The $200,000 Lunch

Before I started working from home, I worked for a mortgage company – in an office right next to a Starbucks. Every weekday for a year, I bought a Grande Caramel Macchiato for $4.55 and a boxed lunch from a deli for $6.95. I thought that was a bargain. But at the end of the year, I added up my lunch money and discovered I had spent (drumroll) $1,288.50 on coffee and $1,876.50 on sandwiches.

Spending $3,165 a year at the place where you’re supposed to be making money is ridiculous, but I wasn’t alone. A survey by the placement firm Accounting Principals shows that half of all American workers spend about $1,000 on coffee a year – and 66 percent spend around $2,000 on lunch.

What does that mean over the course of your career? Money Talks News Founder Stacy Johnson breaks it down in the video below. Check it out, then read on for tips…

In case you missed it, here’s another look at the math. Spend $3,000 yearly on coffee, lunch, or other workplace treats, that’s $250 per month. If you invest $250 monthly and earn just 5 percent on it, after a 30-year career, you would have saved $208,065. Manage to earn 10 percent on it over the same period of time and you’ll end up with $565,122. Wouldn’t that make a nice addition to your retirement nest-egg?

After realizing how much money I was wasting at work, I did what I could to cut my costs – whether I was dining out or eating at my desk. Here’s what worked for me…

1. Stock up on gift certificates

According to the Accounting Principals survey, workers between the ages of 18 and 34 spend an average of $44.78 a week on lunch, and workers 45 and up spend an average of $31.80. The best way to save is the most obvious – make your own lunch. More on that in a minute, but if you’re going to buy lunch out, you can save a ton by buying gift certificates ahead of time. Restaurant.com sells gift certificates to several restaurants at a deep discount. $25 gift certificates typically go for $10, but sometimes get as low as $2. If you’re not familiar with Restaurant.com, see How to Cut Your Restaurant Bill in Half and 6 More Tips to Save at Restaurant.com.

2. Keep an eye out for food deals

Buying gift certificates isn’t the only way to get a discount. Sites like Groupon and LivingSocial post frequent deals on restaurants, often at a 50 percent or higher discount. If you have a smartphone, you can get up-to-the-minute discounts. BiteHunter and Scoutmob are my favorites. You can also find coupons through our deals page.

3. Organize pot lucks

Lunch with co-workers is about more than food – it’s fun. To keep the social experience and save money, my co-workers and I organized weekly pot lucks. One day a week, everyone brought in one dish, and we all ate lunch together. The dishes I made cost less than my Starbucks sandwich, and there was always enough left over for everyone to take a plate home – so I got two meals for the cost of one dish.

4. Bring your lunch

On the other four days, I saved money by bringing my lunch to work. Use Bankrate’s Lunch Savings Calculator to see how much you could save over time. Packing a lunch may seem like a hassle, but you can save time and money with these tips:

  1. Make extra  When cooking dinner the night before, I made enough for an extra meal. All I had to do was toss the leftovers in some Tupperware.
  2. Make your own salads – Salad mixes at my grocery store cost $3.50 apiece and make about two decent-size salads, so each is $1.75. I buy fresh ingredients and make my own to save money. For example, I spend $4.50 to make at least six large salads, which breaks down to 75 cents each.
    • 1 head of lettuce – $1.50
    • 1 cucumber – 50 cents
    • 1 bag of carrots – $2.50
  3. Plan ahead – Now that you’re brown-bagging it, you’ll need to buy more groceries. But if you plan ahead and shop the sales, you’ll save time and money. WebMD has a sample grocery list for a week’s worth of lunches under $5.
  4. Turn a desk drawer into a pantry – Sometimes, I just didn’t have time to make my lunch the night before. So I stocked up on nonperishable food in my office. For example, I bought an eight-pack of Progresso canned soup for $10.91 at Sam’s Club. Even on days when I forgot to brown-bag it, I still saved $5.59 over the cost of my usual dine-out meal.

5. Bring your own coffee supplies

Accounting Principals found that workers between the ages of 18 and 34 – my age group – spent an average of $24.74 a week on coffee, more than their older counterparts who spent an average of $14.50.

Mostly, I bought my coffee elsewhere because I didn’t like the taste of the free coffee in the break room. But when that got too expensive, I bought a large container of Coffee Mate French Vanilla creamer from Sam’s Club to use in my coffee. Each container cost $14.98, and had 300 servings. Since the coffee was free, I spent 5 cents a day by bringing my own creamer and skipping the coffee house – a savings of $4.50 a day, or $22.50 per week.

Another thing I could have tried is brewing gourmet coffee at home and bringing it in a thermos.

Don’t forget to save your savings

Just as it’s easy to forget how little amounts add up, it’s easy to forget to put those savings to work.

If you manage to use the techniques above or others to save money, don’t fritter it away. If you save $200 a month by bringing coffee and lunch from home, have that much automatically transferred from your checking to your savings or investment account.

And if you’re not familiar with investing, get a quick primer by reading Should I Get Started With Stocks?

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