Why I Never Bring My Lunch To Work

by Broke Grad on April 22, 2009

One of the most commonly covered topics in the personal finance world is bringing your lunch to work. By packing a frugal lunch, you can really save a lot of money over time. For one of my summer jobs in college, I brought my lunch four days out of the week, and it saved me hundreds of dollars over the course of the summer.

Now that I have a job in the real world, things are different. We all know that nothing comes for free, so does bringing your own lunch hurt you in other unexpected ways? Some people argue that your lunch is part of your nonverbal communication, and bringing your own lunch doesn’t exactly project an image of power and success. As absurd as it may sound, does bringing your lunch to work actually hurt your chances of moving up in your career?

My initial thought — that’s crazy. But now that I think about it, all but one of my supervisors at work eat out or buy their lunch everyday. My bosses at the summer job in college also ate out everyday. Practically every boss that I’ve had over the years ate out everyday.

In fact, now that I have a full time job, I never bring my lunch to work anymore. I’m nowhere near a supervisor or boss yet, but I’d like to become one someday. It’ll take a few more years to see if this lunch theory proves to be true, but in the meantime, here are a few reasons why I never bring my lunch to work.

1. Nobody else brings their lunch.
Based on my experience, this one varies greatly depending on the company. I’ve worked at a company where almost half of the employees brought their lunch on a regular basis, but at my current job, the majority of the employees never bring their lunches. Two words — peer pressure.

2. Buying lunch saves time.
Lunch packing zealots will argue that it only takes a few minutes to pack a lunch, and that’s mostly true. What they conveniently leave out is the time that goes into the planning and grocery shopping for the lunches that you make. Of course, you also have to wait when you go out to eat, but while you wait, you can spending time doing something productive, like socializing with your coworkers, supervisors, bosses, etc.

3. Bringing your lunch isolates you.
Even if you’re not one of those people that eat alone at your desk, bringing your lunch still isolates you from your coworkers. Whether it’s making your coworkers wait while you reheat you leftovers or saying “no” to impromptu lunch plans because you already reheated your meatloaf, bringing your lunch can hinder the growth and development of professional relationships that could help you advance your career.

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{ 2 trackbacks }

Moments of Fame : Funny about Money
April 30, 2009 at 11:56 am
Lunches at work – to bring, or to buy? « Musings of an Aberrant Aucklander
June 27, 2009 at 9:41 pm

{ 27 comments… read them below or add one }

1 The Weakonomist April 22, 2009 at 5:54 am

I’ll be the first to tell you these ideas have some merit. I’ve been in the corporate world for a few years now and have seen the advantages of going out to eat first hand. Thankfully that doesn’t work in my current group, because no one gets along.

That being said your argument #2 is so weak you would have been better off excluding it. How hard is it to grab some apples, some veggies, a loaf of bread and some sandwhich meat when you go to the store? There is no planning, it’s as easy as grabbing milk.

As someone who brings his lunch to work every day I was hoping for a good argument against it. This was a huge disappointment.

2 Doctor S April 22, 2009 at 6:44 am

Its great to hear this side of the argument. It all boils down to the corporate culture where you work. If people are constantly going out then it would be wise to join then every so often to save face.

I do not think it is as time consuming as you describe it, as weakonomist stated, you do have to go to the grocery store, so merely grabbing the simple ingredients is not time consuming. Also, the best thing to take for lunch everyday is leftovers from dinner during the week. I often take whatever I ate the night before, if you say that you are sick of eating the same thing from the night before, you are not thinking frugally.

3 philip April 22, 2009 at 7:07 am

I agree that sometimes you are right. In my office I used to eat at my desk nearly every day because the department I was in most people seemed to. When I changed departments it is a much closer group and there is a on site cafeteria. The food is way over priced but just going to lunch with several co-workers you hear way more about what is really going on in the office than during regular hours.

Another person and I started doing the same basic position about the same time, but I feel that I am much more part of the “group” by going to lunch regularly and not the outsider. Sure it costs me right now but if I get any sort of benefit from it, it will more than pay for itself.

