How to Save $2,500 a Year on Lunch

Most workers eat lunch out at least once a week. It's convenient and maybe even fun. But if you simply stop going to the deli or pizza shop you can retire on the savings. The trick is getting set up. Here's how.

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For years—no, decades—I’ve marveled at the lunch habits of my friends and colleagues. Where did they get the money to eat out every day? And even if they earned decent incomes, why did they choose to spend them this way?

I still don’t have answers, but at least I’ve found a soul mate. In her book What Are You Doing for Lunch, author Mona Meighan tries to talk sense into the lunch-out crowd, playing up not only the high cost of eating out but the poor nutrition as well. She says brown bagging can cut your weekly lunch cost by 80% and makes it easy to stay away from things like pizza and cheeseburgers.

Meighan is by no means the first to calculate the costs of eating lunch out. A recent survey in Canada found that 60% eat lunch out at least once a week and spend $7 to $13 each time. But many of those eat out at least three times a week, and at the $10 midpoint spend $1,500 a year. Those who eat out every workday spend $2,500 a year.

(MORE: Is Lunch a Waste of Time—Or a Productivity Booster?)

Your costs may vary. Based on this calculator, if you live, say, in New York, and spend $15 a day on lunch instead of brown bagging at a cost of $3 per day, you’ll save $31,200 over 10 years. If you invest your savings over that period at 2% you’ll earn $3,307.11 in interest for total net gain of $34,507.11.

This is math that every worker, especially young ones starting their careers, should consider. Annual lunch savings of $2,000 gets you half of what you need to contribute enough to your 401(k) plan to get the full company match, assuming a $34,000 salary and typical 50% match up to 6% of pay. By starting at age 22, that level of lunch savings in a 401(k) could grow at 7% a year to $640,828.71 at age 62–just because you bring your lunch to work.

On top of that, you’ll save time and may be able to finish work earlier or use your lunch hour to exercise, run personal errands or pay bills. But the real bonus is that you’ll be eating healthy and be in control of your calorie, fat, sugar and salt intake. Here are some sample lunch savings from Meighan’s book:

  • Peanut butter, apple and granola wrap Cost to make: $1. Restaurant price: $4.50. Eat that just once a week and you will save $168 in a year. Your actual savings over a more typical restaurant meal of $10 would come to $450 a year. A similar savings all five days would come to $2,250 a year. Meanwhile, you are consuming just 473 calories (and a fraction of the fat) vs. nearly 700 calories with a cheeseburger and fries.
  • Basil and tomato on wheat Cost to make: $1. Restaurant price: $5. Annual savings (eating once per week): $192. Annual savings over a $10 lunch: $450. Calories: 273.
  • Chicken salad on wheat Cost to make: $3.50. Restaurant price: $7.50. Annual savings: $192. Annual savings over a typical $10 lunch: $450. Calories: 299.

(MORE: The Party of No)

Meighan’s book is full of such recipes and advice on how to get organized. You can also get started here. It will take a little work to change your habits, and the savings may not be as great if you have access to a company cafeteria. But if you are on a budget, brown bagging is an easy way save money—and your waistline.

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