tool to my early retirement tool-shed, that will allow me to retire even earlier than the people I work with each and everyday.  The irony is that some of these people I work with even earn much more than I do, which means that what you make isn’t nearly as important as what you keep.

What is your work lunch strategy?  Are you ready to fess up that you still go out and buy hot lunches daily?  I know I have done this in the past.  What types of things do you bring to work to eat on a daily basis?

36 comments

  1. Economically you are absolutely right. The only counter arguments that I can make (as a frequent violator) are the following:

    Networking: eating at the same place and time as your coworkers is an endearing act which fosters teamwork and trust. I am a contentedly selfish creature (similar to a cat) and will happily eat when I am hungry, but am able to note the deleterious effect on internal office politics this engenders.

    Area Knowledge: unique to policing, everyone will ask a cop where to eat. As a member of a premier department it is therefore incumbent upon me to be able to provide a detailed and thorough analysis of all nearby eateries for the public good! Additionally, investing in local eateries will improve the department relationship with the business owners in my beat and ease the interactions in future radio calls.

    Economics: although there is no way to match the qualified frugality of your method, uniformed personnel are occasionally provided a subsidized meal by local eateries. This admittedly does not eliminate the additional cost burden, but it does help to mitigate the expense.

    Reduction in crime: instead of protecting the inside of a station or my car, my presence should be bringing down crime within the chosen businesses! By eating out, I may be doing a better job!

    Granted several of these are only applicable to my job, but are valuable and delicious reasons to make myself poorer. My lame protestations aside, I liked the article! Maybe this is why people know to ask cops about food. You trigger a passion rant!

    1. Hilarious and great points, Mr. Catchem. I recall, when I was 15 1/2, I worked at a local yogurt/ice cream shop and uniformed officers would be given a 10% discount. We would see them all the time. However, one guy came back and said his supervisor told him he couldn’t get a discount, and was told to give back the 10%. Apparently this could cause a conflict of interest, was the reasoning.

      I agree about the teamwork, but in my situation, I have mostly given up on advancing my career here. I also find we have bigger teams when work funds our lunches, which is one of the few times I am happy to go out to eat. Otherwise, many people in my office eat lunch out alone, or with one or two others. Again, this is perhaps only relevant to a civilian office job.

      1. Yes, the discounts are regularly a hot topic for departments. They range from “against policy” to “let people show gratitude if they want.” What matters most is public perception, honestly.

        Also I would usually rather eat alone. My wife laughs because unless I think about it proactively I tend to crouch protectively over my food. My children have acquired this trait (and my self important walk) so we must be an odd sight at the dinner table.

  2. It’s amazing how that will add up over time. If you invest that $10 a day you save by brown bagging over a 20 year career at 7% return that’s an extra $115000 for retirment. That is like working a year or more less and you eat healthier, except the chips 🙂

    1. Very true Tom, the compounding effect of saving this money is eye opening. It’s amazing how much time restaurant eaters spend at lunch, too. It seems to take a lot longer, especially when car clowning is involved. Yes, I agree about the chips, but man are they good (I bike to work so I can eat anything, right?)

  3. Great post, and definitely reminds me of a colleague I ate with nearly every single day towards the end of my career. We ate in an unused conference room, and she would without fail buy her lunch from the cafeteria in our building. She always about bought the “daily special” which ran around $7 or $8. I, on the other hand, nearly always brought leftovers from the night before. This was during my post-divorce period, so I was on my own. I always made enough for dinner to include for the following day’s lunch. My colleague never commented on my meal, nor I hers. But it amazed me that so much of our lunch conversations was about money (in her case the lack of it), and yet she bought her lunch every day. We still communicate regularly on e-mail, and she asks for advice on her 401(k) positions. I always urge her to put more in because she’s about five years away from retirement. But I’m too kind to bring up those lunches of hers. 🙂

    Now I’m retired but have a part-time job, but I still bring a lunch with me to work. I pack a frozen Lean Cuisine — about $2.50 to $2.89 depending on the entree. Still cheap!

    I look forward to reading more of your posts. – Marty

    1. Thanks Marty, you are one polite person. The vast majority of people I see do not pack a lunch with them. In fact, the few that do, are fairly frugal in some respect.

      I have a similar problem with my neighbor. He is divorced and complains about not having enough money, yet runs his AC, at 69 degrees, incessantly even when he’s not home. I have suggested he not do this to save money, and it falls on def ears.

  4. Great advice! We saved about $7800 a year by brown bagging it! Every night I would pack my lunch and Mr. FE’s for us to grab on the go the next morning. I’m home now, but Mr. FE still takes a lunch to work on the days when he is working at the office. When he is on the road, the company picks up the tab. Yay for free lunch! 🙂

    1. Thank you. I’m not going to lie, I am against going out to eat on my dime, but I am a glutton when it comes to company paid food. In fact, I will order nice dinners on the road, so if my wife and I go out to eat, I can order on the cheap, since I’ve already had my share of fancy food.

      Great job saving so much money by brown bagging it.

  5. I’m with you on this FP. it blows my mind how much money my coworkers spend on lunch. Not to mention, what they spend on breakfast and coffee as well.

