It’s often mentioned that bringing lunch to work is one way to economize on our normal routines. Simply making a great amount of your food at home, especially when it comes to how you eat during the work day, is worth some huge amount of money annually which if only a person could find the motivation they would be marginally rich. Is that the truth? Probably not, but we here at DQYDJ want to tackle this conundrum for you anyway: should you bring or buy lunch?
‘Bringing Lunch’ Calculations
We’re using figures from September 2010, but as inflation hasn’t been too high these numbers should still be relatively accurate. (It certainly won’t change the conclusions that much.)
Now, how do we come up with a good number of work meals eaten per year? Get ready for a whole lot of assumptions:
- 52 weeks in a year, 3 weeks of vacation brings us to about 49 working weeks.
- Subtract 2 weeks for holidays and sick days… down to 47 weeks.
- Let’s say that every month or so there is some special event or company party or friend in town occasion which you would attend to whether or not you were making the “bring or buy” choice.
- There are also 2 days a week of weekends…
So we have 329 days – 15 days of special events (close enough to 12…) – 94 weekend days = around 220 work lunch days a year! The following prices are “Bringing from Home Prices Per Year” based on about 220 lunch meals:
Thrifty Males: $391.60
Low Cost Males: $510.40
Moderate Cost Males: $635.80
Liberal Males: $774.40
And for the ladies?
Thrifty Females: $358.60
Low Cost Females: $448.80
Moderate Cost Females: $554.40
Liberal Females: $690.80
Those numbers pass my initial smell tests… well, the numbers on the chart do, and extrapolated they seem to be okay.
‘Buying Lunch’ Calculations
How the heck do you come up with the average price of a lunch? Well, again, we don’t need to do it!
The United States General Services Administration sets a ‘per diem’ rate yearly for government travel purposes. We will use it to set our maximum meal prices for this here study.
Now, what the heck are we going to use for our four categories? Well, again, we won’t. We’ll make up four new prices for the categories… $4, $7, $10, $14 lunch averages. Since per diem is more of a maximum and depends on where (in the country!) you eat it ranges from $11 – $18 for lunch, we’re once again ‘in the ballpark’. (Please, if you have any more sources with slightly more scientific data, pass it our way…)
Thrifty Lunchers: $880
Low Cost Lunchers: $1540
Moderate Lunchers: $2200
Liberal Lunchers: $3080
Yearly Savings Matrix
Here we have set up a matrix for you to determine your ‘yearly’ savings for bringing food from home vs. eating lunch!
Career Savings for Bringing Your Lunch!
And now, for our feature performance… we will estimate how much money various folks would save over the course of a career.
How can we do this? By making equally dubious assumptions about inflation, that’s how!!! We’ll put inflation around a rough average of 2.6% – although recently we’ve been ‘lucky’ to see 2%.
Now, inflation is an interesting beast… for the best calculation we could break out inflation for buying lunch versus bring it… but this is already a complicated thought experiment! Therefore, all we need to do is take our yearly savings and inflate them! Why? The proportional inflation is assumed to cancel out. (Again, maybe a dubious assumption, especially if inflation affects the categories differently… but here we are.)
How to use this chart: Find your ‘yearly savings’ from the matrices above. Read the number directly to the right. This is your 40 year career savings in ‘future inflated dollars’. Good luck!
Taking it A Step (too far) Further: Opportunity Cost in Investing
No Personal Finance article is complete without the obligatory ‘what would you have if you invested that money?’ question answered.
Although it has become a PF meme, it’s important to at least take a guess as to what your change might be worth. The reason? Any time you are spending extra it is an opportunity cost – you could be investing those extra funds instead.
In our case, we choose to throw everything into a piggy bank then invest it at year end, it makes the Excel math a little bit simpler. Let’s estimate that we get a whopping 6.5% return (geometric mean) on our money over the course of our career (so, 3.9% real return since we’re assuming inflation is 2.6%).
(I’m trying to aim somewhat low, but complain if you want about the number I chose.)
Again, find your yearly savings from the matrix 2 charts back, then look up your ‘career investment income’ from eating food you brought yourself!
A Note on Our Assumptions on Bring or Buying Lunch
Any time you try to determine the broad cost savings of a loosely defined activity against some other loosely defined activity, you cause trouble. Comparing assumptions multiplied by other assumptions usually falls under the heading of “Garbage in, Garbage out”. In fact, we here at DQYDJ are no where near arrogant enough to try to fabricate numbers which you might walk around your place of business next week quoting. Not at all!
Luckily, there is an entity in existence which loves to make broad assumptions about huge amounts of people!
That’s right, I’m talking about the United States Government!
As we like to do in some circumstances, this article will also pass on some of those huge assumptions for your reading pleasure. So, if you like this work, we’ll take the credit. If you hate it, well, take it up with Uncle Sam!
Sources on Answering “Should You Bring or Buy Lunch?”
The United States Department of Agriculture is where you should start when performing your study.
That site lists, for your convenience, four different diet plans, and their costs if you were to purchase goods and make it at home. (You could then bring it anywhere you want, even, presumably, your workplace.)
Please also take a glance at the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion Report. We will be mashing these estimates into even greater webs of estimat-ation (um, [sic]) for your average career in the following way:
- Determine the average cost per meal for the ‘Thrifty’, ‘Low-Cost’, ‘Moderate-Cost’ and ‘Liberal Cost’ meal plans for females and males of a good representative age.
- Multiply that meal cost times the approximate number of work meals eaten per year.
- Figure out the corresponding price of ‘buying lunch’ using an equally strange set of assumptions.
- Multiply that times our magic number of 40 years in a career, which seems sort-of-okay.
(Since we like you, maybe we’ll eventually add some sort of calculator?)
How did we do? Is it worth it? Are you packing your lunch tomorrow? Should you bring or buy lunch? Discuss in the comments section!