I take my lunch with me to work almost every day, and on the days that I don't, that's usually because I've gone home for lunch. (I have part-time custody of the dog while the boyfriend is away in school. When I have the dog, we go on a walk at lunch time.) The thing is, I really enjoy taking my lunches with me. I know that seems really weird, that doing something frugal would also be something pleasant, but hear me out.
1. It saves me money.
We're not just talking about a little money. I save a chunk of change every week by eating at home for all my meals. Carrying my lunch to work with me saves me about $50/week alone. When you consider the fact that five days of the week, I eat all of my meals at home, I save in the neighborhood of $100/week. That's $400/month. This is money that I put toward savings and credit card debt or, yes, small splurges for things that I want. I get an immense amount of satisfaction from the money I save, and for me, that's reason enough to eat at home.
2. It saves me time.
Whether I'm eating at home or at work, carrying my lunch saves me a lot of time. If I go home, I don't even have time to pick up food somewhere else. And generally speaking, it takes me 5-10 minutes to throw together a lunch in the morning before work. If I go out for lunch, I spend at least that much time (usually more) waiting in lines, waiting on food prep, waiting on wait staff, and traveling to an off-site location if I don't eat in the cafeteria at work. And because I prepared my food in advance, that usually means I have that extra time at my lunch break to enjoy a longer walk with my dog, to read a book, to run errands, etc.
3. It's healthier.
Granted, this isn't always true. If I packed nothing but PB&J and potato chips every day, there would be nothing healthy about it at all. However, because I've gotten in the habit of planning ahead for my lunch time meals, I make sure that my meals are the correct portion sizes, contain fresh ingredients, and fit into my dietary plans and needs. I don't eat fast food. I don't have to worry about the quality of ingredients. I don't worry about over-eating because the restaurant served portion sizes twice what I need. I don't have to worry about not being able to find something on the menu that will fit my needs. Packing your own lunch gives you greater control over your meals, and I've found that this is a very good thing.
4. I like my food better anyhow.
I used to hate cooking, but over time, it's grown to be one of my favorite things to do. Part of this is, again, the joy of saving money, but part of it is that as my skill in the kitchen have improved, so has the food that I make. Plus, I pick my favorite ingredients, my favorite seasonings, and my favorite combinations of foods. And just generally speaking, there are very few restaurants in my daily price range where their cooking staff can prepare a meal better than I can. My food tastes better. And if you'd told me that four years ago, when I couldn't even figure out how to pre-heat the oven without calling my mom, I would have laughed until my stomach ached. So if you want to use the excuse, "But I can't cook!" I'm sorry, but I'm here to tell you, "Oh, yes, you can."
So what should you do if you want to start brown bagging it more often?
For one, I advocate that you invest in quality food containers. I like ones with compartments and lids that seal very well, but generally speaking, I think durable and reusable are really the key things to go for. Bento boxes might also be something to look into, if you want to look adorable even when you bring your lunch to work. A nice insulated bag or lunchbox is nice to have, too. We're not talking about the plastic lunch pails with cartoon characters on them of yesteryear, either. You can get a lunch bag that is sporty, or sleek, or functional, or fun...or even one that looks like a purse. With the variety of options out there in terms of lunch bags, there's no reason why bringing your lunch to work should give others the impression that you still belong in grade school.
The next thing you'll need to do is plan ahead for your meals. This doesn't take much effort, trust me. It could mean as little as picking up extra supplies to make sandwiches when you are in the grocery store, or planning your meals so that your leftovers will translate into easy-to-pack lunches. Keep in mind that your brown bag doesn't need to be filled with pre-packaged lunchables, snack packs, potato chips and twinkies. Fresh fruits and veggies, salads, pastas, cheeses, and any other foods that generally stay in a single solid mass generally transport well. The City Cook and Lunch in a Box (bento blog) both have good suggestions for foods you can pack to bring to work with you.
In the beginning, you might struggle to squeeze the extra few minutes of packing a lunch into your daily schedule. One of the best tips I have to counteract that is to pack your lunch before you go to bed, and if you're planning to bring leftovers, just put everything together as you're cleaning up after dinner anyhow. If it's going into tupperware anyhow, might as well put it into the tupperware you're taking to work with you, right? Really, though, once you get in the habit of doing this every morning, you forget that you ever thought it was a hassle. And you'll even appreciate the added convenience of a packed lunch at lunch time when you, unlike everyone else, don't have to do anything to get ready to eat except maybe pop your food into the microwave.
It can be hard to keep it up at first, and that's something I definitely understand. It can be hard to convince yourself it's worth the extra ten minutes to pack your lunch, and it can be even harder to give up something that you see as a treat or as a perk for yourself. Still, I think it's important to note that once you get started in this new behavior, you might find new and different perks of changing the behavior. Like me, you could end up really liking it, and advocating it for more reasons than just the savings you get from doing it. And you can still eat out. I go out to lunch with coworkers once every couple of weeks, usually. However, it's become a rare treat, and it no longer interferes with my ability to stay on budget.
At any rate, everyone has to make the right choices for them. The Simple Dollar talks a lot about where you should draw the line between being frugal and just being miserable. If something makes you happy, by all means do it. However, I think it's important to think about whether an item you spend on regularly actually makes you happy, or if it's just a bad spending habit that you are, for whatever reason, not willing to break.
Update: My friend Hoon informed me that his wife Sarah recently wrote a post about safe food storage containers. It's a great post, especially for the health-conscious, so check it out!