Editorial Policy

How much is lunch costing you?

Kristin McGrath

September 27, 2013

As I’ve tried to cut my living expenses in various ways over the years, there remains one stubborn habit that’s hard to kick — going out to eat for lunch.

At my worst, I was buying lunch every day (my workplace had a cafeteria) to the tune of about $7 per day. Now, I buy lunch one or two times per week and have gotten in the habit of cooking most of my meals.

Turns out, my habits put me on par with the average American, who eats out about twice per week, according to a September 2013 survey from Visa. The survey has a lot of interesting tidbits about how much Americans’ lunch habits cost:

  • Those who make less spend more on lunch. Survey respondents making less than $25,000 per year spent more for each meal ($11.70) on average than those earning more than $50,000. Those higher earners spent 22 percent less ($9.60 per meal). This aligns with my experience — I regularly ate at a $10 lunch buffet when I was an intern, which now makes me cringe.
  • Southerners spend the most on lunch ($20 per week), while Midwesterners spend the least ($15.13 per week). Having lived in both regions, the reason is clear to me: We just have really good food down here. Northeasterners, meanwhile, go out to lunch the least often, but spend more per meal when they do (an average of $11.40).
  • Men outspend women when it comes to lunch. While women spend an average of $15 per week, men spend an average of $21.

That all adds up to $936 per year for lunch for the average American.  My average spending on lunches ($16 per week, according to my expense tracking apps) puts me at $832 per year. If I were to replace one of those lunches with a brown-bag lunch costing $3, I’d spend $260 less per year.

Granted, there’s the convenience factor: While I’ve found it easy and fun to cook dinners at home by incorporating music and wine, packing a lunch for the next day is just too much to handle on my busiest evenings. Still, looking at the numbers, it’s hard to justify paying an extra $260 a year because I’m too lazy to pack a sandwich and a banana.

If you’re in the same position, perhaps these tips from the personal finance blogosphere will inspire you to save your lunch money.

I Will Teach you to be Rich acknowledges how challenging it is to make a habit out of packing a lunch every day — and has some tips for overcoming the psychological barriers.

Free in 10 Years shares some advice for those who want to pack a lunch — but who don’t have microwaves or refrigerators at work.

Cheap Healthy Good offers some inspiration for sprucing up the boring brown-bag lunch.

When Life Hands You Lemons, Add Vodka points out that bringing a lunch to work will actually save you some time, in addition to money.

The Simple Dollar proposes a fix for those who don’t have time to pack a lunch — cook extra for dinner and brown-bag your leftovers.

Money Relationship recommends storing lunchtime staples (lunch meats, condiments) in the break room refrigerator for those times you forget to pack a lunch.

How often do you buy lunch? Has it saved you money? And how do you prevent packed lunches from getting boring? Tell us in the comments.