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:

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Books don’t spark joy? Throw them out

Photo: Emma Story (Flickr/Creative Commons).
Photo: Emma Story (Flickr/Creative Commons).

I’m a recent convert to Marie Kondo’s KonMari method of decluttering. Her main idea is that if an item does not “spark joy,” it really has no purpose in your life and ought to be discarded. I started using this method with my clothes, and now I’ve moved on to books.

Over the course of my time in graduate school, I’ve accumulated a lot of books. Books that I needed for class. Books that I thought I good academic in my field should have. Books that people told me I should keep for reference. I spent a lot of money on these books and started building myself a tiny library of these obscure tomes.

The problem was that I never opened any of those books after the first read. Actually, never mind–there were some books on my shelf that I never actually opened at all. Obviously, none of these books sparked joy.

One evening a few weeks ago, I went over to my bookcase and went through the collection. If I saw a concrete need to use it again, it stayed on the shelf. Everything else came down. A pile of books started growing on the floor. I typed out the titles of the books that were on the floor and posted them on Facebook. “Academic books. No longer sparking joy. $5 each.”

Most of the books were snapped up pretty quickly. The $5 asking price did not hurt. Since they were mostly obscure books of dense academic drudgery, they all went to other graduate students that I knew. I could have sold them for market price if I had put them up online, but I figured that I did not want to go through the hassle, especially for books that have such a limited market.

Besides, my goal was not to make tons of money here, though the money I got back did help me pay for other things that I did need. These books were no longer serving me, so I wanted to circulate them to people who could potentially use them. More likely, though, these books will just sit on someone else’s shelf, still not sparking joy.

A life with fewer physical things is also a more frugal life. Instead of buying things by default, I’m starting to think about whether I actually need these things and whether I can get the same thing for less money. For example, I’ve decided that I am no longer going to buy books, unless I can convince myself that I have a real need for a permanent copy of it. Most books can be borrowed for free through a library. Other books might be available in a digital format like Kindle (though getting Kindle books would still cost money).

Have you tried the KonMari method? What things have you thrown out, and how have you learned to live without them?

How to stop spending money on mediocre campus coffee

One more crappy student union latte now is one fewer flat white in Melbourne later. Photo by YJ.
One more crappy student union latte now is one fewer flat white in Melbourne later. Photo by YJ.

Like lots of other graduate students, I drink several cups of coffee or tea every day. Unlike a lot of graduate students, though, I’m almost never in line at the campus coffee shop. Why? Because the campus coffee sucks, and spending money on it adds up super quickly. With a little planning, I can spend far less money and get far higher quality coffee and tea.

Let’s say you spend $2 on a small coffee every weekday from the campus cafe, and that you’re on a campus with a 16 week semester. That adds up to $10 a week, $160 a semester, or $320 an academic year, all on mediocre coffee!

What else could you do with $320 a year? That money could go towards any number of higher priority goals. You could stick it in your emergency fund, save it for retirement, or spend it on something you really enjoy, like traveling or supporting your favorite charity. Heck, if you really love coffee, that $320 could go to multiple high quality espresso drinks at your local cafe, or a few bags of kopi luwak.

Instead of mindlessly spending $2 (or more) a day on coffee from the coffee shop, why not figure out how to save that money for a higher priority?

Here are some ways you could still get your daily caffeine fix without spending money at the cafe:

  • Bring it with you. For the first few years of grad school, I would make two cups of coffee in the morning: one for drinking at home before heading to campus, and one for packing in a vacuum bottle for drinking later. This was super easy when I used an automatic electric coffeemaker and pre-ground coffee. When I switched over to using an Aeropress and a manual coffee grinder, it got a little bit more complex, but it was still manageable in the morning. Nowadays, I put brew tea (in bags) in my vacuum bottle, which takes almost no effort at all.
  • Make it on the spot. If you have an office space, see if you can plug in an electric coffeemaker. Your colleagues will love you. The hardcore connoisseurs among you could use a plug-in kettle and your manual brewing method of choice. If you’re not so hardcore, maybe instant coffee (in jars or single serving packets) is the way to go. The great thing about bringing coffee with you or making it on the spot is that you can control the quality of the coffee, if that’s important to you. Even if you buy the most expensive beans from your local hipster roaster, chances are it is still going to be cheaper per cup than the mysterious industrial swill from the campus dining hall.
  • Keep it on hand. A few months ago, I brought back some Fererro Pocket Coffee from Italy and kept it in my desk for those times when I had forgotten to bring caffeine for the mid-morning slump. That stash, unfortunately, is long gone. These days, I keep small cans of green tea (bought in bulk from Amazon) in my desk. They’re instantly gratifying, and still far cheaper per serving than going to the cafe.
  • Buy it, but less often. I can’t stick to my own rules all the time. Sometimes, near the end of the term, there are genuine coffee emergencies. (You caffeine addicts out there know what I’m talking about.) It’s at those points that you’ll see me saunter over to the cafe like a zombie for a fair trade espresso. Even though I’m spending money on not-so-great coffee, I don’t feel so bad about it, because it’s an emergency and because I’m not doing this every day of the year.
  • Cut down on your consumption. Maybe it’s time to think about cutting down your caffeine consumption. Not only is it expensive, but it could also be causing physiological or psychological effects that aren’t so great. For various reasons, I’m now down to one coffee in the early morning and one tea for the mid-morning slump. I don’t know if it’s brought any health benefits, but I’m certainly buying coffee beans at the grocery store far less often!

Coffee is a small expense. But when you’re a graduate student making less than $25,000 a year (or going in debt for your degree), that’s an outsize percentage of your income. Think carefully about how you could use that money instead. Since I’m motivated by travel, I like to think that every insipid cup of mud that I buy in the student union is one less Turkish coffee I can sip along the Bosphorus, one less fika in a Stockholm konditori, one less ca phe sua da on the streets of Saigon. Do I want to spend that money now, or do I want to get better value from it later?