Saving Pennies or Dollars? Brown-Bagging Lunch

saving pennies or dollarsSaving Pennies or Dollars is a new semi-regular series on The Simple Dollar, inspired by a great discussion on The Simple Dollar’s Facebook page concerning frugal tactics that might not really save that much money. I’m going to take some of the scenarios described by the readers there and try to break down the numbers to see if the savings is really worth the time invested.

Diane said, “While I’m on board with the idea that bringing your own lunch, rather than buying, I think the savings are less than a lot of financial articles purport, and the time involved in prepping the lunch, cleaning the kitchen, packing the bag, rinsing and throwing the tupperware in the dishwasher, etc., is more than the extra 5-10 mins some articles throw out as the amount of extra time. I think those who tout the savings tend to overestimate how much was spent on eating lunch out and underestimate the cost of making your own.”

I would separate the idea of brown-bagging into two separate groups.

Brown-Bagging Leftovers
In my eyes, this is the way to make brown-bagging into a winning proposition. You simply take the meal you had for dinner the night before, perhaps repackaging it a bit by turning something into a sandwich or the like, and take it to work the next day.

Often, Sarah and I will do this while putting away the evening meal. We’ll simply prep our lunch for the following day as part of the process, putting the meal into the refrigerator so it can easily be grabbed the next morning.

Because we’re using leftovers, the cost is usually really low. Because of the size of our family and the variable eating habits of our children, we usually tend to prepare plenty, thus ensuring that we have an adequate amount left over for brown bagging, often enough for both of us to make a meal.

Brown-Bagging from Scratch
Diane, however, seems to be mostly focused on the idea of brown-bagging from scratch without using leftovers.

The variables here are very difficult to calculate.

For example, time can vary widely. If you’re preparing a simple sandwich, a baggie of vegetables, a baggie of fruit, and a drink for your sack lunch, you can easily prepare it in ten minutes. If you prepare stuffed mushrooms, a side salad, a from-scratch wrap, and some fresh cookies for dessert, you’re going to be working for hours.

Also, cost can vary widely. Comparing the two meals above, the first meal can be made with a dollar or two in ingredients. The second meal requires quite a bit more to prepare.

On the flip side, the time and cost of the meals you’re comparing them to can vary widely. Are you comparing a lunch eaten out at an elegant (and expensive) restaurant in town? Or are you comparing a double cheeseburger and a small drink snagged at McDonalds for $2?

One tactic that one of my friends uses is to pre-pack many of her lunches for the week. She makes her first three or four lunches for the week at home on Sunday and puts some effort into them, coming up with meals that often have overlapping basic ingredients but are good enough to go beyond what you might call “simple fare” for lunch. Because of this, she’s able to reduce the time invested per meal significantly but still have meals that meet her lunch standards.

To put it simply, the idea that you can save money and time by preparing your lunch at home relies heavily on what your expectations for lunch are. If you are pleased with simple fare, you’ll probably find yourself getting more value and nutrition and convenience out of making your own meal. If you expect a gourmet meal, you’re probably better off going out for lunch.

Let’s make it simple. If you’re happy with leftovers or with a very simple lunch, brown-bagging it to work will probably save you dollars. It can also save you time, depending on specifics. A fast food value meal might compete on price, but at most workplaces it requires you to leave for a while. A sack lunch is much more convenient and flexible to your time needs during your work day.

On the other hand, if you expect a unique and carefully-prepared lunch, you’re probably better off eating out. The time investment in creating such a meal can be rather high, as can the financial investment. Obviously, eating out in this way can really be expensive and it can be a big time sink as well, but when eating with coworkers, some of that can be mitigated through workplace discussions and planning over lunch.

In short, it really comes down to what you expect from your lunch. The simpler you expect it to be, the more you can save by simply bringing your own.

Trent Hamm
Trent Hamm
Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.

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