My wife and I are busy people, and generally our only option for lunch while at work is to pick up something at a restaurant, or in my case, the cafeteria here where I work. We always knew it was an expensive habit, but the fact that it is so convenient and there are a variety of good meals to choose from each day has made it a tough habit to break. So to have a better understanding of what the true cost of eating out for lunch was and to see how much money we could save by eating lunch out less often, we spent a few months this year conducting the Brown Bag Experiment.
First, we kept track of expenses for one month with our normal habits. I would generally spend on average $5 per day, or approximately $25 per week. My wife found her spending to be closer to $6 per day, or roughly $30 per week. My costs are a bit less because our cafeteria has very affordable meal options as opposed to having to go to an actual restaurant.
Next, we decided to each take a brown bag lunch to work for 3 out of the 5 work days. Generally we just made sandwiches and took a little bag of chips or an apple or something and then drank water. Considering we already keep a loaf of bread on hand, and have the various condiments such as mustard and mayo in the fridge, we really only had to spend money on sandwich meat and fruit. This resulted in around $6 per week in sandwich supplies and about $5 per week in fruit or snacks.
Finally, we took it one step further, and instead of just taking a lunch we made by purchasing sandwich items, we realized that at least once a week we have a dinner that provides enough leftovers for lunch the next day. So, for another month we not only took our own lunch 3 days a week, but some of those were even leftover meals that did not cost anything additional. This resulted in a reduction in sandwich meat and fruit/snack money that needed to be allocated.
This chart displays the savings:
The findings were a bit shocking. By choosing to purchase lunch everyday, we were spending $2,640 annually just for weekday lunches! When we reduced our eating lunch out by 3 days per week each and purchased items to make lunch at home to bring to work we found a savings of $88 per month or $1,056 annually. When you put it in those terms, think of what bills $88 a month could pay for. When we took it one step further and included leftover dinner for some lunches we saw a total savings of $110 a month or $1,320 annually.
Needless to say, that can add up over the course of a year, and it looks like we can use some of the savings to apply towards paying down some debt or increasing our retirement plan contributions a bit. Not only does it save money, but these lunches tend to be much more healthy than eating out all the time, so it should also result in losing a few pounds and overall being more healthy, which could end up being worth far more than the money that is saved.
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About the Author: Jeremy Vohwinkle is a Chartered Retirement Planning Counselor® and spent a few years working as a financial planner. Today, he helps people make the most of their money by writing about personal finance here and elsewhere on the web. Jeremy is also Coach at Adaptu and a regular contributor for other publications such as Intuit, and American Express. Be sure to follow Jeremy on Twitter or Google+.