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My Struggle: Spending on Food is Really About Motivation

This article was written by in Debt Reduction. 27 comments.

Donna Freedman’s MoneyCentral article reminds me of an issue with which I consistently fail each time I’ve made the attempt over the last few years. In the article, the author provides some success stories for those who have saved money by “brown-bagging” their lunch rather than buying each day.

Here is one example:

“I never really noticed how much money I was putting down the drain,” said Lizz Johnston, a secretary from Texas who kept bread, peanut butter, soft drinks and other basics at work. She saved about $200 in restaurant meals, plus the cost of the gas she would have used to drive 10 miles each way to the nearest lunch joint. She’ll throw the savings against credit card debt.

I have to face the truth: I don’t like spending time preparing my food. The supposed motivation of saving about $5 a day, or $100 a month, is apparently not enough to get me to better plan my shopping excursions and spend some time Sunday nights preparing my lunches for the week. Perhaps I am just lazy, but whatever the reason, I struggle.

At the end of last year, I set a goal to keep my groceries and dining out down to $200 a month combined, and packing my lunch would be a big part of this adjustment. If I were to accompish this goal, I’d be saving up to $200 a month, which would be a nice portion of my coming rent increase.

Rather than packing my lunch, I go out to eat every day with several of my coworkers. While this option is usually less than our company’s cafeteria, it’s definitely more expensive than what I could be doing myself. In addition, while I really enjoy my coworkers, it’s not like spending my time with them will enhance my advancement opportunities here.

Part of me wants to accept failure and go on with my current spending pattern. I believe being responsible amout money includes accepting your limitations. On the other hand, I don’t want this to be a limitation. It should be easy! Anyone should be able to prepare their lunch ahead of time, theoretically.

$200 a month is $2,400 a year, and that is some significant dough that will go a long way in paying for more necessary expenses or saving for the future.

If I want to do this, I need to break it down. If I pack my lunch one day a week, without making any other changes, I might be able to save $20 a month. At that amount, it doesn’t even seem like it’s worth the effort.

At this point, I don’t plan on buying groceries again until I’ve moved into my new apartment, so I won’t be making my lunch for at least another few weeks. For when I do, I found one good tip in the article that might make the difference for me. The article suggests buying prepackaged salads and pre-cut fruits and vegetables. They’re more expensive but less time consuming than buying salad ingredients and making the salad yourself, for example.

At the root of the issue is motivation. Self-motivation for me is very difficult because I am always operating on at least the two levels, the motivator and the motivatee. My brain seems to think such a psychological structure is ridiculous and therefore ignores my own attempts at motivation. Anyone have any tips?

Updated September 30, 2007 and originally published June 13, 2007.

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About the author

Luke Landes is the founder of Consumerism Commentary. He has been blogging and writing for the internet since 1995 and has been building online communities since 1991. Find out more about Luke Landes and follow him on Twitter. View all articles by .

{ 27 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar 1 Anonymous

You can’t save money by forcing yourself to do something you don’t like to do. Save money in a way that makes you feel good about doing it. Someone else’s checklist may not be right for you — like spending time in the kitchen. (Though I will say that a lifetime of eating leftovers has saved me a lot of money!)

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avatar 2 Anonymous

I am right there with you. I eat out for lunch and dinner all the time. I have access to a really tasty cafeteria at work and it’s easy to run downstairs and pay for food by the pound. (Goal is always to eat for $5.)

Slowly I am changing that by doing these things:

1) Keeping peanut butter and bread at my desk. I also have access to a fridge and keep jelly and sodas cold. This cuts down on breakfast costs.

2) I keep French press ground coffee at my desk and a tall mug. I got sick of the crappy free coffee at work. One pound of coffee costs $8+ at Starbucks, but it’s been a month or more and I still haven’t finished the first bag. (I don’t drink it every day.) What I do is dump in the grinds, pour the hot water in, stir and let the grinds settle before I drink it. Dump and rinse when I’m done.