    I also bike commute to work and so I like to pack light. My secret tip for cheap breakfast, lunch, and snacks at work is Oatmeal! It is shelf stable, very light for the bike commute, I never get tired of it, and its super cheap. A 1/2 cup of oatmeal can keep you full for hours and literally costs pennies. Plus you can change up the flavor by adding some of the peanut butter, raisins, and/or bananas you already have!

    Enjoyed the post today!

    1. Ahh, congrats on the bike commuting. It’s so rare to talk to a fellow bike commuter. Is the oatmeal you eat the old fashioned kind? I have that for breakfast before I leave for home, but even if it’s the instant kind, I would be open to switching things up a bit here.

      Great work on your work lunch. You’ll be retired in no time.

  6. You can still get a budget hot lunch – hit Costco (if practical for you?) and buy a flat of those cup ‘o noodles. They store forever, and stack nicely in office stash corners. You only need hot water to make ’em, and most offices have coffee machines that also dispense boiling water. They’re a bit high in sodium, but they’re not the worst thing on earth to eat. Tasty and filling, and perfect on cold days when you just want something warm. Add ’em to your lunch cache and keep saving cash. 🙂

    1. Congrats on the daily bagging. I know it sometimes can get old, but if the money piles up for investing, it feels vindicated. I, too, sometimes will buy prepared food here and there, especially if it’s nice outside and I wish to get out of the confines of this six story office building 🙂

  7. I took my lunch to the office everyday when I was working too. I go to the company’s gym and then eat lunch at my desk afterward. Not very social, but it worked for me. The cafeteria was pretty expensive and the food was never that good.

  8. I bring my lunch to work every day. I like to have a really good nourishing hot lunch and I don’t like to microwave my food. It took me some time to figure out how to work around those requirements, but as everything else in life – if you really want something, you’ll find a way to get it. So now everytime I cook at home I make extra food to take to work some time during a week. It takes less than 5min of my time to heat it up in the morning and put it in a thermos usually while getting ready or eating breakfast. Lately I’ve been on a salad binge (in addition to a hot part of the lunch) so I make a salad to take to work in the morning too.

    Also I don’t feel like bringing your own food necessarily hurts networking and socializing with your colleagues. I often invite people to have lunch together in cafeteria or we go out together and they buy their lunch and I bring mine and then we go to eat together to a vendor independent area, i.e. outdoor tables in the malls or tables in parks or we go back to our work kitchen/eating area.

  9. I usually bring salad for lunch. I eat a ton of veggies, and here in Sydney a single bowl can cost $15! Since I usually eat 2 bowls, there’s no way I’m spending $30 on just a lunch. And a lot of salads they sell aren’t as healthy as homemade ones.

  10. Thanks Troy. I had a friend who lived in NZ for a year and told me how expensive it was to eat out there, but he also mentioned it was even MORE expensive in neighboring Australia. The salad from home is a fantastic idea, not to mention extremely healthy. I think sometimes bike commuting leaves me hungrier than a salad, alone, can provide.

      1. Wow, we are lucky that we get imports from Mexico and S. America in winter. All food in the US is cheap by world standards. We might not have free healthcare, but everything else makes up for it.

  11. I live 15 minutes from my current full-time job, so I usually drive home for lunch (I get an hour). I know the gas probably eats out most of my savings of eating leftovers from the previous night, but it gives me a chance to see my dogs and play with them which is a nice getaway from dealing with 911 calls and angry citizens!

    Overall though, I work in dispatch so it’s not uncommon for most of the shift to order lunch or something. After delivery fee and cost of lunch (and dispatch doesn’t get the same discounts as road units), most of them have spent an entire hour’s worth of pay on lunch. Granted, we get paid lunches since we’re on 12 hours shifts, but that’s still a huge loss!

    1. Yup, that’s a nice break. By car I am 10 minutes away from my job, but I avoid driving home mostly due to my bike commute, but also because I know how much wear and tear on a vehicle costs over the long run.

  12. Before retiring at 58, I ate peanut butter and jelly sandwich and an apple every day. I also ate in the personnel departments snack room. They didn’t kick me out unless they were having a working meeting and I always knew what was going on in the business and the people who were doing the hiring.

  13. Thanks for the book recommendations.

    I brown bag it by taking leftovers from the night before. I also have a stash of trail mix and fruit at my desk. I may eat out once a week or every other week. That’s usually because I forgot my lunch!

    1. That sounds like a good plan. I would bring in leftovers if it weren’t for the bike commuting, but it’s so healthy for me I make some compromises to do it instead of driving a car to work.

  14. I’ll fess up and admit that I go out to eat. It’s mainly b/c I need to give off campus to recharge away from my co-workers and for whatever reason sitting in the cafeteria or outside doesn’t do it for me. So I realize it’s expensive to do eat out, but I feel like it’s a small price to pay for mental happiness 🙂

    1. Ha, ha, we all have our weaknesses, MSM. It’s important to realize that you will need to work longer to support these habits though. That would be an easy habit to break. Start small.

  15. I’m pretty good about bring leftovers or a sandwich for lunch most days. I also have some staples like granola bars and pudding cups tucked away in my desk for snacks. That said, I do treat myself to lunch about once a week where I get together with coworkers. I think the networking opportunity is worth the minimal cost.

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