The Surprising Cost of Lunch

When it comes to our budgets, some months are great and some months are less so. Depending on your situation, you may be scraping by on ramen everyday or you may have an opportunity to take yourself out for a decent lunch during the workday. I’ve been in both situations over the past years, and honestly still have a very large soft spot for the occasional package of ramen, however, the one thing I know for sure is that lunch is an opportunity... It’s an opportunity to save money. Let’s look at just what that workday lunch might be costing you and how you can curb your lunch spending.

How Much is Lunch Really Costing You?

The answer to this question is obviously very personal, and only you are truly able to calculate how much lunch is eating into your budget. If you use an online budgeting software like Mint, then you could easily add a code for lunch and run a quick report every month that will isolate this amount for you in minutes. If you choose to track your budget on paper, make a note of the lunches you buy during the week and how much they are costing you in your monthly budget. It also might be helpful to make a note of who (if anyone) attended that lunch with you. This can be important because sometimes there are reasons to eat lunch with your co-workers or friends that can help further your career or friendships. For instance, attending a lunch that your co-workers invited you to is much more valuable than a lunch you purchase to eat at your desk while you were surfing the internet on your phone. See the difference?

Even without running through this exercise, we can look at the national average to see what the average American reportedly spends on their lunches annually.

Credit:  VISA

Credit: VISA

Pretty quickly, we can see how buying lunch even twice a week adds up. So what can we do to help turn around this trend in our spending?

Why Do We Buy Lunch?

I would guess the two most common reasons you might buy lunch are because it’s an easier option when you may be running short on time, or you feel pressure to eat with coworkers or friends. Both are legitimate reasons, but if you’re really looking to save that money or put it towards paying down debt, this thinking may need a makeover to maximize your budget. In order to curb your spending there are three things you can do to help reign in your lunch spending:

  • Set Your Goals: Setting goals is always ground zero for achieving financial change. The clearer you are with yourself as to why you need to make a financial change, the more likely you are to do something about it. What are your reasons? Do you want to maximize your savings so you can buy a house or retire early? You can learn more here about how to set achievable goals.
  • Modify Your Budget: Once you have a handle on how much you are spending on lunch, you can adjust your budget to redirect some of those funds to savings or debt payments based on your goals. You may still need to leave yourself some room in your budget for buying lunches especially if you know you may be invited to a coworker’s birthday lunch or your may have a busy week where it will be impossible to make your own lunch. That’s okay. Just make sure you are realistic with yourself about what you can afford while still pushing yourself to do a better job making your budget work for you. Factor it into your budget at the beginning of the month instead of trying to adjust your budget as you go through the month.
  • Prepare in Advance: The easiest way to ensure that you pack your lunches regularly is to establish a habit. In my household this means cooking for the week on Sunday. If that doesn’t happen, we’ll likely be buying lunch that week. See what works for you... Is it packing lunch for the week on the weekend, the night before, etc.?

Challenge yourself to pack your lunches for one week and see how it might change your routines and your finances. You can even enlist the help of a friend or coworker that might want to challenge him or herself as well. Give it a try! You have nothing to lose and lots of savings to gain.

Written By: Lindsay Dell Cook

Lindsay Dell Cook is a CPA, writer, and founder of Budget Babble. She lives in Philadelphia with her uber supportive husband, and enjoys taking their adorable mutt for walks or reading a good book while buried under a pile of cats.