I’ve toiled as a full-time office employee in New York City since 1999. For roughly 96 percent of weekdays over the past two decades, I packed an unabashedly basic and un-trendy meal: a turkey sandwich, chips, a piece of fruit, and a Diet Pepsi. Maybe a cookie.
If one accounts for, say, 47 working weeks out of every year, that’s over 4,000 brown bag lunches… so far. That’s 4,000 times I avoided buying sushi, pulled pork, a Big Mac, or the many other options available for lunch in Manhattan.
Make no mistake: I love food and think about it a lot. But this unglamorous practice of lunch-packing has become an organizing principle for my financial life, and I’m not someone with a lot of organizing principles. It’s made me more aware of the value of my money and the cost of everyday stuff, like a pound of turkey or a 12 pack of soda or a fancy salad at Chop’t. It’s taught me to approach purchases big and small with intention, and has given me a healthy sense of control. Rather than leaving me deprived – of, say, a delicious Chipotle burrito bowl – it’s left me more empowered as a consumer, a saver, a sandwich-maker, and an eater.
In 1999, my partner and I were fresh college grads – I wanted to work in media, he wanted a job at an art auction house – with student loans, a crappy-but-expensive Upper East Side apartment, and a desire to avoid living paycheck to paycheck. Neither of us came from wealthy families, and both of us knew our way around a loaf of bread, a jar of mayonnaise, and a stack of turkey slices. So, once we were both employed, my partner – he of frugal New England stock, descended from literal Puritans – suggested we start packing lunches. And once we figured out how much money we could save, it became a household ritual, even as our take-home pay doubled and as midday dining became more exciting and tempting thanks to food trucks, Shake Shack, and other culinary innovations of the early 21st century.
The assembly of those lunches – one for each of us– is a fixed feature of my evenings, a 20-minute task I do as soon as I arrive home from work. Spreading the mayo and filling small sandwich bags with reduced fat potato chips has a meditative, centering quality, silencing the day’s chaos. Even if occasional evening plans out mean I’m doing this at 11:30pm, it’s a Zen-like process I’ve come to enjoy.
By my extremely rough calculations, supplies for the lunches described here cost, in the early days, about $2 per day per person, or about $470 per year. In Manhattan, a normal takeout lunch would have cost about $10, or $2,200 per year – which means a net savings of $1,730 annually. Plug in historical inflation rates for food prices, and I’m spending about $722 annually in 2018; if I opted for takeout, that would cost me roughly about $3,555 per year. That means we’re each now saving around $2,833 per year, and collectively, we have an additional $5,666 to spend elsewhere – or to save.
Packing your lunch for life isn’t a one-fix solution for controlling your spending, but it can set a blueprint for everyday financial awareness. We’ve made similar decisions about our money elsewhere – sacrifices that didn’t feel painful. My partner and I – we are gay DINKs (Dual Income No Kids), which also helps – live in a nice Brooklyn apartment we bought seven years ago after 13 years of renting the same inexpensive, cramped second-floor walk-up above a restaurant where drunk couples regularly argued at three in the morning.
Excluding our mortgage, we’ve been debt-free for about a decade. We paid off our student loans, and pay our credit card bills in full every month. We go out to dinner once or twice a week, usually take modest vacations, and shop for clothes at upscale outlet centers. It’s a good, albeit measured, life… and, in my mind, it began with a turkey sandwich.
There are drawbacks to the lunch arrangement, of course. The traditional midday break of 30 to 60 minutes is pre-Internet quaint, but even the pause my coworkers take – to pick up an order or choose a food truck – is probably a mental health break (and social time) I could use. Occasionally, the monotony of it all gets to me. Is my life, like my lunch, in a rut? (I usually get over this after I’ve eaten.)
And on the rare days when I haven’t packed my lunch, or accidentally leave it in the fridge at home? Panic sets in. The horror of unlimited choice paralyzes me – Mexican? Thai? Macaroni and cheese? (Chopt almost always wins.) Sometimes those two decades of restraint makes simple decisions unnecessarily fraught.
However, the humble lunch is a source of pride for me. In a small and painless way, it’s forced me to be deliberate, present, mindful and consistent at least once a day. It’s a lesson I’ve tried to build on with larger, more significant goals. And that is priceless.