3) Try bringing in a few things and supplementing it with something small from the cafeteria. For instance, I brought in a whole container of salad mix with dressing in a bottle and some bread slices. Then I would buy some tuna/macaroni salad from the cafeteria for protein. So instead of paying $6 or 7 for everything in the cafeteria, I pay only $3.

4) Keep snacks at your desk. Sometimes I eat a granola bar for breakfast instead of a yummy egg and cheese sandwich from the cafeteria. That also keeps me from getting a juice or Snapple extra since it’s so easy to add that on.

So far it really hasn’t made a huge difference month over month in what I spend because of the grocery bill and the fact that I only really started this in April or May, but I figure eventually it will.

Honestly, I don’t have a choice in the matter either. My offices are going to move later this year and the cheap and tasty cafeteria will be too far away to tempt me. The new location only has expensive restaurants so I’m trying to pack my lunch now so I get used to doing it.

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avatar 3 Anonymous

I used to pick up Banquet frozen dinners for $1 a piece. It was easy enough to pick up a stack of them on a weekly shopping trip. You’ll need a microwave at work, but most places have one. I think they taste good, but others might not agree. I don’t think they are that healthy, but I’m not convinced the restaurant food is that healthy either.

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avatar 4 Anonymous

I’m there with you…I really need to escape the office and get food each day. And I agree with Andy- you need to find ways to cut that work for you- it’s best to save in areas that matter least to you.
A couple of tricks I’ve picked up to keep the costs down: buy a water bottle and fill it up before you head out for lunch- it’s healthier and saves you about 2 bucks each day. That and look for smaller mom and pop places that aren’t as expensive- a couple slices of pizza fills me up and only costs $4 if I bring my water.
I also try to limit myself to 1 splurge meal a week with my co-workers. Also dividing most meals in half and saving some for dinner/ lunch the next day stretches it out, especially since most places give huge portions.

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avatar 5 Anonymous

Most of my issues with food are socialy related. If I’m by myself I’ll make something simple – no big deal. However I have coworkers at lunch to eat with, and then usually my time with friends is centered around some type of meal. In the fall, I’m actually going to try start a roving dinner with a different person takes turn cooking for a few friends to cut into this…

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avatar 6 Anonymous

If it really is just a time thing (as opposed to you really like socializing with your friends/you like getting out of the building/you don’t want anyone to pester you about saving money/you hate the taste of brought-lunches/etc.) then it’s simply a matter of figuring out how to prepare 5 lunches in the least amount of time possible.

In addition to the great suggestions above, I highly recommend leftovers from the night before as the easiest, least-time-consuming method. Or bring sandwich fixings for the week to work and assemble your sandwich at your desk. Or organize your friends and do lunch potlucks – everyone brings a dish to share (just keep paper goods from Costco in one of your offices). You might also look into whether hitting the supermarket deli counter or salad bar on the way to work might be cheaper than where you currently buy your lunch. Finally, there’s the “cook once, eat several meals” approach – make a large batch of pasta salad, soup, casserole, etc. and then take it for lunch for the week. Good luck!

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avatar 7 Anonymous

Enjoy life and the company of your co-workers! I know that this may sound like it’s not in the spirit of ‘good savings’, but if you bring in a fruit and some yogurt, carrot sticks or low-fat cottage cheese for snack or fill-in every day from home, go out with your co-workers 2-3 days a week but eat only HALF of whatever you order, bring back the other half of your lunch to put in the fridge at work for next day’s lunch, you will be eating more healthy, lose some weight (we all need to do that!) enjoy your friends and I bet it will not cost any more than if you prepared sandwiches, bought convenience foods or other lunches from home every single day. Oh and drink A LOT of water every day (64 ounces is not totally out of line)

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avatar 8 Anonymous

“Part of me wants to accept failure and go on with my current spending pattern.” …Don’t give up Flexo. We will give you all the motivation your require.

