Most days of the week I eat what is known colloquially as a "sad desk lunch."
Typically it includes some turkey slices and spinach sandwiched between two pieces of bread slathered with mayonnaise. There is also usually an apple and sometimes cheese and crackers or chips.
My lunch (circled in red) surrounded by all my desk items.
Is your mouth watering? No. Fine. I know. My lunch is boring. It can get especially tiresome at the end of a long week when I have the same thing every day. But it fulfills my most important qualifications for a successful work lunch: It's filling and cheap.
I often wonder why more office workers don't share my austere view of the midday meal, especially since most of us scarf down our lunches at our desks.
The Chipotle near my office is filled with people just released from the confines of their cubicles spending $8 for a burrito like it's nothing. The same thing is happening over at 'wichcraft, a local gourmet sandwich shop where office zombies fork over $10 (on debit cards, of course) for simple sandwiches. TEN dollars for a turkey sandwich -- sure it's tasty, but c'mon!
Meanwhile, I spend about $19.05 for an entire week of sandwiches and snacks. By my calculations I'm saving about $1,547.50 a year.
Below are two receipts: On the right is my grocery store receipt and on the left is a receipt from 'wichcraft (my editor agreed to foot the bill).
I have tried to convince my colleagues to join me in bringing lunch with this simple logic: They remain unmoved. "I can't eat the same thing every day," I'm told.
"Deli meat is disgusting. It's always wet. Flaccid," one said.
My favorite excuse: "Going out to lunch makes me happy."
Think of how happy your future children will be when you can fund their college education, people! Or just look at this:
Still not convinced? I enlisted the help of a behavioral economist at Cornell University, David Just, who has studied extensively why people choose to eat what they do. He explained that bringing lunch to work is the more rational choice, even if it's not the most popular one.
Besides being cheaper, a homemade lunch is typically also healthier because you can better control the portions and ingredients. Packing your lunch in advance also helps workers avoid using hunger as an excuse to buy something terrible, he said.
"If we're hungry, we're pressed for time and then we start responding a lot more to how the food tastes and how convenient it is and we think a lot less about how healthy it is," Just said. "We think only about the short term goals. If you're putting your lunch together in the morning, you're usually doing that right after you eat breakfast so you're not in that hot state."
So why do most workers opt for the less logical, but more unhealthy and expensive lunch?
First of all, most people like things that are easy. Packing lunches can be sort of inconvenient. I often find myself rushing around on Sunday nights to make sure I have enough time to buy my turkey, apples and bread for the week. If you're the kind of person that packs your lunch before work, you usually have to set aside a little bit more time in the morning -- cutting into much needed sleep.
"You don't want to go to the hassle of putting your lunch together or you don't want to go through the hassle of having to buy things a week out," Just explained.
Most workers are looking for an excuse to chat. Many people relish the opportunity to eat lunch with a co-worker; even just walking to grab lunch is an attractive social opportunity, Just said.
"It can be a little off putting if one person is bagging it and another person is buying," Just said. "There's a little bit of peer pressure."
I can personally attest to this; I typically agonize for 43.5 seconds every time I get a gchat that asks "wanna get lunch?" Usually I respond by pretending to think it's lame that I brought my own lunch, just so they don't feel like I don't like them. Sometimes I propose just walking with the person wherever they're going, an offer that is typically declined.
Networking books like Never Eat Alone would have you believe that I'm missing out on some very important career opportunities by insisting on bringing my lunch to work. I beg to differ; I've gathered a lot more workplace gossip and advice at happy hours or run-ins in the kitchen than I ever have walking to lunch.
Also, there are plenty of ways to socialize during lunch without buying it. You can eat in a public space at work or *gasp* sit outside in a park if it's nice out.
And science says if I don't want to socialize during lunch that's okay too. An October study from the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management found that having lunch with co-workers can cause more stress than eating alone if you're doing it because you feel pressured.
But probably the strongest lure towards a lunch bought at a restaurant is the sense of freedom the decision gives most workers, Just said. People who buy lunch can eat whatever they want whenever they're hungry. If they're feeling Mexican that day, they can get a burrito, if they feel like they want a gut bomb, they can order a burger.
In most cases though, that freedom will push you to make an unhealthy choice.
"Part of the reason that trick works to eat a little healthier when you pack is that you're committing yourself to something" that you might not actually want to eat later Just said. "There's a bit of freedom with (going out). In the moment you end up skipping the apple and going with a side of fries or tater tots."
You could also end up throwing away cash on lunch better spent on booze, retirement or the much more pleasant dinners out!
Restaurant.com sells $25 gift certificates for $10 or $50 gift certificates for $20. The site also has sales throughout the year, and I've snagged $25 gift certificates for $5. I keep a stack of these things in my wallet at all times. Most places have a minimum purchase requirement (from $35 and up) but you can generally use the gift certificates any time. But there are drawbacks: They're for dine-in only, they're nonrefundable, and they can only be redeemed once per month per restaurant. Still, the site has become so popular that you can double dip - buying Restaurant.com certificates through an airline's shopping portal in order to earn frequent flier miles, for instance.
