I don’t know about you, but one of the BIGGEST areas I go off plan when it comes to the family budget is on food. The reasons for going over are varied, depending on the day. It could be from running through a drive-through or two when there’s no time to feed the kids or I’m just tired. It might be that I forgot to meal-plan and I’m heading to the store without a plan. Another reason is that maybe I didn’t plan ahead for lunch at work, and since I forgot it at home (or there was nothing quick I could grab and go), then I’m stuck paying upwards of $9 or $10 for lunch. Ouch!
You CAN conquer extra food spending for all of those situations! I've done it, and believe me - when you do, you'll breathe easier and see more in your bank account.
Today I’m tackling the workday lunch.
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Here are some things I’ve done that have helped keep me from blowing the food budget on buying lunch at work. Believe me, it really feels good to make an impact on this expense!
1. Get cute lunch containers. Yes, that’s a tip. Invest in a cute insulated lunch bag that will keep your food cold, warm, or just otherwise together. You might get lucky and come across a freebie somewhere, too - sometimes lunch totes are giveaways at trade shows, or other community events. Just get one. They make lunch easy and fun.
While we’re at it, you can help the environment and your budget over time by switching from disposable zip-top bags to reusable packs. I've bought these cute Russbe sandwich and snack bags in multiple colors, and everyone in the house uses them, from kids to parents. They’re even dishwasher safe. Yes, you spend more for four bags up front than you do for a whole box of disposable bags, but you can wash these and use them over and over again.
A friend of mine uses these reusable silicone snack bags and swears by them. If you don’t have a microwave at work and you want to take a warm lunch, pick up a thermos!
2. Make it ahead. This is the one thing that helps me on a daily basis. Pack your lunch the night before. That way if you’re running late in the morning, you can just grab it and run out the door. Maybe you make a sandwich, or maybe you package up the leftover dinner into convenient single-serving containers. Make some popcorn and package it into snack and lunch-sized portions. Just get into the habit of doing it ahead of time.
3. Stage your snacks & supplies. I’ve found that both my pantry and my refrigerator are much more organized when I keep like things together. I’ve got one bin in the fridge that has lunch meat and sliced cheeses, and a repurposed candy jar in the pantry that holds little packs of fruit snacks. Granola bars are always within easy reach. This could also mean that you cut up veggies or fruit ahead of time so they can quickly be tossed into a lunch.
4. Don’t forget snacks. If you’re like me, there are some days when you’re just Hungry. All. Day. Long. Prep some chips or crackers. Stash some microwave popcorn in your desk. Toss in some fruit snacks and granola bars. I won’t judge if you save some leftover Halloween candy and keep it on hand for those days when you just need a little sugar. All of these things will keep you away from the vending machine or the corner store!
5. Stock your desk. If you have one, that is. Put a can of soup or two in your desk. Years ago I bought a bowl big enough to hold an entire can of Progresso soup, and it’s still with me. Toss a single-serve microwavable macaroni & cheese bowl in there. Get some protein bars or those instant breakfast drinks that don’t have to be refrigerated. I rocked my inner 12-year-old just this week with some easy macaroni & cheese when I forgot my lunch!
6. Write yourself a reminder. Do you need a sticky note on your front door or the door to the garage to remind you? Yes, it doesn’t look pretty… but it can help you from running out the door without your coffee or pre-made lunch. (Or without that yogurt you took out and left on the counter… ask me why that’s a situation I’m warning you about, lol!)
7. Make it hard by limiting cash & debit. If you’re sticking to a cash budget, don’t keep much on hand for lunches out during the week or month. If you don’t have it, it’s a lot harder to spend it. While you're at it, take another little sticky note and put it on your debit card to remind yourself of your weekly challenge. That way if you're low on cash you don't automatically reach for the plastic.
8. Remind yourself of your goal. Years ago, a mentor once told me, “Don’t give up what you want most for what you want at the moment.” I don’t know who originally said it, but it really rings true on so many levels - whether it’s paying off debt or eating better to improve your health. Think about those lunches out and what the trade-offs are. What would that spending delay for you? Would it slow down paying off a credit card? Would it push that vacation out even further
9. Make it a date. Find a frugally-minded friend, or bring a book you’re trying to finish. If you have a commitment to meet your friend in the lunchroom with your homemade lunches, you’ll be more likely to remember to bring it with you.
10. Allow for a couple of “oops” days, but only a couple. Build a couple of days of lunches out into your budget, and challenge yourself not to use them. Whether that means a couple of days a month, once a week, or whatever fits your current budget, allow for some days out here and there. See how far into the month you can get before you have to use one!
No one’s perfect. There are going to be days where it just doesn’t line up. But if you plan ahead and put some of these tips into practice, they’ll get fewer and further between. Give it a try!