Just out of college, I had an internship that made less than minimum wage and added a second weekend job to pay my student loans. Unsurprisingly, I had to be frugal about work lunches by the fact that I was constantly close to broke. Once I had a bit more breathing room, I continued to pack my lunch because it was such a habit by then.
My packed lunches tended to much much cheaper, healthier, and way less wasteful than my occasional lunch out, and I didn’t think much about it. Then I got pregnant and had my son and was so overwhelmed with my new life as a mom. Suddenly, packing a lunch seemed impossible, and I could afford picking it up, so I just didn’t worry about it. Once I finally started feeling in control of my life again (and the little guy was sleeping through the night), I realized my occasional lunch out had become an almost every day occurrence…and so had coffee and breakfast.
Change wasn’t as easy as I had expected. I continually forgot lunch at home (or didn’t pack it at all). I constantly ran out of time in the morning and would run in to the coffee shop for breakfast. I knew I was wasting a ton of money, but I wasn’t making a huge effort to do anything differently. I decided I needed to get serious and set myself a $150 lunch budget for the month (I know, I know. That is still a ridiculous amount for one person, but I was spending $250-$300/month when I really looked closely. Ouch.) Month one, I spent $87. Now, I probably average $20-30/month. Writing down a goal with hard numbers is what really gets me focused, and now I don’t even have to track it because I’ve pulled myself out of the habit.
I started looking at WHAT made lunch out so appealing, and I realized it wasn’t the lunch itself that was the main driver. What I liked most about it was the time to take a break from my desk, time that was all mine, and I got a bit of exercise walking the 10-20 minute round trip to grab food. Realizing that, I decided I would just go for the walk without actually picking up food (since I started packing it again). To get there, I had to unpack the guilt of taking a break just to go for a walk – I work in an office where being at your desk for long hours is a badge of pride, no matter how unhealthy it may be. Somehow it felt different to walk without a purpose of picking up lunch. It’s pretty strange how we’ve gotten into such a place where taking a walk during the workday is seen as indulgent. And yet, I am so much happier – and more productive – when I take that 10 minute break in the middle of the day.
Now that I pack my lunch most days of the month, I notice so much more about the days I pick up take out. While they are usually very tasty, they’re darn expensive. And the trash. Home cooked meals show up in glass Pyrex containers and real silverware. Take out comes in plastic wrappers, styrofoam, disposable napkins, plastic forks and spoons, all inside a plastic bag. When I was buying lunches every day, it was so normal I hardly noticed it any more. Going back to home meals though, I’m shocked at the waste. The more frugal I am, the less damaging I am to the planet. Over and over again, the choice aimed at financial independence is the choice that treads most lightly.