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?