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A free lunch? No, but these tips can hold down lunchtime costs

By Gary Foreman
Published: November 01, 2012

The New Frugal You
New Frugal You columnist Gary Foreman
Gary Foreman is a former financial planner who currently edits The Dollar Stretcher website and newsletters. He writes "New Frugal You," a weekly Q&A column about frugal living, for CreditCards.com

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Question for the CreditCards.com expert Dear New Frugal You,
Our lunches at work are getting more and more expensive. Between us, my wife and I are spending close to $15 every day. And that's just lunch. Breaks can easily add another $5 to our joint tab. I'm sure that taking our lunches to work is the right answer. But we've tried and can't seem to make that work for us. Can you help? -- Sonny

Answer for the CreditCards.com expert Dear Sonny,
You're right to be concerned about lunchtime spending. For most families, what they spend on food and groceries can make or break their budget.

The reason is simple. First, it's a major expense, typically ranking third-highest behind housing and transportation. Figures from the Census Bureau's 2012 U.S. Statistical Abstract show that as of 2009, 13 percent of family expenditures were for food. A little over 40 percent of that was food prepared outside of the home, amounting to over $2,600 per family.

Second, as you've already pointed out, you make decisions about what food to buy just about every day -- so you have lots of opportunities to affect how much you're spending.

With that in mind, let's see if we can't help make "lunches from home" an easier task for you.

We'll begin by seeing what you have available and what you'll need to purchase. Be willing to invest in the containers you'll need to store and bring your lunch to work. Have enough containers so the lack of them won't foil your frugal efforts. It's money well spent. Trying to get by with old butter dishes and plastic grocery bags could doom you to failure. This is one case where spending for the proper tools will pay off.

If you don't have a kitchen with a refrigerator and microwave at your workplace or if you have a long commute, transporting and storing your lunch becomes even more important. You'll need a plastic cooler or insulated lunch box. They come in various styles and sizes. Pick the one that will work best for you.

Consider buying a wide-mouth thermos bottle or two. You'll find a variety of shapes and sizes available where you buy camping goods. They're not just for drinks and soups. They can be used to keep foods such as rice or meatballs hot for your lunch, or to keep potato salad or other sandwich spreads (such as shrimp or crab salads) cold.

Don't spend much on ice packs. Used plastic soda or water bottles make an excellent ice pack when filled with water and frozen. Keep a variety of sizes in your freezer. Use the one that best fits your lunchbox that day.

Water bottles can also be used to keep your lunch warm. Heat water on the stove top or in the microwave. Use a funnel to fill your bottle so you don't risk burning your hands. 

Having access to a microwave and refrigerator makes variety much easier. If your workplace doesn't have either, you might want to see if they'd be willing to buy them to help all employees reduce expenses.

Next, let's spend some time on your menu options. Sandwiches are easy to make and to bring to the workplace, but they can become boring. Try variations on the sandwich. Tortillas and wraps are still convenient, but provide some variety. They also allow for fillings that wouldn't work with bread or a bun and invite you to include different sauces and spices.

Beyond sandwiches, your best source for cheap food are your leftovers. The big secret to leftovers is to disguise them so you'll forget that today's lunch started as last night's dinner.

It begins with planning for leftovers. For instance, you're planning on a spaghetti dinner. It's easy to make extra sauce and meatballs. Using your thermos and a hoagie roll and you'll have the ingredients to make a meatball sub at your desk or workstation. 

How you save your leftovers will also make a difference. Consider packing them as individual meals or as individual servings of the remaining meat, potatoes and vegetable. The individual servings allow you to choose what combination you want to take for lunch.

Check the Web for lunchtime ideas. You're sure to find some that will work for your diet and taste buds.

Don't forget to think beyond the normal solutions. Consider forming a lunch club. Three to six people are best, but even two will work. Take turns bringing in lunch for the entire group. Or take a potluck approach where each person brings something to share with the group.

Finally, admit that occasionally you'll want to go out or you won't be prepared to bring your lunch. Plan for those occasions. Save coupons for local restaurants.

Sonny, the good news is that you don't need any special training to make this plan work -- just the desire that you already have. Soon you'll be deciding what to do with the money that you've been saving with your new frugal lunch plan!

See related: Tips for holding down costs of pet food, vet care

For more than 35 years, Gary Foreman has worked to help people get the most for their money. Prior to founding The Dollar Stretcher.com, he was a financial planner and purchasing manager. Gary began The Dollar Stretcher website and newsletters in April 1996. Today the website features more than 6,000 articles on different ways to live better for less. Gary has been interviewed by The Wall Street Journal, The Nightly Business Report, USA Today, Reader's Digest and other newspapers and magazines. Gary answers a question about a budgeting or saving issue from a CreditCards.com reader each week. Send your question to The New Frugal You.