I’ve been working in corporate settings on and off for about 15 years, ever since my first college internship. Since then I’ve probably spent, give or take, nearly $40,000 on lunches, iced coffees, and snacks during the work day — and that’s a conservative estimate, assuming 250 working days a year, $10 to $12 a day (the typical cost in New York City), for 15 years. In some areas of the country, that’s enough for a down payment on a house. If I had invested that money instead, it could easily grow to a quarter of a million dollars over the next 30 years. I’ve literally eaten $37,500.
I have no regrets.
To me, buying lunch is a simple pleasure that can elevate a dull day, gives me a chance to get out of the office, and ensures that I’m eating a relatively balanced diet. I hesitate to use the popular phrase, “self care,” (I mean, let’s be real here: Can a tuna sandwich truly touch your psyche and your stomach?) but in my twenties, that’s exactly what buying lunch was for me. Back then, I barely knew how to cook and considered it a win if I had cereal and milk in my apartment at the same time. I was going out every evening, and often called a few glasses of wine “dinner.” But I always had my “make your own” salad, rice bowl, or sandwich for lunch, ensuring I had enough protein, vitamins, and fiber in my diet to propel me through my less-than-healthy lifestyle. As I got older and work got more intense, going out to grab lunch was a way to clear my head. Choosing my salad ingredients — did I want chicken or turkey; cucumbers or green peppers — was one small way to exert control, especially when my manager was on the war path or I had an endless unanswered inbox to battle.
Every so often, when my bank account began to dip too low, I would venture into DIY-ing my lunch. I’d halfheartedly make a PB&J, or buy a prepackaged salad or wrap at the grocery store. It was never exciting. I would feel resentful when I pulled it out; sluggish for the rest of the afternoon. One time, when I was about 25, I told my mom — a budget-conscious person who, despite a comfortable career as a physical therapist, always shopped the discount rack and had no qualms about driving back to the grocery store to redeem a fifty-cent coupon she had forgotten during checkout — about my attempts to save cash by skipping lunch.
“Why would you do that?” she asked, her question surprising me. “You’re making your own money, why not give yourself a little treat?” She went on, with a note of wistfulness in her voice, about how she wished she could be working in the epicenter of a bustling city, steps away from any cuisine she wanted.
That conversation made me stop feeling guilty about my indulgences. It was more than lunch; it was a celebration of independence, a testament that hard work can and should be able to buy nice things that make you happy. The realization also made me expand my midday palate beyond the standard salad and start looking for more adventurous options. Did I want Indian buffet or banh mi? Pizza or a vegan rice bowl? I still had my go-to favorites, though, and I found these lunches satisfied more than my hunger. I loved having back-and-forth banter with the sandwich guy, who always added extra stamps to my loyalty card. I loved talking writing strategy with Kevin, the barista at the coffee shop I’d hit up when I couldn’t stare at my computer screen any longer. I remember going down to my corporate cafeteria three days after my mom died, shell-shocked and confused, but insistent on returning to work in an effort to feel normal. I stood in the line for sandwiches, even though I wasn’t hungry.
“Are they working you too hard?” The cashier asked at checkout.
“My mom died,” I blurted out, surprising myself as the words spilled from my mouth. The cashier — I didn’t know her name even though we’d spent the past few years sharing smiles and “have a good day!” pleasantries — immediately came from behind the counter to give me a hug.
I think that’s the main reason why I keep buying lunch. It’s a bite-sized dose of humanity. Yes, it’s “just” lunch. No, that quick $10 salad ordered from a guy who barks “what’s your order,” won’t necessarily give you the warm and fuzzies. But to me, a bought lunch serves as a reminder of possibility, potential, adventure, and self-care, while giving me enough fuel to get through the rest of the day.
You can put a price on that. It’s around $10 a day, and to me, it’s so, so, worth it.