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It’s Friday at noon in the office. My coworkers stop by my cubicle and ask, “Hey, Mrs. Picky Pincher, you coming to lunch?”

My stomach rumbles.

The typical office worker would say, “You bet!” and happily trot along behind the crowd, with the money in her wallet screaming, “Save me!”

I smile ruefully and say, “Maybe next time! I brought my lunch today.”

My coworkers think I’m a crazy person for bringing my lunch every day. Office lunches are a time-honored tradition. They’re a chance to catch up with friends, an opportunity to network, and a breath of fresh air from those stuffy cubicles. Why would you not want to go out?

The reason is simple math.

Let’s say I decide to go out to lunch with my coworkers every week, Monday through Friday. The average lunch in America costs $10, which after tax and tip is closer to $13. That means I would be spending an average of $65 a week just on lunch, in addition to any transportation costs. That means in a given month, the estimated cost of going out to eat with my coworkers would be $260. In a year, that adds up to $3,120; in ten years that’s a whopping $31,200.

That’s just ridiculous.

Most people don’t bat an eye when it comes to forking over this much cash because going out to eat has become such a norm in our office culture. It’s true that it’s a valuable time for networking and connecting with your coworkers. So yes, occasionally it’s great to eat out with coworkers, but not for every lunch, for goodness sake.

Here are reasons everybody should start brown bagging it.

Why you should pack your lunch

1. Eating out is expensive

It’s hard to achieve financial independence when your budget has a huge, gaping hole. Restaurant bills are this hole. You can make a lunch for significantly less than $13 every day and still feel full and satisfied at the end of your lunch hour. It might seem like small change now, but every penny counts on the road to financial independence and early retirement.

2. Packed lunches are usually healthier

This depends on your dietary choices, but foods you cook and pack for yourself are generally healthier than anything you’ll find in a restaurant. You control what you put into the food, where the food comes from, and your portion sizes. There’s nothing inviting you to overeat–unlike the giant portions in restaurants–since everything is planned ahead of time.

3. You can still hang out with your coworkers

In fact, it’s encouraged! Who decided that we have to go to a restaurant to get to know each other? You can bond  the same over a brown bag lunch as you can over a $10 Applebee’s plate. Brown bagging with coworkers is is also a great way to get new recipe ideas and bond in a more personal way with food.

4. More energy

A lunch from home can give you higher quality energy than a restaurant meal. Restaurants are in the business of getting customers to spend money. Because of this, they want to make their food taste as fantastic as possible. That usually means the meals are loaded with sugar, fat, and carbs; things that taste great but aren’t great for our bodies.

While it might be amaaaazing to eat that pasta carbonara and breadsticks at Olive Garden (my guilty pleasure), in an hour it can cause bloating, sleepiness, and more food cravings. A well-prepared salad, soup, and sandwich from home can give the same amount of energy without the crash. Pack your own healthy options and return to work refreshed.

5. You can be Picky

This is the Picky Pinchers, after all. For me, restaurant meals can be laden with booby traps of hidden mayonnaise or gross vegetables (but seriously, why all the mayonnaise?). If I pack my own food at home, it’s prepared to my Picky specifications with less stress. Yum!

While packing your lunch and noshing in the break room isn’t always the “coolest” thing to do, it’s a smart strategy for your wallet and your health. And it doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing approach. Going out to eat every once in a while is a great way to bond with coworkers. But it’s important to steer away from falling into the money trap of daily restaurant trips. So how do you go from being Restaurant Rick to Picky Packed Lunch Pat?

How to Pack Your Lunch

1. Leverage the power of leftovers

Leftovers from dinner can make a delicious lunch. However, it’s easy to get burnt out on leftovers or just find them plain unappealing the next day. I still struggle with this. But there are lots of things you can do to jazz up leftovers. For example, when Mr. Picky Pincher and I have pulled pork sandwiches for dinner, we’ll often pack pulled pork nachos for lunch. Just zap it in the microwave and it’s good to go!

2. Pack the night before

When I’m rushing out the door in the morning, packing a healthy lunch isn’t high on my priority list. To avoid the stress and hassle of taking time to pack a lunch in the morning, prepare it the night before work. I’ve made it a habit to immediately prep leftovers for the next day while we clean up dinner. If you’re having a hard time remembering to pack a lunch, try setting an alarm on your phone.

3. Get a cool lunchbox

Since I’ve gotten a nifty polka dotted lunch box, I’ve been way more excited about packing my lunch. Do anything you can to “fancify” your lunch so you’re excited about it.

4. Try new recipes

Doing new recipes can either backfire or be amazing. If you’re trying something new for lunch, I would recommend having a backup sandwich just in case it doesn’t turn out well. But I’ve found that packing something new and exciting keeps me motivated to continue packing delicious lunches.

5. Invest in a decent set of storage containers

Ziploc bags don’t always do the trick. My food containers of choice are a set of Tupperware we got at Costco that included six different sizes, which are great for packing lunches. Ziploc bags do have their time and place, but reusable containers like Tupperware are better for your wallet and for the environment. If you’re going to be heating up meals in the Tupperware, make sure it’s labeled as BPA free or get a glass set instead of plastic.

6. Know what you like

Okay, so this point kind of contradicts the whole “try new recipes” suggestion, but it’s an important consideration. Lunch isn’t a time to force yourself to like something. If the thought of fish makes you gag, it’s not the time to pack tuna with the hope that you’ll eat it. It’s okay to be Picky. You can still save money and eat well without packing lunches you know you’ll hate.

Packing your lunch doesn’t have to be expensive or complicated. If this is new to you, just try brown bagging it once a week to see what you can come up with. While it seems like a small change in the short term, packing your lunch yields fantastic returns in the long term, not only for your wallet but also for your body.

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