A blog experiment by Brad Mills.


Lunch for a buck (or so)

A long time ago I worked at Kroger and made a little more than minimum wage. Mom and Dad had basically withdrawn any further support of my higher education after I brought home a dismal indication of what I'd been spending their hard-earned money on — drinking, running around, and partying. If I wanted to go back to school, I was going to have to earn it. So, for what little there was, I needed every bit of that money. I scrimped and saved and did without for a little over seven months until I reached my goal: $3000 to pay for a semester.

It was a valuable lesson in many ways. I learned the basics of financial management over those seven months, and they are lessons I still carry around with me today. As is often the case, in the midst of the challenging times in life, important learning is taking place.

One of the things I mastered during this time period is the dollar lunch. It's pretty much what it sounds like — when I worked a shift long enough to give me a lunch break, I normally only allowed myself to spend a dollar for lunch. Working in a grocery store helped with this quite a bit, and I'd usually end up getting a cheap burrito from the frozen food case and either a single-serve can of potato sticks (a better deal than potato chips) or a pack of crackers. It clocked in between 79 and 94 cents (the potato sticks cost 14 cents more than the crackers).

With my new job it's a lot easier for me to stay on site than go out for lunch because of how the parking works, and culturally, it's kind of what people do there. So I've been giving the dollar lunch another try just to see if I could still do it. I've gotten pretty close, and it's a much better lunch than a cheap burrito and potato sticks... I even get a dessert!

Each morning I pack a sandwich, some chips, and some sort of cookies. I buy cheap when possible, which means generic "sandwich cremes" instead of Oreos®, and cheapo chips from an economy-sized bag portioned out into individual servings. And of course, my homemade bread on the sandwich. It comes to around $1.26 for the whole thing. I think that's pretty good. Inflation over the 17-year period since my Kroger days has averaged 2.54% annually, while my "dollar lunch" cost has increased by only 2.27% annually. Yay, I beat inflation!

Here's a breakdown of the cost. Just for fun, I've compared it with eating a fast food combo every day, and I've also compared it with a much better meal from a place like Blossom Deli. I've also extended these costs out over longer time periods to see the long-term costs of lunch.

Lunch costs
  Homemade Fast food Served food
  • Bread
  • Ham
  • Mayo
  • Chips
  • Cookies
  • 0.12
  • 0.45
  • 0.05
  • 0.42
  • 0.23
  • 1.26
6.35 9.49
Weekly 6.31 31.75 47.44
Monthly 26.52 133.34 199.23
Annually 318.20 1600.05 2390.72

So, lunch at a fast food place would cost me $133 a month, and lunch at Blossom would cost me almost $200. That's fairly significant money. Bringing my own only costs $26.52. In other words, I could buy Baconator® combos for a week or eat lunch for a whole month.

So how much am I saving? Quite a bit, as it turns out:

  Vs. fast food Vs. served food
Daily 5.09 8.22
Weekly 25.43 41.12
Monthly 106.82 172.71
Annually 1281.85 2072.53

Fast food became de rigueur at my last job, with occasional forays to more costly establishments (it was the reverse until the wheels started falling off late last year and there was never enough time to do a proper lunch). So assuming that same pattern, by bringing lunch from home, it looks like I'm going to save over $100 a month. And I'm glad I don't desperately need that extra $100 a month like I did in my Kroger days, but you know, I'm not going to turn it down, either.

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