I'm two months into my contract with my new client and have yet to find a decent lunch place.

I have spent hours upon hours roving up and down "The Strip"—a teeming yet barren stretch of highway boasting an endless array of strip malls, gas stations, car washes, and glass replacement centers—in a vain effort to find one healthy corner in the bowels of Fast Food Hell.  The only oasis in this French-fried wasteland is a small Panera Sandwich Shop, 7.5 miles from my office on the wrong side of a life-threatening, un-signaled left-hand turn across a heavily trafficked highway.  Depending upon how hungry I am on any given workday, I will either risk quadriplegia by braving the turn or just snack from the receptionist's candy jar all day and pray there will be some sandwich scraps left over from the daily training class. 

Fortunately, last weekend I made a staggering discovery that will not only soothe my lunchtime angst, it will forever alter my financial future: According to the good folks at the Financial Planning Toolkit dot com, I can save over $8,000 over the next five years simply by carrying my lunch to work instead of buying it.

$8,000! Ch-ching!

Of course, this is going to require a significant paradigm shift in my thinking.  The last time I carried a lunch anywhere it came in a Partridge Family lunchbox and consisted of six peanut butter crackers, seven cents' milk money, and a Twinkie. Truth be told, I've always sort of looked down my nose at the Lunch Bringers of the world.  They just don’t seem like very fun people.  I mean, really—in my former work life, lunch was the highlight of the day! There was always that thrilling element of suspense that hovered over my lunch options: Where would I eat today? What would I get? Who would I run into in line?  The Lunch Bringers don't experience any such excitement.  They already know where they're going and what they've got to look forward to.  Or not. And, chances are, the only people they'll run into are the other Bringers, who will all converge on the office refrigerator at twelve o'clock sharp, rummage around for their crumply brown paper bags, and either huddle around a folding table next to the coffee machine or slink back to their cubes to consume their bland meal in aching solitude.    Plus, bringing your lunch to work is a surefire way to miss out on those spontaneous group forays to the local hot spot and all the office gossip those forays inevitably inspires.  There's no sight more heart-wrenching than the coworker who, when urged to join in the mealtime fun, sighs, shakes his head, points to his soggy, Saran-wrapped sandwich, and says sadly, "Sorry.  I brought my lunch today."

That's no way to live!

Nevertheless, the way I saw it, my options were as bleak as the windswept drive-thru at the Taco Bell across the street.  So I decided to put on my thrifty face, join the ranks of The Bringers, and document my success so I could eventually write an article about it for one of those money-saver type magazines.  Armed with the latest issue of Cooking Light magazine—which featured a whole section on how to prepare healthy, delicious, and portable meals at home—I sat down at my kitchen table, made my grocery list, and began to track my progress:

Leslie's Lunch Journal:  Week of 7/17/05

Sunday:  Spend 3 hours in River Street Whole Foods purchasing lunch accoutrements and ingredients for Cooking Light recipes.  Total cost of groceries: $162.17.  Estimated cost of one week purchased lunches:  $49.50.  Remind self of investment in future.  Feel better.

Monday: Today's Lunch – 1 Albacore Tuna Salad with Fat Free Mayo, Celery, Onion, and Green Apple on Whole Grain Bread, 1 container Stonyfield Farms Fat-Free Raspberry Yogurt. Sure to be delicious.
6:40 a.m.  Go to gym; run on treadmill ½ hour.
9:05 a.m.  Arrive at work. Starving from workout.
9:13 a.m.  Eat Stonyfield Farm Fat Free Raspberry Yogurt.
9:16 a.m.  Still hungry.
9:17 a.m.  Eat Albacore Tuna Salad sandwich.
1:30 p.m.  Ransack office kitchen for leftover training sandwiches.
1:31 p.m.  Discover remainders have already been consumed by IT guys.
1:34 p.m.  Lightheaded from lack of nutrients.
1:35 p.m.  Drive to nearest food source (Taco Bell).
1:37 p.m.  Purchase small chicken burrito. Eat in car.
1:40 p.m.  Drive back to work, ashamed.
Today's Cost Savings: -$4.95.  Resolve to do better tomorrow.
7:15 p.m.  Make boneless, skinless chicken & vegetable stir-fry.  Consume half.  Put rest in colorful Tupperware container specially purchased for carrying lunch to work and refrigerate overnight.

6:30 a.m.  Forget colorful Tupperware container in refrigerator.
12:40 p.m. Drive to Panera. Close eyes when making dangerous left-hand turn.  Purchase Fuji Apple & Chicken Salad. Bring back to work and eat in cube.
Today's Cost Savings: -$8.05

Wednesday: Today's Lunch - Boneless, skinless chicken & vegetable stir-fry in colorful Tupperware container.
6:30 a.m.  Skip workout to avoid inevitable mid-morning hunger.
9:13 a.m.  Place colorful Tupperware container in office refrigerator to remove temptation from desktop.
11:45 a.m.  E-mail from co-worker inviting me to lunch at Bertuccis.
11:46 a.m.  Decline politely but firmly. Feel virtuous.
11:50 a.m.  Everyone going to Bertuccis.  Alone in cube. Sad.
11:55 a.m.  Change mind. Drive to Bertuccis.  Entire gang there. 
Everyone happy to see me. Enjoy meal and attendant office gossip. Ignore guilt pangs.
Today's Cost Savings:  -$19.50 + -$4.00 tip=$-23.50.

Thursday:  Today's Lunch - Boneless, skinless chicken & vegetable stir-fry in colorful Tupperware container.
11:58 a.m.  Drive to bank to deposit paycheck.
12:10 p.m.  Bank next door to Panera.  Reminded of delicious Fuji Apple & Chicken Salad from other day.
12:11 p.m.  Think about how gross leftover stir-fry must be by now.
12:12 p.m.  Since already braved left-hand turn, decide to reward self.
Buy Time magazine. Buy salad.  Eat at restaurant, reading and enjoying well-deserved alone-time.
Today's Cost Savings:  -$8.05 + -$2.95 Diet Coke + -$3.95 Time = -$14.95

Friday:  Today's Lunch – Boneless, skinless chicken & vegetable stir-fry in colorful Tupperware container.  WILL EAT (underlined).
12:00 p.m.  Trudge to office kitchen to get stir-fry.
12:01 p.m.  Office refrigerator empty.  Has been cleaned out overnight by custodial staff.  All unclaimed items discarded, including colorful Tupperware container.
12:05 p.m.  Get in car.  Drive to Panera for Fuji Apple & Chicken Salad.
Today's Cost Savings:  -$8.05
Week's Cost Savings:  -$59.50 + -162.50 cost of groceries = -$222.00
8:30 p.m.  Close journal. Rethink article.
8:45 p.m.  Decide left-hand turn not so scary after all.

Carrying Costs