5 tips for saving money on weekday lunches

You might not have the time, skill, or inclination to pack a lunch as pretty as this one. But you should be packing your lunch, regardless! Photo and bento by Amorette Dye (Flickr/Creative Commons).
You might not have the time, skill, or inclination to pack a lunch as pretty as this one. But you should be packing your lunch, regardless! Photo and bento by Amorette Dye (Flickr/Creative Commons).

I have a confession to make. I broke my rule of not buying food on campus (an extension of the no campus coffee rule). On Friday I paid $3.99 for some bland turkey breast, tough brussels sprouts, and so-so sweet potato mash from an eatery run by the university. It tasted okay.

I didn’t even break the rule for a good reason. Sure, I had to eat my lunch during a meeting, and most of the time I pack pretty pungent lunches. But I certainly could have spent some time Thursday night making a non-smelly lunch for the next day.

I broke the rule because of a coupon. The normal price would have been $6.99, but I happened to have a coupon for $3 off.

Here’s the thing with coupons: they’re sneaky. If I had thought about it carefully, I would have realized that I wasn’t saving $3. I was spending $3.99. If I tallied up the cost of packing my own lunch, it would have come up to way less than $3.99, and I would have been able to control the portions, flavoring, and nutritional content.

Most lunch options on my campus cost around $7. Assuming that a term is 16 weeks, and that I buy lunch on campus Monday-Friday for the entire term, that is $35/week or $560/month on lunch. A generous estimate of what the average PhD student on my campus makes after tax is $1,800 a month. That is 31% of take-home pay going to weekday lunches!

And yet I see other graduate students buying lunch all the time. Some might buy coffee on campus, as well. They’re spending way more of their money on mediocre food than they should be. Often, they don’t even know how much money it is. It’s just an automatic decision. When I talk to them about bringing lunch, they all seem to be on board with the idea, but claim that they’re too busy to pack their lunch, or that they don’t know how to cook, et cetera, et cetera. The litany of excuses is never ending.

Just think about what you could do with an extra $500 or so a month. (I’m arbitrarily subtracting $60 to account for the cost of groceries that turn into packed lunches.) You could save it for retirement (Emily at EvolvingPF has a great overview of how and why to do this), pay down your student loans, or save it for a memorable trip. You could use it for a purpose that really matters to you.

With that said, here are some tips for saving money on lunch. Students, underpaid entry level workers, and everyone else, take note:

1. Pack something for lunch. Anything. I grew up on Chinese food, so I typically pack rice and/or quinoa with a vegetable and a protein. This will go in a microwaveable glass or plastic container. I’ll generally also pack some fruit, and sometimes I’ll even have a healthy-ish sugary drink. (Coconut water is about $1.85 a can from Amazon but $3.70 for a smaller can from the campus canteen. You do the math.) Most of this stuff is leftovers from weekend bulk cooking sessions (see below).

I don’t really like sandwiches or salads, but those are easy to make and easy to pack, and don’t tend to stink up the room if you need to eat in class or in a meeting. If you’re really pressed for time or really can’t cook, you could bring a frozen dinner or a can of soup. It’s still cheaper than eating out.

2. Pack other meals and snacks, too. I typically wake up before dawn and get to campus super early. I have breakfast after my morning workout, but I know I’ll be hungry again around 9 or 10am. That’s why I will often throw some oats, peanut butter, and something sweet (honey, apple butter, etc.) into a vacuum flask with hot water. By second breakfast time, it will all be cooked and ready to go.

If I’m going to be on campus late, I’ll pack some extra fruit, as well.

3. Keep healthy snacks in your desk drawer. Sometimes I forget to pack the extra fruit or oatmeal. Sometimes I’ll get random pangs of hunger at 3pm. Instead of going to the campus shop for chips and cookies, I dig into my drawer for a relatively unprocessed food bar, like a Larabar. I buy these in bulk from Amazon and stick them in my desk for when the urge arises.

Those of you who aren’t lucky enough to have your own desk or locker might consider keeping snacks in your backpack.

4. Cook in bulk and freeze it. About 90% of the time, I pack something made from scratch for lunch. That doesn’t mean that I make it from scratch the night before. I will usually spend some time on Sunday cooking up a few large dishes and portioning them out in glass containers. Some of those portions go straight into the freezer, and some of them are consumed within the week.

For example, last Sunday I went to the Korean supermarket and got some East Asian ingredients. I followed Maki Itoh’s recipe for Japanese seaweed stock (dashi), some of which was frozen and some of which was used for her simmered vegetable (nimono) recipe. I used the seaweed from the dashi for kombu no tsukudani. I put the nimono and tsukudani in packed lunches all week long. I also made Maangchi’s recipe for kimchi jjigae. I put half of that in the freezer and had the other half for dinner a few times in the week. All of these recipes were extremely simple.

This year I’m going to experiment with using the slow cooker more often. That way I can cook in bulk without spending too much time in front of the stove. Start it Sunday morning and there will be plenty to eat, pack, and freeze by dinnertime.

5. Pre-prepped foods can be your friend. Serious personal finance bloggers generally say that you should buy your food in the least processed state and then process it yourself. Dry beans are far cheaper per unit than canned beans. Kale on the stem is cheaper than de-stemmed, chopped, and washed kale in a bag. A whole chicken is cheaper than boneless skinless chicken breasts. I completely agree, but come on–most of us only have so much time in the day for soaking beans, de-stemming kale, and hacking up chickens.

Pre-prepped food is going to be more expensive. Sure. But if buying it makes cooking and packing your own lunch easier, then that’s a win in my book. It’s still going to be cheaper than buying your lunch on campus!

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