Easy ways to cut the cost of your lunch hour

Update: Even though it’s four years since I first wrote about this, I’m still very aware of it today. The streak has ended (can’t pass up $6 food truck lunches in Portland), but I’m still very far from buying lunch every day.

125 Days.  That’s how long since the last time I bought myself lunch on a workday.  That’s 92 consecutive workdays (and counting).  To me, it’s a huge feat that I’m proud of and has also saved me a ton of money.  Conservatively assuming that eating out for lunch costs $5 more than bringing my own lunch, I’ve saved $460 in about one-third of a year.  This is not to mention that I’ve undoubtedly eaten much healthier lunches by bringing them from home (most days I eat a salad, soup, or leftovers).   I can honestly say it hasn’t been too hard for me to do, but I owe this in a large part to the preparations I continue to make to keep this possible.  Here’s what’s part of my strategy:

1) Stock foods that can be taken for work.  I grocery shop once a week, and I make sure to buy plenty of things that I can bring to work.  My grocery store of choice is Trader Joe’s, and they have a lot of options that work well for lunches. I make sure to have lettuce or bagged salads at all times during the week.  Fruits and vegetables are definitely important, too, such as carrot sticks, bananas, and apples.  I really like soups that Trader Joe’s carries as well as some of their frozen selections.  While I prefer to eat fresh food whenever I can, Trader Joe’s stocks fronzen foods that are made mostly from natural and organic ingredients.  I feel a little better about these options versus frozen meals from Weight Watchers and the like.

2) Cook enough each night to provide leftovers for the next day.  I typically cook dinners consisting of fresh vegetables.  When I do, I make sure to cook enough to take to work with me the next day or two.  I can often add other meal components that are easy to cook in bulk, such as rice or pasta.  Certain meals are very good for leftovers, like soups and chili.  All of these are easily reheated at work and taste great compared a sandwich or other takeout options.

3) Keep (healthy) food at work. Aside from what I bring to work each day, I make sure to keep food at my desk just in case.  Occasionally, I do forget to bring my lunch.  Other times I don’t have enough food left at home.  That’s where having food at my desk comes in handy.  I keep nuts, granola bars, and crackers stored in my desk.  I try to keep these desk foods somewhat healthy since I don’t want to encourage high-calorie snacking.  But when I really am hungry and I think about going out to buy something, I can pull a variety of things out of my desk drawer instead.

4) Don’t keep menus or let people talk you into lunch. I don’t keep menus or other temptations around the office.  If I don’t see it, I usually don’t think about it or consider it.  If others are going out to lunch, I politely decline.  After saying “no” for a few weeks, my office mates realized I was never going to say “yes” and gave up on me.

5) Make the lunch that you would buy.  A lot of the lunch options out there are things that you could make yourself.  If you’re going to go out and buy a ham and cheese sub, make it yourself instead for a fraction of the cost.  Salads are super easy to make, especially with pre-mixed bags of lettuce and the wide variety of other toppings available.

6) Find other productive things to do during your lunch break.  This makes the case for spending as much of my lunch break as I can not eating food but doing other things I want to do.  Rather than spend all of the time it takes to order food, go out and get it, bring it back, and then eat it, I just settle for the lunch I have in the office fridge that I brought to work.  I heat it up and eat within 15 minutes or so.  That leaves me another 45 minutes to do what I choose.  I often read books or blogs or I pay bills and do other tasks that I would need to do at home anyway.  Now, I look forward to my lunch break to do these productive things I enjoy rather than look forward simply to eating.

7) Consider the trade-offs.  I’m not simply skipping lunch to deprive myself of “the good life.”  It’s more that I’d prefer to spend my money in other places, even if it’s still on food.  I’d much rather eat out for dinner than buy a sub or pizza for lunch every day.  Lunch just doesn’t excite me in terms of what’s available as take out.  However, a well-prepared and exciting dinner, like Ethiopian food, is what I’d much rather enjoy.  I’m also much more interested in eating healthy than loading up on the high-calorie, quick lunch options.