Before the motivation, here are things I do
– On busy days, I just carry an apple (or two). Get a bag of a couple of dozen red delicious – they are not that expensive and there is nothing to cook – just wash it and enjoy.
– Sometimes I eat a hearty breakfast and just skip lunch. Skipping a lunch is not really a disaster. It feels really good by the time it’s dinner-time.

Anways, I don’t think that’s your problem. Your problem is saying “NO” to your co-workers when they pop the lunch question, isn’t it? :)

Now, the motivational part; may be we should threaten to stop reading your blog if you keep eating your lunch outside. ;) j/k

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avatar 9 Anonymous

I have the same problem lately. Though that quote from the lady in Texas made me think that part of the reason I buy lunch is that it is so easy to just walk across the street to any of several local delis– if I had to drive 10 miles to buy lunch, I think I’d be more inclined to bring it… or just not eat!
But if you’re in the habit of eating with a group of co-workers, I’d second the suggestion made by another commenter that you try arranging a regular potluck. Some people in my office do that, and it can be stuff that could be cooked the night before, so you don’t have to prepare it in the morning when you’re in a rush.
Fruit, nuts, and peanut butter kept in the office can also help a lot.

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avatar 10 Anonymous

I know how that goes, my wife and I tried to cut back on eating lunch out and it is hard. Between the two of us we found out that we were spending between $250-$300 a month just on lunch alone. Factor in gas and you can tack on another $50-$100. We attempted to try and simply cut that in half by packing the occasional bag of leftovers.

It worked for a while but like you, finding time to pack the lunch is my downfall. Rushing around in the morning, forgetting to do it the night before, and before you know it you’re back on the regular habits.

In my case it isn’t even a social issue, I don’t have any co-workers, but the building I work in does have a cafeteria so the good news is I can generally keep my lunches to around 5 bucks while still getting out of my office.

My wife on the other hand, she works in a VERY rural location that would require you to drive over five miles just to find a mcdonalds and that is the closest place to eat. Generally she will have to head out to the next town which is about 15 miles away.

While there is a bit of money being left on the table that could be saved it really comes down being lazy/busy.

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avatar 11 Anonymous

I second the frozen dinner option, if you have a freezer and microwave available. Go pick several and try them out. I like the Lean Cuisine and Smart Ones. My hubby likes the Stouffers and Hungry Man ones. They’re $2-3 each, and you almost can’t pack a lunch for less than that, unless you do leftovers or PB&J. Plus, it’s easy to just grab one and go in the mornings. I throw in a piece of fruit or a granola bar for my snacks and drink water during the day.

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avatar 12 Anonymous

I prefer to pack leftovers for lunch. They are already made, you know what’s in it and how healthy it is, and they taste great. Other times Iwill pack cold cuts or a frozen meal. (I love Marie Callender’s pot pies!)

I also enjoy the social aspect of eating out with friends and coworkers, so I do that a couple times a week. This is also a great way to network, so indirectly and long term, eating out can be good for the bottom line.

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avatar 13 Anonymous

Instead of sandwiches, just cook for 2-3 days in advance. Cooking takes me about an hour. I do this a couple of times a week (maybe eat out with friends on the weekend), and the total time spent on cooking in a week is insignificant and is far shorter than it would take to go get lunch somewhere.

It’s important to stick to simple and healthy recipes. People try get motivated by cooking gourmet and get bogged down. At a certain point, you will become efficient in buying your groceries and preparing them. Then packing your lunch would no longer be a struggle.

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avatar 14 Anonymous

I’m right there with you on this issue. My husband and I work together, along with a friend of ours, and it’s so nice to take a break in the middle of the day to go get food. We don’t have a break room, and if we bring lunch in, we’re expected to eat at our desk while working. So going out is a really nice break for us to talk a little at noon. So the motivation to make two lunches and miss that little sliver of time is just not there.

