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What would you do with an extra $2,500 in your bank account? Pay off a credit card? Take the family on vacation? Do a home renovation project?
It’s fun to think about what you would do with a small windfall. But it’s a lot harder to come up with that windfall! Or is it?
Every year, I save nearly $2,500 by doing one stupidly simple thing: bringing lunch to work. That’s it. That’s my big secret for saving a bunch of money.
I’m sure this isn’t a big shocker for any of you. Bringing lunch to work is usually on every bloggers’ list to save money.
It’s one thing to include it in a list, but what are some actual practical tips to be successful at it? I’m glad you asked!
A Career of Brown Bagging It
I’ve spent my entire career working in New York City. And although that has many advantages, the expense of pretty much everything is not one of them. It’s tough to get lunch for under $10. Ten dollars a day, five days a week, fifty weeks a year (figuring two weeks of vacation) and that adds up to $2,500. Now maybe you don’t buy lunch out EVERY day, but even two days a week equals $1,000. There’s your emergency fund.
I’ve always been frugal by nature, so the idea of shelling out $10 for a sandwich a few times a week was tough to swallow. I would go out every now and then, but more often than not I would bring lunch to work.
Lunch break after kids
Things really changed after I returned to work from maternity leave after my second son. Still adjusting to life with two kids, I was struggling. With an hour and a half commute, I wasn’t getting home until 6:30 p.m. and the kids would start to get ready for bed at 7:00 p.m. I had barely any time to spend with them and the mom guilt was strong.
I talked to my boss about working through my lunch hour so I could leave at 4:00 p.m. instead of 5:00, and fortunately she was incredibly supportive.
Life was instantly better. I got to have dinner with my kids and give them baths. I was able to play with them before it was time for them to go to bed. I’m not exaggerating when I say that having that conversation with my boss was one of the best career discussions I’ve ever had.
But now that meant that going out for lunch wasn’t an option anymore. Sure, I could order from Seamless, but many of the restaurants had a $10 order minimum plus I had to tip the delivery person! That didn’t put my frugal soul at ease!
So I had to get myself organized and make sure I had something to bring for lunch every day.
If you’re ready to start saving money by bringing lunch to work, follow these simple tips and watch your bank account grow!
Tools of the Trade
To be successful bringing lunch to work day in and day out, you need a few basic supplies.
I commute with a backpack so I don’t find it necessary to have a lunch bag. I just throw what I need in my bag and I’m good to go. But if you don’t take a bag to work, or if you want to keep everything nice and organized, you might find it helpful to have a lunch bag.
Do yourself a favor and skip the brown paper bag. I am a huge advocate of eliminating single-use products in our lives. Not only are they bad for the environment, they’re bad for your wallet. Sure, a package of paper bags isn’t that expensive, but when you have to buy them several times a year, the expense quickly adds up. Before you know it, you’ve spent more on disposable bags than you would have on a reusable lunch bag.
Lunch bags come in a variety of shapes and styles. Because I don’t use a lunch bag, I don’t really have any recommendations to give. Look around and find one that works for your lifestyle. One thing I would recommend though is to make sure whatever you get is washable!
Food storage containers
Whether you bring leftovers, salads, or sandwiches, you’re going to need something to put your lunch in. Again, I would strongly encourage you to steer clear of disposable sandwich bags. For food storage containers you have a few options.
Whatever you choose, make sure your containers are microwave safe and dishwasher safe. The easier it is for you to pack and bring your lunch to work, the more likely you are to stick with it. And who has time to hand wash dishes? (side note: if you do need to hand wash dishes, here’s how to save money while doing it)
Plastic containers are the traditional workhorse of food storage. They’re cheap and versatile. They’re also lightweight, which makes them a nice choice if you walk or bike to work.
I highly recommend Rubbermaid food storage containers. They’re solidly constructed and are more durable than some of the other brands I’ve tried. What I really love about Rubbermaid is that the lids snap together for tidier storage, meaning you can keep your container cabinet at least a bit more organized!
If you’re predominately going to be taking sandwiches, the three-cup size is a good option. But if you’re going to be taking a variety of items, you’re probably going to want multiple sizes. In that case, I recommend something like this fifty piece set. You’ll have small containers perfect for salad dressing, to large ones for bulkier items.
I know a lot of people are turning away from plastic. Whether it’s from concerns of chemicals leaching from plastics or looking for more sustainable options, glass is becoming more popular.
Personally, because I have a crazy commute and two small kids, glass isn’t the right option for me right now, but I can definitely see the appeal. Again, I recommend a variety pack like this one from Pyrex. It gives you plenty of options for whatever food you bring to work.
This is an option I recently learned about. Again, it’s a bit more of a sustainable option than plastic, but the main downside is that they’re not microwave safe. Still if you’re sticking with predominately cold items, stainless steel containers could be a good option for you.
Really, that’s about it. That’s all you need to be successful bringing lunch to work and pocketing an extra $2,500 each year.
Bringing Lunch to Work: What to Pack?
Before we get into specifics on what to bring for lunch you need to think about your working environment. Do you have a refrigerator, or do you need an ice pack? What about a microwave? These are the two biggest considerations that will factor in what you’re going to bring for lunch.