Perhaps one of the main reasons that people do eat out for lunch is that they don’t want to take the time to make lunch every day.  This is a poor excuse.  Most alternatives don’t take much time to prepare, and packing leftovers takes virtually none.

If you must eat out for lunch, definitely set limits.  Once a week is plenty.  Consider cutting down on this number gradually while getting used to making lunches for yourself.  It really isn’t that bad, and it’s an easy step to padding your wallet.

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Photo by: I Love Egg

How Much Do You ‘Live It Up’ With Spending on Vacations?

beachAs a follow up on my post last week about spending while vacationing in Spain, I wanted to reflect a bit more on how I spend money on vacations, especially big trips to places like Europe.

The quote that I’ve heard before and always think about when I’m on a trip is “You’re on vacation, so it’s okay to splurge.”  To some extent I would agree.  Yes, I am on vacation in an exotic location.  There are lots of special things to do and they cost money and can’t be done anywhere else.  If you have a full-time job, your vacation time, no matter where it’s spent, is limited, too.  Still, I think there’s a lot to be said for what you can get out of a trip without spending a lot.  Here’s what I will and won’t spend money on.

What I will spend on:

Trying new foods I can’t back home.  Obviously, paella was at the top of my list for Spain, and I was excited to try it.  I also enjoyed eating tortilla, bread with tomato, and other seafood.  The wine was great, too.

Museums and historic sites.  Some things you just can’t see elsewhere, like Velazquez’s Las Meninas or Gaudi’s Sagrada Famila.  These are truly extraordinary sites to check out, and I wouldn’t miss them.  Admission is usually affordable, so there’s really not much to debate here.

Transportation that’s convenient.  In Spain, we flew from Barcelona to Madrid and then took the high-speed train from Madrid to Sevilla.  These were probably not the cheapest ways to get around, but they were fast. We simply didn’t have a lot of time in Spain, so it wasn’t worth it to try to save a few bucks but lose a lot of time to sight-see.

Just about anything that a local would do.  I’m always really curious what people do for fun in the places that I visit.  If it’s something that is off the beaten path of tourists, that definitely gets me interested.

What’s not worth my money:

Expensive hotels. To me, if you’ve planned your trip right, you’ll be at your hotel (or hostel) as little as possible.  More than likely, you’ve already spent hundreds or thousands on airfare.  Why tack on hundreds more simply for a fancy bed to sleep on?

Lame, tourist-trap attractions.  No, I’m not gonna cruise around on a boat or ride the hop-on, hop-off bus.

Mediocre food. It’s one thing to seek out good places to eat for a nice dinner.  But when you’re hungry, it’s easy to pick any restaurant that’s around.  This usually results in less-than-stellar quality food, and it might not be a bargain either.

Most souvenirs.  I’m happy to send postcards or buy something else small to remember the trip by (my girlfriend bought a scarf for less than $10).  But Barcelona t-shirts are totally out.  There’s a lot of knick-knacks that are cheaply made that I don’t know what to do with once I get home.  If I want to remember a trip, photos are by far the best way to do this.

Anything else that’s marked up in price for tourists.  This can encompass a lot of things.  But, generally, if you’re hanging out in touristy areas (i.e. Times Square), prices will be higher while quality may actually be lower.  I try to avoid these areas, but often there are things worth seeing nearby.

Doing anything that I could back home.  Please don’t try to take me to an Chinese restaurant in Spain. There’s plenty of those in New Haven (and I don’t like them here, either).

Overall, I’d much rather extend the length of my trip, if at all possible, rather than pay for anything on the “not worth it” list.

What’s your vacationing style? Do you try to get the most for your money? Or do you prefer to live it up, no matter what your vacation destination?

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photo by: www.jordiarmengol.net (Xip)