“Somehow one of our oldest and sanest traditions has become a laughingstock: it’s not hip to bring lunch. Let’s try to fix that.” New York Times.
I almost bought lunch today.
Last night we came back home late after a long 7 hour drive to visit my sister to celebrate her wedding anniversary. We’ve done it probably a hundred times now but it’s getting progressively difficult as our son is getting older. We took our first family trip to my sister’s place two months after our son was born. It went surprisingly well as he slept most of the way there and back. As soon as he learned how to walk things got complicated quickly.
Nowadays I drive most of the way while my wife is in the back seat trying to entertain our son if he is not sleeping. Toys, books, phones, making faces, singing and tickling can only go so far distracting him from the fact that he is immobilized in a car seat. As he realizes what’s happening he starts showing his discontent by crying ever louder until we can find a place to park and let him run around for a few minutes. There were a couple of times that I thought my head was going to explode listening to the crying in the confines of our compact sedan while I was looking for a safe place to pull over.
Often pulling over will only make things worse since at some point we do have to strap him back into the seat, which he learned to fight by becoming a human plank. Might as well try to strap a screaming 2×12 that can also kick you in the groin.
Last night on our way back he slept for a couple of hours, then played, then screamed and then fell asleep right before we got home. It was already after 10 PM and way past his bedtime. By the time we were able to put him to bed again it was getting close to midnight.
I looked in the fridge and did not see anything that could be quickly packed to take with me to work. We usually cook extra each night so that we can both bring leftovers to work the next day. Since we were out of town for a few days we made it a point to finish everything before we left so nothing would go bad. Now the fridge was empty. I made a mental note that I will HAVE to buy lunch tomorrow and went to bed.
This morning we woke up early and got our son ready to go to daycare. As I was taking a shower I had this whole conversation in my head about where I could go to lunch.
It used to never be this hard. When I started working I would go out for lunch once or twice a week brown bagging leftovers from home the rest of the time. I could go to Subway and get their 6-inch sub of the month for $2. I could get a pizza special for under $5. If I were feeling spendy I could go and get an Italian sausage combo from a cart for $5 cash. There were always other carts selling wraps, sandwiches, Chinese, Tai for around $5 as well. To me, $5 always seemed the upper reasonable limit for a work lunch.
That worked fine for a while but then I noticed that prices started creeping up. It’s generally expected now that a run-of-the-mill lunch downtown will cost anywhere between $8 to $12 – without a tip. Consequently, I do not remember the last time I bought lunch.
I know that most people in my income bracket wouldn’t think twice about dropping $10 on lunch. Walking outside during my break I see the same construction workers and landscape people who (presumably) make less than me happily eating their $8-12 lunches day after day. Meanwhile I have to convince myself to pay someone to prepare my food today. Why is it so hard?
I developed a habit of quickly scaling up every recurring expense in weekly then monthly then yearly increments. Twice a week becomes 8 times per month and then 96 per year. At $10 a pop that’s almost $1,000/1,300 after/pre-tax I would need to make to pay for the habit. That’s still while bringing my own lunch most of the time. Some co-workers don’t and my back of the envelope math puts their work lunch spending at $2,400/3,120 per year. After scaling up in this way I then immediately picture what I would rather do with that “extra” money and always conclude that I’d much rather put it towards my Freedom Fund (pay down mortgage and/or top up brokerage/retirement accounts).
It’s much faster to pop my homemade lunch into a microwave for a couple of minutes and eat at my desk than it is to go and stand in long lines that form around noon when all the office workers are released on their break. I can eat quickly and then go out for a nice long walk which I consider essential in breaking up the never-ending sitting in front of a computer screen that so many of us call “work” these days. I have been walking almost daily for about a decade now and buying lunch leaves no time for that.
Leftovers from home are usually healthier than your average lunch fair. I like knowing what’s in my food and how it was prepared. I pack enough to satisfy hunger without overeating. Prepared food portions tend to be bigger but of course I end up finishing everything and feeling stuffed at the end. More calories and no walking is not a good combination.
Are you bothered by all the waste that is synonymous with buying lunches? I am. Four napkins stuffed in a paper bag that has a cellophane packet with a spoon, fork and a knife along with salt, pepper, ketchup and mustard packets you might not even use. Sandwich in a plastic box and an individually wrapped plastic straw for your beverage container of choice. After you finish, conveniently throw everything in the bag and into the nearest trash can. Compare that with a glass container, one metal fork/spoon, one ceramic mug for tap water and one lunch bag. All washable and reusable indefinitely. Zero waste. Over your working career it really does make a difference.
In the end, I found the extra 5 minutes that it took to prepare a quick lunch this hectic morning. Just some spaghetti with pasta sauce (ketchup and butter – don’t knock it till you try it), quick salad (tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce and homemade croutons) and a couple of pickles for a good measure. Money saved, daily walk accomplished, extra calories avoided and environment just a tiny bit less trashed.