I am with the others about point 2, but certainly agree with staying connected and chances for advancement through being seen and knowing what is there.

4 Kris April 22, 2009 at 7:08 am

I would hope to have a job that rewards my hard work, not my socializing and “professional relationships”… but that’s not the real world, I suppose.

5 Darwin's Finance April 22, 2009 at 7:13 am

I don’t bring mine because I’m lazy. I could easily save hundreds per year by doing so, but haven’t gotten my act together in that regard.

I’ve noticed the higher ups at my company don’t even seem to eat lunch at all. either by bringing it or at the caf. You just don’t see them eating; they tend to have meetings 9 hours a day. Perhaps they bring a snack bar or something.

6 J. Money April 22, 2009 at 7:28 am

I also don’t bring lunch most days just out of pure laziness. But recently, I’ve noticed that I’ve been going on more adventures because of this!

If you don’t bring, you have to go outside to get. So i’ve been taking nice walks w/ co-workers, popping into museums that are free 2 blocks down the street here in DC, and sometimes (just sometimes) i’ll hit up that skeeball machine down at this underground pub ;)

and if it’s raining? well, then it’s a mad dash to grab something, and a mad dash back to blog.

7 Liza April 22, 2009 at 7:44 am

I’m an avid brown bagger; my budget doesn’t fit going out to eat that often. I do see the purpose in going out, but we don’t have departments where I work-so I don’t really have anyone I work with to go to lunch with.

I have considered trying to go out with others more often, but it just doesn’t seem to be working out… Oh well, I like saving money and talking to the people that don’t go out to eat that often, we do have both types of lunchers at my office.

8 FFB April 22, 2009 at 8:03 am

or sure bringing your own lunch is an option to save money but by no means is it the only way one can be frugal. It helps add up over time though.

Point 1 – You should do what you want to do. Don’t do what others do out of peer pressure. Who knows, maybe your bosses will see you are the unique one who thinks independently. Or you’re the one smart enough to not blow his paycheck on lunch.

2 – Yeah, it can save time. You do have to look at what the money vs convenience factor is. But it’s a bit of a weak argument.

3 – I don’t know if it isolates you. We used to have a bunch of people who met at a local park to eat lunch. It didn’t matter where you got your lunch since we all met up after we got it. If you refuse to go out with co-workers then it could isolate you but I would never say that you shouldn’t buy lunch under any circumstances.

To each their own. I think for a lot of people lunch can be a big expense and they don’t realize what they could be saving by bringing lunch just a few times a week.

9 tom April 22, 2009 at 8:16 am

I have not been in the corporate world that much but I think the biggest thing with going out to eat is the social aspect of the job. If you isolate yourself and stay in the lunchroom then you may be missing out on valuable time say with the boss or someone else more important.

Some people may feel more comfortable socializing with you when they are outside of the lunchroom or workspace.

The arguments may be weak that were presented but the socializing aspect of connecting with readers and having comments makes the experience that much more exciting.

So instead of saying the authors argument is weak, how about instead you provide some value to the article.

10 Broke Grad April 22, 2009 at 9:57 am

@The Weakonomist: I agree that picking up stuff to make sandwiches may be negligible, but how many people can eat sandwiches 365 days a year? Another common thing to do is bring leftovers from dinner, and while packing the leftovers takes practically no time at all, what about the planning and preparation that goes into making the dinner in the first place. The time that goes into that process is definitely not negligible. No matter how you look at it, buying food saves you time, because you’re paying someone else to spend the time preparing it.

@philip: I definitely agree that it depends on the department within your company too. Some departments at my company eat lunch together practically every day, while other departments rarely eat together at all. Like you, I started at the same time as a few other guys, and I feel that by going out to lunch with a variety of coworkers, I’ve been able to keep more connected with what is going on around the company compared to another coworker that brings his lunch and eats with the same group of people everyday.

