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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Making the most of your travels—lessons from Fresh Off the Boat


In a recent episode of the ABC sitcom Fresh Off the Boat, the Huang family goes on vacation. Most of the jokes in this episode come from Jessica (the mom) and Louis (the dad) and their wildly different ideas about what it means to go on vacation. Surprisingly, there are a lot of personal finance and travel lessons to learn from the Huangs’ wacky trip to Gator World.

First things first: take time off.
The episode begins with Louis packing for what is ostensibly a “business trip.” Jessica notices that he packed his swimsuit (an odd item for a business trip, in her mind) and confronts him about it. She thinks that vacations are a waste of time and money for a large family with a restaurant to run. To ensure that he has nothing to hide, she tells the rest of the family that they’re all going to tag along on this business trip.

When they make it to the theme park resort where Louis was to have his “meetings,” Louis reveals that this was indeed a boys’ weekend away. Jessica is satisfied that she blew his cover, but now has trouble getting herself in the vacation mindset that she’s dismissed all along:

“I don’t know how to relax. It seems like a waste of time. I could be marinating meat or driving.”

Louis makes her get a massage, which changes her mind entirely. She finally comes to understand the importance of taking time off and letting go.

Lesson: Self-care is important. No matter what kind of work you’re doing, you can’t be at the top of your game if you don’t take some time to take care of your physical, emotional, and social needs. If traveling is something that meets those needs for you, that’s great! Start saving for travel so that you can afford to reward yourself with a trip to somewhere you want to go.

However, travel is also a big investment and one that doesn’t happen all that frequently. Smaller, more frequent investments in self-care (taking the weekend off to spend with friends and family, perhaps, or having a spa day at home for yourself) are just as important.

Continue reading “Making the most of your travels—lessons from Fresh Off the Boat

Introducing the Itinerant Egghead

Century duck eggs (皮蛋) at the Queen Victoria Market, Melbourne.
Century duck eggs (皮蛋) at the Queen Victoria Market, Melbourne. Photo by YJ.

Hello, thrifty world travelers! I’m YJ and I’m an itinerant egghead: itinerant because I have an insatiable passion for travel, egghead because I’m a doctoral student trying to make a dent in the bubble of knowledge.

The Itinerant Egghead is a blog about how I make travel a big part of my life without breaking the bank. Wandering the globe is important to me, but so are career building, staying out of debt, and saving for other life goals.

Figuring out how to do all of that with limited time and resources is a matter of managing priorities. I’ll be sharing tips and strategies for making ends meet on a tight graduate student stipend/salary, as well as stories and pictures from my adventures across the US and around the world.

My general philosophy about travel and personal finance is that it’s all about your priorities and the best value option, given those priorities. I choose to spend more on certain parts of my life (e.g. travel) and less on others (e.g. transportation around the city when I’m at home). When I travel, I make similar priority judgments: high quality local cuisine and a well-located place to sleep are high priorities, while souvenir shopping and going to typical tourist attractions are lower priorities.

I’m all about making occasional travel a sustainable lifestyle choice that fits with your life circumstances today. Not everyone can afford to or wants to be a perpetual nomad, hopping from country to country and hostel to hostel. Likewise, not everyone can afford to or wants to live the luxury travel life, sipping champagne and showering in first class. For me, right now, the ideal is somewhere in the middle.

Some topics I plan to cover soon include:

  • General personal finance
    • How to manage your priorities and start saving
    • How to save money and drink better coffee
  • Travel
    • How to use the money you save on coffee to fly to Asia in business class
    • How to find good value in hotels, hostels, sharing economy room rentals, and couchsurfing
  • Grad student finances
    • How to find (and fund!) travel opportunities as a student
    • How to deal with insufficient summer funding

If you have some more suggestions, please let me know in the comments!