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avatar 15 Anonymous

Oh. Another thing, about socializing with co-workers… My current boss regularly says we should duck into a conference room to eat our lunch as a team, whether we’ve bought it at the cafeteria or packed it from home. We still get our social time away from our cubicles, but without the extra expense.

Maybe that’s a way to get social time in without dining out?

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avatar 16 Anonymous

Is there a place to sit and each lunch with coworkers if you bring food with you? My workplace has a lunch room (not a cafeteria) so people can bring lunch or go buy takeout, and we wind up eating together. I used to bring my lunch every day because a) I’m cheap and b) it’s better for me can c) I had more time to sit and be social if I wasn’t standing in line waiting for mediocre take-out.

Now I’ve joined a lunch pool at work: four of us bring lunch for each other one day per week. My day is Wednesday, so home made lunch is provided for me Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, in exchange for my providing lunch for four on Wednesday. It’s saves time and money, is a lot of fun, and helps me push my cooking boundaries.

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avatar 17 Anonymous

I’m not a big fan of cooking either. When I was working I used to go to lunch with a few of my co-workers just about every day. Since we were going to Whole Foods and I would eat a lot of salads and such, I totally justified it. Now that I’m in grad school, I just can’t do the eat out thing. For starters we don’t have a very good food selection, but also I can’t afford it.

Here’s something you could think about trying: since you know how much extra you’re spending on food, put that money in a savings account at the beginning of the month. If you go over your budget, then you have to pull money from your savings account. It might make you realize that if you spend this now you’re not saving it for later. I did this with some of my areas of weakness and it worked really well.

Also you might want to consider why it is that you don’t pack a lunch, beside the co-worker thing. I found that I don’t like the way some food tastes after being reheated, and I also don’t like to eat cold food. Now I strategically plan what works well for reheating and I try and bring that in for lunch.

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avatar 18 Anonymous

Hey, Flexo–I’ve spent the past couple of weeks bringing breakfast and lunch to work every day, and it’s been really fun.

I just did a wrap-up of the experiment here–it was a big success, and I had a lot of fun. Today I brought to work the following:
A yogurt parfait (frozen raspberries, yogurt, granola) for breakfast.
A container of chicken-edamame pasta salad (made on Monday in a big batch) for lunch.
A ham-and-muenster cheese wrap with baby spinach and avocado for dinner (I’m out late tonight).
A cup of applesauce and a string cheese for a snack.

It took me about fifteen minutes this morning to prepare everything (plus the hour or so I spent on Monday making the pasta salad), and my total costs for a day’s worth of food are around $8.30. When I buy lunch, I usually spend $10-$12 just for that one meal alone. For me, it’s worth it–I’ve actually found the past couple of weeks really, really fun. But you’re certainly right about one thing: it’s definitely a matter of motivation.

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avatar 19 Anonymous

Doesn’t have to be all or nothing. I bring lunch 4 days a week and eat at my desk. But on Thursdays, I make a point of going out to the mall with a co-worker for a build-your-own salad lunch. Costs $8 with a small soda. I look forward all week to my Thursday outings. In fact, I appreciate them so much more than when I bought lunch out 5 days a week. Extra bonus? Because I eat the brown bag lunch at my desk in about 15 minutes, I get to leave 1/2 hour early on those days. That’s all the motivation I need! (Oh, and yes, by brown-bagging it four times a week, I figure I save about $20 – $25 a week — pretty substantial money)

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avatar 20 Anonymous

4 cases of food poisoning from 4 different places stopped me from frequent dining at restaurants.

I’ve started to get a bit fancy with my cooking, and I’ve been using alot of fancy ingredients than I used to 2-3 years ago. This has actually made me lookdown on most restaurant food because I make much better meals (and I don’t get food poisoning!). This has been gradual. 6 years ago, I thought bottled spaghetti and boxed pasta was a good meal.

Also I have watched food service workers (and worked in the food service industry) and I don’t like the way they treat food, keeping that image in my head alot has helped me avoid restaurants more than I used to in the past when I was making way less money!