@Kris: The problem with hard work is that it only pays if other people recognize that you’re doing it. This can be difficult in large companies, because there are so many hard workers. Socializing and developing good relationships with your coworkers can help you get the recognition you deserve for the hard work that you do.

@Darwin’s Finance: My supervisors are in meetings most of the day, so occasionally, I’ll notice that they skip lunch too or eat “lunch” around 3 or 4 PM.

11 SavingDiva April 22, 2009 at 10:12 am

As a grad student, I try to eat with other grad students…if they’re going out to eat, then I’ll tag along every once in a while. Last semester, I did organize a group to eat lunch together and pack our own lunches. It was a fun way to catch up, socialize, and not spend a bunch of money at Subway :) I understand that the corporate world is much different than the graduate school setting…and I hope the salaries match :D

12 Dan Erwin April 22, 2009 at 11:32 am

I go out for lunch for one reason–to change venues so that I’m refreshed when I get back. You may be right, though. Going out may be a class issue.


13 Jessie April 22, 2009 at 12:05 pm

Wow – what an active post!

I try to make my lunch most days but probably only am successful with this 3 or 4 times a week. I think the best way to do this is too make extra at dinner, and just pack it away. It defninatly saves a few $$$ :)


14 Katie April 22, 2009 at 3:31 pm

I don’t really feel that these are good excuses to ignore your budget in favor of eating out. More often than not, I think people use justifications like these as a way to rationalize their way into bad spending habits.

I usually bring my lunch to work with me or go home to eat lunch. (My long-distance boyfriend and I share custody of the dog, so when I have the dog, I go home.) I try to make sure I have either leftovers or sandwich supplies so that lunches are always quick and easy. And I give myself an extra 10-ish minutes every morning to pack my lunch. It’s not that inconvenient, and at the end of the week, I’ve usually saved myself around $50 on eating out.

That being said, you *do* need to socialize with your co-workers in most places if you want to get ahead, and one of the best, most convenient ways to do that is to go out to lunch. So I reserve eating out with coworkers to once every couple of weeks. And if I don’t want to pay but still want to socialize, I will go to the cafeteria in my office with my own lunch from home and eat with coworkers.

The “time” argument is bogus. It takes far more time to have to go off site, to stand in line and wait to pay, to wait on food prep, to be at the mercy of a wait staff, etc. than it does to slap together a sandwich in the morning before work. You aren’t saving time. While you might be saving yourself a little extra work, on the whole, having your lunch ready and waiting for you at noon is much more convenient on the whole.

Don’t let other people’s bad habits convince you that you should indulge in them, too, and certainly don’t let a misdirected sense of convenience make you feel justified in wasting money. Like any other frugal spending habit, once you become accustomed to packing your own lunch, it hardly seems like a hassle. And trust me, most people are better off with a couple hundred extra bucks at the end of the month than they are with whatever menial satisfaction comes from paying someone else to make your food for you.

15 asgreen April 22, 2009 at 5:39 pm
16 Getfreestuff April 22, 2009 at 10:19 pm

Yeah, I would prefer going on lunch with my colleagues. If I am always eating alone, they might think otherwise.

17 C April 22, 2009 at 11:14 pm

I try to bring lunch once a week. At least a couple of times a week, I’ll just head to a salad bar and eat at my desk. The other times I use lunch as a way to see friends (who work nearby) or my boyfriend. I look at it this way – if I didn’t have lunch with my friends, then I’d probably go out for drinks with them after work spending even more money than I would for an hour-long lunch.

My own rule is that if I go out to lunch, then I don’t go out for dinner.

That being said, I’d like to bring my lunch more often, but not for cost-saving reasons. It’s more that eating out isn’t all that healthy.

18 Fabulously Broke April 23, 2009 at 6:50 am

Sounds a bit like a cop out to me.

Who has time for pride when you don’t have (much) money? (assuming you don’t.. you’re a self-proclaimed Broke Grad Student)

I would go out once a week or once every 2 weeks to eat lunch with others to stay in the loop, but even when everyone did what your coworkers did, I still brought my lunch most of the time.

It tasted better than what I bought anyway.