If you have a microwave…
Really, the sky is the limit if you have a microwave in your office. Who needs to eat out when you can have a hot lunch at your desk? Okay, I can think of plenty of people who would prefer to go out than eat at their desk. But remember…$2,500. You could be sitting on a beach at an all-inclusive resort for $2,500. Or maybe paying off the last bit of your student loans. Isn’t that better than going out for lunch?
I predominately rely on leftovers for my lunch. I just make sure to make a bit extra for dinner the night before, and presto! Instant lunch!
Of course, there are times when that doesn’t work. Maybe everyone ate more than I anticipated, or I had a total flop for dinner. In those cases, I have some backup options to make sure I can still bring my lunch to work.
- Soup: Either heat up a can of soup the night before (if needed) or buy a few single serve soups to keep at your office. Yes, convenience items like on-the-go soup is more expensive than a can of soup, but it’s still cheaper than buying lunch out. You’re still coming out ahead.
- Quesadilla: Make a quesadilla and wrap it up to reheat the next day.
- Frozen meals: Burritos, lasagna, rice bowls, breakfast….the options for pre-made freezer meals are nearly endless. Keep a few in your home or work freezer so you always have an option for lunch.
- Instant oatmeal: We do breakfast for dinner. Why not for lunch?
- Grilled cheese: If you have a toaster and a microwave, this is a quick and satisfying lunch that’s easy to make at work. Here are the directions.
- Pasta: Make some pasta the night before and toss with olive oil, oregano, and basil. Heat up the next day for an easy lunch.
- Microwavable convenience foods: Rice or quinoa bowls, macaroni and cheese…sure, they’re not the healthiest option but they’ll do every now and then in a pinch.
No microwave? No problem.
Bringing lunch to work is a bit trickier if you don’t have access to a microwave. So you may sacrifice a hot lunch, but that doesn’t mean you don’t still have options. In fact, you still have a ton of options. You can still bring your lunch to work and save a ton of money. Let’s get at it.
- Sandwiches: PB&J, deli meats, egg salad, tuna salad, chicken salad, veggie…the options are nearly endless with sandwiches. Get creative and try out new combinations that interest you and make you look forward to lunch. Try rolls, wraps, and pitas to mix it up. Explore dressings and dips that are unfamiliar to you. Remember, you’re only going to be successful at this if you’re excited to eat your lunch every day.
- Salad: Real talk here: I am never going to be excited to eat a salad. I would like to. It’s a wonderfully healthy choice and a great way to get your servings of veggies for the day. If salads are your jam, more power to you. You’ve got a ton of options. Add new proteins, veggies, and dressings to keep it interesting.
- Hummus and…I love hummus. If you’re a vegetarian, you know it’s a wonderful source of plant-based protein. If not, just know that it’s tasty. Bring some veggies or pita for dipping, and you’ve got an easy, healthy, and satisfying lunch.
- Cheese and crackers: As I mentioned in my post on how to get dinner on the table fast, a regular rotation in my family’s dinner schedule is what I call a Smorgasbord. I put together cheese, crackers, deli meats, crackers, nuts, and fresh or dried fruit to come up with a complete, satisfying meal. Super easy and super yummy.
- Canned tuna: Whether you put it on a sandwich or crackers, tuna makes a filling, protein-rich lunch.
- Pasta salad: There are probably a million or more recipes for pasta salad. Delicious, satisfying, and best served cold. Start searching on Pinterest or online to find some recipes that suit your tastes.
Don’t Forget the Snacks!
When you go out for lunch, chances are you’re getting a giant portion, which leads to food coma. You get sleepy and the three o’clock slump comes on strong.
With bringing lunch to work, you can avoid that whole snoozy scenario. Smaller portions are easier to digest and healthier for us. But that does mean we need to fuel up more often. Enter snacks.
Now, when I get hungry in the late afternoon I start thinking cookies. Or a candy bar. Or maybe a pastry. Nothing that is good for me and something I would have to go hit the vending machine for. More money out of my pocket. And more padding around my waist line!
So it’s important that I bring (mostly) healthy snacks that are going to keep me running at my best and away from the empty calories. Here are some of my go-to options:
- Cheese sticks
- Fruit (either whole, sliced, or mixed together for a fruit salad)
- Veggies and dip (or hummus!)
- Dried fruit
- Granola/cereal bars
- Trail mix
Bringing Lunch to Work: Easier Than You Think!
I hope I’ve convinced you that bringing lunch to work is an easy way to save thousands of dollars a year. You don’t have to stay in every day, but try bringing your lunch to work a day or two more often each week than you do now. Once that becomes easy, add another day, and another, until going out is a rarity.
And no one says you have to stay chained to your desk all day. Eat your lunch and then go for a walk, or run some errands. By not having to wait for your food you’ll have a lot more time to do things for you on your lunch break. Who doesn’t need more time and more money? To me, bringing lunch to work is a win-win. You can do this!
And if you have kids, save even more money by having them bring lunch too! Check out my cheap school lunch ideas! They’re (mostly) healthy, frugal, and will keep your kids happy!
What are your favorite options for bringing your lunch to work? What makes it easier for you? Leave a comment so we can all learn!