The Myth That Making Your Own Lunch Saves Hundreds Of Dollars

An insurance company has recently been running a television commercial in which it notes that saving money is now a very popular topic of conversation. One incidental character in the commercial tells a friend that since he stopped buying lunch each day and started bringing lunch from home, he is putting fifty dollars each week in his pocket. I very much doubt that to be the case unless the fellow in the commercial was spending more than ten dollars each day on his lunch.

There is a big difference between eliminating a cost and shifting a cost. Usually we find ways to minimize our expenses, but we do not eliminate a lot of line items completely. Certainly, the fellow in the commercial is not likely to have eliminated lunch from his daily routine because he is still spending money on the foods that he purchases at the grocery store in order to make a lunch that he will bring to work.

The food that he purchases will cost him money. The utensils that he uses to prepare his lunch each day will still need to be cleaned and that will cost some small amount in terms of water and electricity if he uses a dish washer. If he cooks his lunch, there will be another added cost, however slight, for the energy used to power his stove or oven. He will need a container in which to package his lunch and perhaps an icepack. All of this will cost some amount of money and depending on what he makes for lunch, his ten dollar daily savings will be proportionally reduced.

I wonder how many of us actually consider how much we really save when we take the time to pack a lunch. A lot will depend on what we purchase at the grocery store and whether we can buy our ingredients on sale. Nevertheless, if our restaurant or lunch cart purchases are not extravagant, I suspect that weekly savings may not always be as great we as we might hope.

For example, if I am out of the house and need to purchase lunch, I often go to a local deli and order egg and cheese on a bagel. That costs me $2.29. If I were to purchase the ingredients at my local grocery store so that I could make the very same sandwich, I would spend approximately $1.15 or roughly half the price of the sandwich. My savings of about a dollar when I make the sandwich mean that it is costing me only an additional dollar for the sandwich at the deli. I also enjoy the added convenience of not having to prepare my lunch or clean the dishes, and I can enjoy a hot sandwich instead of a cold sandwich. If I do that every day of the week, my lunch really only costs me about $5.00 more than I would have spent had I eaten at home — savings that are not sufficient to make me worry all that much about the cost.

Of course, there are plenty of scenarios in which buying meals out does get excessive. My point, however, is that unless you consider the math associated with your dining habits, you may be avoiding restaurant purchases that you do not need to avoid. It is not enough to consider the menu prices, the coupons and the deals. You also need to consider what you will be spending at home if you do not choose to eat out. If the numbers work for you, you can enjoy eating out and feel good about being financially responsible in doing so.

What do you think? Where does elimination of one cost result in the creation of other costs that might give you pause? What costs can you eliminate entirely? What costs are always going to appear in your budget, no matter how much you want to eliminate them?

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16 Responses to The Myth That Making Your Own Lunch Saves Hundreds Of Dollars

  1. Ashley says:

    From this and previous posts, it sounds like you are in an area with a relatively low cost of living. That sandwich may only cost you 2.29, but for someone living in a large city (like me), that sandwich can easily run $4-5. Plus you mentioned you get it if you “happen to be out of the house,” indicating that you just need something to tide you over until you get home. For those of us who commute and work away from home all day, you need something more substantial than a sandwich, and lunch can easily go for $8-10, if not more.

    I do agree that you should go after actual figures rather than perception, but for those of us in large, expensive cities, bringing lunch (and snacks) from home is a significant savings.

  2. Annie Jones says:

    If I still worked outside the home, I’d have to spend at least $3 for a lunch. Chances are, I wouldn’t stick to just dollar menus, so more realistically, I’d be looking at $5 to $8 per lunch, or $25 to $40 a week.

    If I took a lunch from home, it would very likely be leftovers from dinner the night before. The cost would be $0. Even if I bought lunch meats, bread, fruit, specifically for lunches, I can’t imagine it would ever cost more than $2 a day, or $10 a week. The savings over eating out each day would be $15 to $30 a week, or $750 to $1500 annually, based on a 50-week year. So would I save thousands? No. But many hundreds? Yes. Definitely worth it to me.

    Not to mention I’d probably have better tasting, healthier food (if I took leftovers), and I wouldn’t have to drive away from the office to eat. Half-hour lunch breaks are common in some jobs, and no one enjoys trying to go, grab lunch, and get back in just 30 minutes.

    As for washing the utensils, I would just bring them home and wash the with my other dishes. No additional cost.