And you know what’s funny?

Co-workers started admiring my lunches, oohing and aahing over what I made, and asking me for recipes, tips,… they ended up eating with me at lunch, bringing frozen dinners from the grocery store instead, and chatting with me because they were RELIEVED to not have to go out and follow the herd.

And that’s how I met BF, coincidentally. He did the same thing as I did bringing his own lunch :)

Then again, no offense to you and I hope none is taken, but I don’t really follow the herd mentality and while I see the point in that bringing your own lunch does isolate you a bit.. you just have to find a balance like I did, and people may end up admiring you and changing their ways because of a small gesture like bringing your own food to eat.


19 Fabulously Broke April 23, 2009 at 6:52 am

Oh, and it doesn’t take more than an hour on Sunday night to create a meal for 5 days in the week. I cook once, package it for the whole week.

That time thing is, like a commenter said, bogus.

At least just say you like to eat out :) I mean, I can understand that argument. It’s nice and easier to eat sushi once in a while instead of having to make it (takes 3 hours).

20 Funny about Money April 29, 2009 at 6:05 pm

My ex’s law firm did not ALLOW associates (or partners) to brown-bag. They had a rule saying you had to eat lunch out. Everyone was expected to belong to a specific downtown business club, and most of them ate there (in the early days most of the downtown eateries were greasy spoons–that, mercifully, has changed).

The theory was you’re not making any rain when you’re denning in the lunchroom or eating over your desk.

21 R May 13, 2010 at 12:51 pm

Don’t ya think it’s more likely that management eats out because they have more money and aren’t on a budget? I doubt they got to where they were because they didn’t pack lunch (they might have before they moved up).

But you do have a good point about how it’s important to socialize. Someone at my job ate my packed lunch today :(

22 Yankee 49 November 21, 2010 at 1:18 am

In these economic times, I bet there are more and more folks brown- bagging it and are far less frowned upon for doing so.

However, you should never eat your lunch, brown bag or takeout, at your desk. You want everyone to know that you take a lunch hour and value it.

Depending upon where you work or whether or not there is a lunchroom or cafeteria there, if not and want to brown bag it, you can still go to a park to eat in the warm weather or in an atrium of another big office buidling where corporate people sit and gather. (I’m mainly talking about the big city.)

And you can always go to the corporate or building’s cafeteria for all companies in the building.

If you want to buy your lunch, you can buy it in the cafeteria. In cold weather cities I’d opt for that than rather eating at your desk or braving the wicked weather.

Eating at your desk is isolating, messy and foolish as you’ll be dumped on by other workers asking you to cover for them or giving you a lot of extra work if the supervisor or co-workers assume you never take a lunch hour. And spending a lot of extra money you may not have, or eating something unhealthy that will only bulge your waistline is silly.

You can socialize in the cafeteria with people from other companies, too.

But do make a point of going out once every couple of weeks with friends and co-workers. You just don’t have to do it everyday.

And you can always give folks the illusion that when you decide to brown bag it, that you’re meeting friends or clients.

23 mikey February 11, 2012 at 7:20 pm

I disagree with this article! It take a few minutes to make a lunch, and no trouble to buy the items when I go the grocery store. It saves lots of money and there other coworkers who bring a lunch. It doesn’t isolate you, you can meet people for lunch. More and more people are brown bagging these days.

24 Justin April 17, 2012 at 8:39 am

At my last position I would do a combination of both. That way I would still socialize at least once a week (generally Fridays) and still save a considerable amount of money in the long run.

25 Alexis d. October 24, 2012 at 9:55 pm

I work in the public sector and in the last couple departments i was at, eating out everyday actually reflects badly on you!. (I.e. looks like you were too lazy or disorganized to prepare a lunch…or worse, that you lack basic life skills like cooking.) so power ljnches are not really part of office life, even for the execs. but we do go out together on coffee break though, or to bake sales and other in-house events.
I think a lot of people are also distrustful of fast food, restaurants and convenience food in general. You end up consuming lots of salt and fat.

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