One of the most common pieces of personal finance advice is to save money by bringing lunch to work, rather than buying it.
The math is pretty straightforward: If you spend $10 on lunch every day, that’s $50 each week, $200 each month and a whopping $2,400 each year. Bringing last night’s leftovers, or buying the ingredients to make your own lunch for the week, will save you a big chunk of cash.
Yet millions of Americans still buy lunch every day, and it’s not necessarily a waste of money. Here’s when buying lunch is worth it, and how it can fit into a responsible budget.
In many cases, when you buy lunch, you’re also buying time, often in the form of a breather during a busy day.
“I’ve tried in the past to bring a sandwich from home instead of buying lunch,” says Sam Ross, a New York-based writer and educator. “But I usually ended up buying lunch anyway, just as an excuse to get out of the office.”
Angela Dowd, a legal technology specialist based in Boston, also sees buying lunch as an opportunity to recharge.
“It gives me a chance to step out of the office and to catch up with friends and colleagues,” she says. On top of that, buying lunch means a fresh meal, as opposed to something that’s been sitting in a container for hours.
“Leftovers sometimes feel kind of sad,” she says.
Buying lunch saves her time outside of work as well. Dowd is the mother of a fifth-grader and sits on a nonprofit board in addition to her full-time job. Prepping a week’s worth of lunches to take to work is the last thing she wants to do with her Sunday evenings.
“Buying lunch frees up precious weekend time,” she says.
If spending money on lunch saves you time at home or gives you a chance to get out of the office for a meal you enjoy, think of it as similar to spending money on a cleaning service to tidy your apartment or a TaskRabbit to organize your closet. As it turns out, these types of time-saving expenses may boost your mood more than you think.
In a 2017 study, a team of psychologists found that spending money on time-saving expenses — rather than material goods — led to increased happiness among their test subjects. In one experiment, the researchers gave participants $40 to spend on a material object, such as an item of clothing. The next week, the same participants were given another $40, but told to put it toward a time-saving expense, such as hiring a house cleaner or having food delivered. Participants reported higher levels of happiness after making the time-saving purchase than they did after buying a material object.
Of course, that doesn’t mean you have to buy lunch to be happy. Anthony Reynolds, a video editor who works in New York, enjoys the process of making lunches to bring to work.
“When I cook at home, I get to experiment with new recipes,” he says.
Learn how to start a home cooking habit.
But if you’re the type who shudders at the thought of meal prep, go ahead and keep buying lunch, provided you’re also following these two rules:
Most financial experts recommend saving around 20% of your income. The easiest way to do that is to pay yourself first by automating a portion of every paycheck to go into savings.
Once you’re putting that money away, most other expenses are fair game. Whether you’re using the 50/30/20 rule, a budgeting spreadsheet, or an expense-tracking app, your money is yours to spend in whatever way you’d like. That includes lunch.
If you’re a frequent lunch buyer, chances are you’ve felt a little guilty at some point about not brown-bagging. But if you know you’re hitting your savings goals, don’t cancel out the psychological benefits of your time-saving purchase by feeling bad about that spending. Enjoy your lunchtime burrito and get the extra guac.
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