    That said, I do agree that a lot of commercials feature misleading math. There is one that says you can save X amount of dollars annually on groceries by shopping exclusively at their store. “They” don’t know where I shop or what I spend, so how can they possible claim I’ll save X amount of money? I’m sure they’re talking about an average shopper, but never in the commercial do they mention that.

  3. t says:

    When I eat out it typically runs me $6 to $10 (with water).

    Several years back, I switched over to taking my lunch to work. My lunch usually consists of vegetables, beans, and 2 fruits. Occasionally, I’ll bring in leftovers. I spend between $2-3 depending on the ingredients.

  4. RonW says:

    First of all, if that insurance company REALLY wanted to save you money, they’d just automatically give it to you or lower their premiums. Can you think of a less-transparent industry or business?! Which is normally bad news for the consumer…

    On the lunch deal, it really depends on your lifestyle and goals. I use lunch as a chance to break out of the office and network/bond with my co-workers. Lunch is a social event for me in addition to a meal. I also HATE cold sandwiches and feel a hot lunch is reward for a productive morning. As a single person, I don’t cook that often at night which removes the leftovers option. And I totally think there’s an opportunity cost with making/bagging lunch, i.e. lost time. Separately, you didn’t factor in waste, if you’ve got tomatoes/veggies for your lunch things often go bad. Or who wants to eat the same lunch over and over if you try and save money and buy in bulk.

    There ways to save money for meals but I for one, am not a brown-bagger…

  5. Ron W. may not be a brown bagger but he does have a fine blog on the food scene in the Raleigh-Durham area of North Carolina. Check out his blog here:

  6. Well if you can afford $2 or so a day go for it.

    But if you are in debt, you might be better off suffering with cold sandwiches than high interest rates.

    Generally lunch here is leftovers, cost not zero, but certainly less than $1 per serving. When we have no leftovers, the meal is still cheap.

    While I have no objection to folk using money smartly, I find it annoying when someone says ‘it is only a dollar’. One dollar can go quite far if needed (as shown by the ‘eating on a dollar a day’). If you have the dollar go for it, but if you are in debt, or if you are planning on whining later about not having money, please stop.

  7. Jaime says:

    I agree that it’s misleading to say that brown bagging saves you all of the costs of eating out, of course it does not. However, I do think that the net benefits of bringing your own food – reduced costs, the ability to better control the healthiness, meals made entirely to your taste, etc – outweigh a lot of the costs of eating out. However, sometimes it’s just more convenient and fun to eat out. Funnily enough, once I reheat all of the components of my meals, it’s almost the same amount of time as if I had run down to McDonalds – so it saves me almost no time (if it’s a warm, reheatable meal) during my lunch “hour”
    to bring food rather than running down to the nearest fast food. Of course, it’s still healthier and cheaper for me to bring food.

    If anyone’s ever read the Tightwad Gazettes, Amy Dacyzcyn will calculate costs from all of the ingredients to the approximate cost of energy usage for however long they use their oven/stove/microwave. She was really dedicated to finding out, as close as she could, the true cost of making things from scratch.

  8. Ann says:

    When I was working 12-16 hour days, going out for lunch was a necessary stress break. When hours were under control, bringing lunch meant being able to spend a half hour carving… didn’t have to worry about socializing ’cause everyone stopped by to see what I was working on! LOL

    Now my main concern is when I travel. (Obviously, I tend to be driving.) I find it more economical and, equally important, healthy to pack a small cooler with hard boiled eggs, cheese, crunchy veggies and fruit. My water or iced tea is in a thermos. Much less expensive than restaurant eating and eating healthy things increases my alertness factor. The accoutrements were a one-time cost that has been recouped many times over and “refills” are a quick, inexpensive stop at a grocery store.

    Most of those inexpensive meals you see at fast food or even deli places are not the healthiest things you could be eating. Going out to lunch was (to me) sitting down for a meal, which was never less than $7 (rare) and more likely $12-20 (even more, if it was good sushi 🙂 ), so there’s definitely money to be saved!

    All that being said, sometimes getting out of the office is an absolute must, if you’re going to retain your sanity. 🙂

  9. michelle says:

    What about the gas and wear and tear spent on the car to go and get the food? A typical family has 2 adults and 2 kids. If both adults ate out at lunch with a conservative $5.00 spent on take out, that’s $10.00 a day…$50.00 per week just for the two adults. It is a huge cost savings to brown bag it for the adults as we are already buying lunch foods for the kids.