If you're not already using Groupon and LivingSocial, start now. Both sites post daily deals that will give you 50 to 90 percent off at different restaurants. You'll have to act quickly, but you'll save a bunch. I just got a dozen cake pops (regularly $17) for $8 through Groupon. If you don't want to spend hours sifting through all the offers, Money Talks News deals diva Karla Bowsher has culled the very best on our deals page.
If you have a smartphone, some social networking apps will get you free stuff and discounts. Last weekend, I got free guacamole and a free flan for checking into the restaurant on Yelp. Here are a few apps that score you deals: Yelp Check-ins - After you check in, mention Yelp to your server to get the goods. Foursquare - Many places offer discounts and buy-one-get-one offers to people who check in. SCVNGR - Every time you check in, you accumulate points. You can redeem your points for a discount on your bill or a free item depending on the restaurant.
Every restaurant in town knows when my birthday is. Last year, I got three half-price meals, six free desserts, two free entrees, and about a dozen free cocktails - and all I had to do was sign up for a birthday mailing list and turn a year older. Many restaurants have a birthday or anniversary club. Signing up is free and they'll send you a coupon around the date. Ask your server how to sign up - and even if they don't have a mailing list, he'll tell you what you can get for free or cheap on your special occasion. There's even a site devoted to listing restaurants where you can eat free on your birthday: eatfreeonyourbirthday.com
Social media-savvy restaurants post special deals on Twitter. Some even post code words. If you tell your server the code word, you'll get a discount or a freebie. Last month, I got a free dessert for saying "Free Sean Payton" to my server. (I live in New Orleans, and the code words referred to our NFL coach who has been suspended by the league.) To find a restaurant's Twitter info, visit its website and look for the "Follow Us" links. One should be for Twitter. Another should be for Facebook. Speaking of which...
Here at Money Talks News, we take surveys, hold contests, and give out freebies on our Facebook page as a way to keep in touch with you. Many restaurants do the same thing. By "liking" the restaurant page, you'll get access to special deals not mentioned anywhere else.
I've made it a habit to open a few apps before I walk into a restaurant. There are several free apps that post deals to local and chain restaurants. Most places will apply the discount to your bill if you show them the app - no need to print the coupon. Here are a few apps worth downloading: Dining Deals LocalEats The Valpak App
Many restaurants in my area extend their lunch hours until late afternoon. By eating dinner early, I get the lunch prices, which are often 25 to 50 percent cheaper than the dinner prices for the same entrees. Before you try somewhere new, visit the restaurant's website and see if they have a lunch or early bird special.
It's uncommon, but some restaurants let you bring your own beer or wine, which is usually cheaper than the cost of paying per glass. Before you go, call ahead and ask if the establishment is BYOB. If they're not, skip the cocktail and have one somewhere else. Some places will charge a "corkage fee" if you bring your own wine, but even at $10 per bottle, it's still often cheaper than buying the same bottle in the restaurant. Most restaurants in my area overcharge for alcohol. For example, my local bar charges $3 for a mixed drink, but the restaurant next door charges $6. I save 50 percent stopping by the bar for my after-dinner drink.
Restaurant meals are over-proportioned, so split your meal in two. You'll eat dinner tonight and lunch tomorrow for one price. It may seem like obvious advice, but it's harder in practice. If you're not careful, you'll end up eating everything on the plate. To beat the extra calories and save money, I divide my plate in half before I start eating. I only eat from my "now" half of the plate and ask for a to-go box for the rest.
Knowing the different steak cuts and how they're prepared will save you money. For example, my friend always goes for the filet mignon because it's well known and tender. It's also one of the most expensive cuts you can order. Meanwhile, I ask if the hanger or flank steak was marinated. If it was, I order that. It's the cheapest steak on the menu, but it's also flavorful and tender - if marinated. MSN says sirloin, flank, skirt, and hanger steaks are really underrated. Give them a chance.
If I've learned one thing being a local in a tourist town like New Orleans, it's this: Tourist traps are alive and well. Many of the famous restaurants tourists want to visit are overpriced and not the best dining experience. If you want an authentic experience and a better price, check out a review site like Yelp or Urban Spoon before you visit a vacation spot. Pick a few places the locals rated highly and check their websites for menu prices. You can save a ton by planning ahead and skipping the hot spots.
I'm fortunate to have very cheap friends. "I don't care where we go as long as it's cheap," is a common refrain on a Friday night. But I also have some less-than-frugal friends who visit from out of town. Since I know they'll want to try that expensive five-star restaurant they heard about on the Food Network, I jump the gun and suggest a similar but cheaper place. If you're dining out with a group, suggest reasonably priced places ahead of time. It will keep you from having to choose between a $25 salad or a $30 piece of chicken.
Around here they call it lagniappe - the little something extra you get for being a great customer. Like the free cup of gumbo I've gotten every time I visit a diner in my neighborhood. I get that little something extra because I'm a regular. Trying new places is great, but you can get a discount (or a lagniappe) by building a relationship with the servers or owners of local restaurants.
With iDine, you can earn 5 to 15 percent back any time you eat out. Just sign up on their website. Within 30 days of your meal, sign on and complete a quick survey. For every survey you take, you'll earn cash back. When you reach $20, iDine will mail you an American Express gift card. It takes some effort, but it's free money. See? Dining out doesn't have to mean going all in - or staying in.