7 Easy Ways to Cut the Cost of Your Lunch Hour

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This article by Jeffrey Trull originally appeared on Money Spruce.

125 Days. That’s how long since the last time I bought myself lunch on a workday. That’s 92 consecutive workdays (and counting).

To me, it’s a huge feat that I’m proud of and has saved me a ton of money. Conservatively assuming that eating out for lunch costs $5 more than bringing my own lunch, I’ve saved $460 in about one-third of a year. Not to mention that I’ve undoubtedly eaten healthier lunches (most days I eat a salad, soup, or leftovers).

I can honestly say it hasn’t been too hard for me to do, but I owe this in large part to preparation. Here’s part of my strategy:

1) Stock foods that can be taken for work

I grocery shop once a week, and I make sure to buy plenty of things that I can bring to work. My grocery store of choice is Trader Joe’s, and they have a lot of options that work well for lunches. I make sure to have lettuce or bagged salads at all times during the week. Fruits and vegetables are definitely important too, such as carrot sticks, bananas, and apples. I really like soups that Trader Joe’s carries as well as some of their frozen selections. While I prefer to eat fresh food whenever I can, Trader Joe’s stocks frozen foods that are made mostly from natural and organic ingredients. I feel a little better about these options versus frozen meals from Weight Watchers and the like.

2) Cook enough each night to provide leftovers for the next day

 I typically cook dinners consisting of fresh vegetables. When I do, I make sure to cook enough to take to work with me the next day or two. I can often add other meal components that are easy to cook in bulk, such as rice or pasta. Certain meals are good for leftovers, like soups and chili. All of these are easily reheated at work.

3) Keep (healthy) food at work

Aside from what I bring to work each day, I keep food at my desk just in case. Occasionally, I do forget to bring my lunch. Other times I don’t have enough food left at home. That’s where having food at my desk comes in handy. I keep nuts, granola bars, and crackers in my desk. I try to keep these desk foods somewhat healthy since I don’t want to encourage high-calorie snacking. But when I really am hungry and I think about going out to buy something, I can pull a variety of things out of my drawer instead.

4) Don’t keep menus or let people talk you into lunch

I don’t keep menus or other temptations around the office. If I don’t see it, I usually don’t think about it. If others are going out to lunch, I politely decline. After saying “no” for a few weeks, my office mates realized I was never going to say “yes” and gave up on me.

5) Make the lunch that you would buy

A lot of lunch options out there are things that you could make yourself. If you’re going to go out and buy a ham and cheese sub, make it yourself instead for a fraction of the cost. Salads are super easy to make, especially with pre-mixed bags of lettuce and a wide variety of toppings available.

6) Find other productive things to do during your lunch break

Rather than spend all of the time it takes to order food, go out and get it, bring it back, and then eat it, I settle for the lunch I have in the office fridge that I brought to work. I heat it up and eat within 15 minutes or so. That leaves me another 45 minutes to do what I choose. I often read books or blogs, or pay bills and do other tasks that I would need to do at home anyway. Now, I look forward to my lunch break to do these productive things I enjoy rather than look forward simply to eating.

7) Consider the trade-offs

I’m not simply skipping lunch to deprive myself of “the good life.” It’s more that I’d prefer to spend my money in other places, even if it’s still on food. I’d much rather eat out for dinner than buy a sub or pizza for lunch every day. Lunch just doesn’t excite me in terms of what’s available as take-out. However, a well-prepared and exciting dinner, like Ethiopian food, is what I’d much rather enjoy. I’m also much more interested in eating healthy than loading up on quick, high-calorie lunch options.

One of the main reasons people do eat out for lunch is that they don’t want to take the time to make lunch every day. This is a poor excuse. Most alternatives don’t take much time to prepare, and packing leftovers takes virtually none.

If you must eat out for lunch, definitely set limits. Once a week is plenty. Consider cutting down on this number gradually while getting used to making lunches for yourself. It really isn’t that bad, and it’s an easy step to padding your wallet.

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