    Gas saved, wear and tear saved, calories saved, money saved!

  10. Hi David,
    I think you make an excellent point in your article. One restaurant that I don’t feel guilty about spending money at is Panda Express. Because they give such generous portions and because I don’t eat large meals, I’m able to stretch a $6-7 restaurant purchase into three meals. For me, that cost is comparable to what I’d spend on a grocery store meal–but it saves me time and tastes better. (I realize this is kind of sounding like a plug for Panda, but it’s really my genuine, unbiased opinion.) And by picking up food on the way home from running other errands, the extra time and gasoline factors are negligible. Thanks for another thoughtful article.

  11. rob62521 says:

    I would say your article is right in some areas…however, it think it depends on how much the cost of living is where you live and what you have to do to get to a restaurant.

    One has to eat, so there is a cost there, whether it is lunch or dinner. Brownbagging lunches is often more reasonable, even where I live where the cost of living is fairly reasonable. One must also factor in the cost of traveling if you have to get in your car to go to the restaurant. I work in a school and there are no places besides the cafeteria you can walk to…so driving would be a necessity. However, with only 30 minutes, one is hard pressed to go someplace, order, and get back in time.

    I would say that the insurance company is just trying to convince folks they are on our side. Yeah, right. I’m with you…lower the premiums!

  12. Pattie, RN says:

    Really depends on where you live and what you consider “lunch” to be. For me, buying a decent lunch is a minimum of a five dollar expedition for take-out, eight bucks for sit down. Now that I work in a remote location with a limited lunch time, I either bring in what is left of yesteday’s dinner or a frozen entree, being what is on sale. My household is now just DH and I, and entrees for two are not enough food, and for four is too much….but just enough for two dinners and a lunch. Your family size, appetite, and general mileage may vary!

  13. Stacy says:

    Definitely depends on the area in which you live–it’s hard to get a substantial lunch around my workplace for under $5.

    I also like to think about the health benefits of bringing my own lunch–whatever you bring will almost always be lower in calories than what you can buy premade.

  14. katie says:

    Lunch out easily costs $8-$10 a day. I can make and bring lunch for WAY less than that!

  15. Jeff says:

    The title of this article is a bit misleading and you’re not really hitting on any points like the type of food someone is consuming or the cost of living in various areas. I buy sandwich bags maybe twice a year in bulk, in addition to condiments, and rarely do I bring home used dishes that require so much water that my utility bills will be astronomical – these kind of expenses are mere throwaways. The real cost is the actual food. For example, I can spend $5.00 on a package of turkey at the grocery store and $2-3 bucks on a loaf of bread. Throw in $3.00 for cheese and $2.50 for a bottle of mustard or mayo. that will last half a year. By doing this, I can make a sandwich 6-8 sandwiches at a cost of $11-15. If I go to a deli to get a little higher of quality, I’d be paying about $4-5.00 minimum each sandwich. Do the math – it balances out and you’re free to spend the extra money on other things. From what it sounds like, you’re arguing more so that you would, in fact, save a few bucks by bringing in your own lunch but the convenience of not having to take the time to prepare it is more beneficial to you. That’s fine and dandy, but bringing in your lunch to save money is no myth.

  16. Brian says:

    I started making my kid’s lunches because the school fare was unhealthy and expensive and it very easily costs less for a week’s meals than it almost used to cost for a day. e.g. I buy 5lb(!) of pork loin for $10, cook it all at once and slice it into lunchmeat, bag it and freeze it. Chicken breast costs about the same (no anonymous salty junk lunchmeat for me….) Cost of meat per sandwich, about 20c. An entire loaf for $2-3 that covers hers and my lunches for a week, too. Add some veggies and fruit (whatever’s on sale that week), a boiled egg, there’s lots of choices, and it still comes in under a dollar for a healthy meal. Water is pretty much free if you don’t buy it in a store.
    The idea that adding a knife and a cutting board to your dishwasher (for those who can’t be bothered to wash it themselves) significantly increases the cost of a home-prepared lunch seems rather ludicrous, I have to say. Even the cost of cooking is minute compared to the cost of the gas you might use to drive to get some ‘fast’ food. (1 electric cooking element on your stove typically uses less than 1 Kw, or about 10c per hour to run at full heat. 1c for 6 minutes, in other words.) Get real.

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