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avatar 21 Anonymous

I sometimes don’t feel like making myself a sandwich in the mornings, so I throw a bowl and a pack of ramen in my lunch bag. This kind of thing is great if you have access to a microwave at work. And you really can’t get much cheaper than ramen (of course, it’s not exactly health food…microwavable soups are a nice alternative).

Also, if you have access to a fridge at work, bring in sandwich fixings at the beginning of the week and make your lunch at lunchtime. I find myself more likely to use up this stuff, as I know that if I don’t it will spoil by the end of the week. So, not only would I be wasting money by going out to lunch, I’d be wasting money by letting food spoil…doubling the self-punishment. Also, another thing I’ve been doing that has really been helpful is to buy a bunch of fruit to take to work. It’s so easy to grab an apple and a banana and take them to work with me…not to mention part of a balanced diet ;)

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avatar 22 Anonymous

Maybe you can make lunch more than about food. Maybe take your favorite book to lunch with you and remember that food is just about filling yourself up and having enough energy to do work and have fun. (Or maybe you can put in a treat like a candy bar everyday.)

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avatar 23 Anonymous

I used to be just like you – organising to take my lunch just never happened. What DID change, was moving in with my (now)husband. I started cooking dinner more, and there was always leftovers. I would take my leftovers to work and eat in the cafeteria with my co-workers – they were always jealous!
Have you noticed how most recipes make enough dinner for 4? We cook the lot, and freeze the leftovers into lunch-size containers.
Now, preparing lunch means opening the freezer. And I have my choice of curries, soups, maybe a protein-heavy stirfry…
Much more appetizing than the cafeteria, or the closest greasy burger joint.

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avatar 24 Luke Landes

kazari: My leftovers when I “cook” are generally used for the following night’s dinner rather than lunch. Perhaps the solution is to marry someone who cooks. :-)

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avatar 25 Anonymous

This is one area I’ve improved in my life recently, and I’m seeing nothing but good effects from it. These effects are three-fold:

My method is, while cooking breakfast I make my snacks and lunch for the day at work, potentially dinner too.We built this page to monitor and share the day to I train like a bodybuilder (I merely don’t compete) so my diet is very regimented. I bought a 15 liter cooler from a store and I put my food and different supplements in this cooler. I can pack enough food in this thing to last me almost all weekend if I need to. This has a lot of benefit when I travel for work as I can still eat healthy on the road.

The benefits of this are:
1) Health: A trick to eating healthy and not splurging on junk food is preparation. If you have a cooler sitting next to you at work with sandwiches some peanut butter, tuna fish, chicken breasts, an apple, some healthy chips etc, you’re much less likely to opt for the burger and fries route.
2) Cost: Obviously this route is far more cost effective than eating out every day. I spent about $66 at the store and I’ll be able to make it for about 12 days on that food (I eat alot, but very simply).
3) Motivation: This method increases my motivation every time I do it right. When my friends are going to fast-food joints and spending alot on bigger meals, it makes me feel better about being disciplined and having the ability to stay healthy and save money in areas that are frivolous (I find this area to be one.) When people ask me how I stay both strong and lean, I simply point to my cooler.

For this area of maintain discipline, all in all, preparation is the key I’ve found.

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avatar 26 Anonymous

The NY Times had a great article about 101 meals in less than 10 minutes. They were all pretty simple ideas and maybe something you can try?

My dad struggles with packing lunch vs eating eat. It’s a guy thing for him sometimes – he doesn’t want to seem cheap or frugal among other guys at work. So he eats out once or twice a week for lunch, the rest of the week he’ll eat the company’s catered lunch and leftovers from those.

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avatar 27 Anonymous

If you’re looking for the *social* aspect of having lunch with coworkers, why not try to talk a few people into taking a walk at lunch. If you bring lunch & eat at your desk, then you can take a half-hour walk. You get time away from the office, time to socialize with coworkers, save money & get some exercise.

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