Finances & Money Frugality

Frugal Lunch by Clever Dudette

Looking to save some money on your work lunches? Check out these three delicious, nutritious, and cheap lunch ideas and save yourself hundreds of dollars per year!!

I would like to announce the first guest article by my wife Stacie, aka Clever Dudette. Stacie is a Registered Dietitian in the D.C. region, and runs her own nutrition site at Building Nutrition.

Clever Dude and I frequently disagree on lunch purchases. I work in a hospital (and therefore have ready access to the cafeteria) but have packed my lunch daily for over 6 months. The Dude works at a client site with expensive lunch options (cafeteria and food court). I believe that to be frugal (and health-conscious) for lunch, it is imperative to pack your lunch!

Average cost of an insulated lunch box:
$10 at Walmart or on You can use the product search on the sidebar.

What are good and healthy options for lunch?
Let’s assume that you have a refrigerator but no microwave to heat foods:

Monday Lunch:Peanutbutter Sandwich
PBJ sandwich on wheat bread, raw carrots, baked chips and an apple:

  • Peanut butter ($0.11)
  • jelly($0.07)
  • wheat bread ($0.30)
  • raw carrots ($0.12)
  • bag of baked chips ($0.28)
  • apple ($0.50)
  • water from the fountain (free). It’s safe, except where the Dude works, but they provide water coolers.

Cost: $1.38

Tuesday Lunch:Turkey Sandwich
Turkey sandwich on wheat bread with lettuce, tomato, light mayo, carrot sticks, canned pears in light syrup and a snack pack of Oreos (the Dude’s favorite):

  • turkey sandwich on wheat bread ($1.30)
  • lettuce ($0.25)
  • tomato ($0.25)
  • light mayo ($0.14)
  • carrot sticks ($0.12)
  • canned pears in light syrup ($0.69)
  • snack pack of Oreos ($0.41)
  • fountain or cooler water again (still free)

Cost: $3.16

Wednesday Lunch:Tuna Salad Sandwich
Tuna salad sandwich, banana, celery sticks with peanut butter, baked chips

  • tuna sandwich (light tuna canned in water on wheat bread with light mayo) ($1.00)
  • banana ($0.25)
  • celery sticks with peanut butter ($0.25 + $0.11)
  • bag of baked chips ($0.28)
  • the infamous water from the water fountain (free again)

Cost: $2.00

Thursday lunch:
Repeat of Monday.
Cost: $1.38

Friday lunch:

Repeat of Tuesday—have to use that lunch meat!
Cost: $3.16

So to calculate the comparison costs, let’s ignore that you may work from home some days, or don’t work all 52 weeks each year:
Cost of eating out (average $6 a day) = $30.00
Cost of packing a lunch for 5 days = $11.00
Total savings = $19.00/week * 52 weeks = $988.00!!!

What if you have no microwave and no refrigerator?
You could spend $10-15 for a lunch bag that comes with a freezer pack. You can also just throw a few ice cubes in a re-usable Zip-lock bag to use as a “free” ice pack.

Each of these lunches will provide about 600 calories, which is appropriate for the average man or woman. So, not only are they inexpensive, but they are healthy too!!!

More from Cleverdude:

Photo Credits to [Progodess], [basykes], and [RatRanch]

About the author

Clever Dude


  • Where do you shop! That menu would easily cost 150% of your quoted value in my neck of the woods. I have found that pre-packing my daily lunch saves me on average $10 / week if I keep the meals marginally exciting … over the course of a year thats $520.

    And to boot … the menu you propose is a little bland and boring, but the point you are trying to make gets across. If I ate the menu each week I think I could only last a month before I hit up the office cafe again.

  • As my wife mentioned, we’re a bit at odds over her proposed menu. She can handle bland foods regularly, but I like ethnic foods, and unfortunately frequent the food court a bit too often. I would die from blandness from this menu every week, but you’re right, it’s to illustrate the per-ingredient cost of some foods we can pack.

    We buy in bulk from Sam’s club, but she did the calculations based on proper serving sizes for the average adult just from quick grocery searches at stores like Safeway and Giant. People could go pricier with organic peanut butter. They could throw jam on instead of jelly. They could get cold cuts kits instead of turkey.

    In the end, it’s to illustrate a sample menu, but not intended for anyone to try to eat this every day. I definitely couldn’t, but many people actually can.

  • Another very important factor is the money on gas that you save if you are driving somewhere for lunch. I found that a tank of gas lasts me about 20% longer when I bring my lunch to work with me. 20% is about another $25 a month… $300 in the year.

  • If you do have a microwave/fridge (or in some cases, even if you don’t), bringing your lunch to work can also be a good way to work through leftovers. I feel a lot better about my health and finances when I bring a lunch to work, and I also feel a sort of accomplishment when I have made my own lunch.

  • I see one flaw with this idea here….

    You fail to take into account that it is impractical and perhaps impossible, in some cases, to buy such small portions of meat, bread or fruit.

    I think that your figures need to be recalculated taking into account the food that will inevitably go bad and need to be pitched over the course of a week or so. Unless, you are good friends with the grocer and can ask for 5 slices of turkey every week….

  • […] Frugal Lunch by Clever Dudette at Clever Dude Total savings = $19.00/week * 52 weeks = $988.00 […]

  • What if you hate peanut butter? Canned pears? Come on…and we can’t drink the water out here and water delivery is sporadic and it tastes like someone filled it up from a tap near the place where you can’t drink the water. Nice try, but you’re being so frugal that anyone who were to start this plan would probably be craving jalapenos for the sake of countering the blandness.

  • This is very doable. I pack daily – however I am a creature of habit and can stand having the same cold lunch day in and day out:
    Half sandwhich:
    Turkey – $0.76/day (I buy 1/2lb. @ 7.49/lb. Lasts 1 week)
    Cheese – $0.10/day (I buy 1/4lb. @ 6.99/lb. Lasts 2 weeks)
    Bread – $0.07/day (I buy loaves and freeze them in separate, 5 slice bags)

    Yogurt – $0.32/day (one 32oz. tub last 8 days)
    Carrots – $0.10/day (I buy whole carrots and cut them up)
    Apple – $0.37/day (Apples @ $0.98/lb.)
    Banana – $0.13/day (Bananas @ $0.39/lb)
    TOTAL – $1.85/day

  • Re: Adam and small portions of meat. The deli at my local super will quite happily give whatever amount of meat you ask for. I’ve even had one guy tear pieces of meat to hit the .1lbs I requested. It’s also better than the packaged Hormel or whatever.

  • Regarding how we came up with the 11 cents here or 28 cents there, we calculated serving sizes and used average prices for jars of peanutbutter, or packs of turkey.

    We shop in bulk at Sam’s Club. We bought a pack of turkey slices for about $4/lb. It’s 5 slices per serving. I personally eat about 2-3 servings, and I throw mustard and mayo on it. Also, I make a loaf of PBJ sandwiches at a time and freeze them. I throw them in my bag before work and they thaw out just fine by lunchtime without becoming mushy.

    Again, this is a sample menu to show you how low you can get the price of your lunches and still get a well-balanced meal.

    Instead of peanut butter, try a substitute (almond butter, walnut butter, sunflower butter, etc.). If you don’t like jelly, try jam. If you don’t like turkey, try ham or bologna.

    Prices will differ on your location and shopping habits.

    This is sort of an extreme example, but it can be done. My wife takes in the same thing every day, but I can only eat this menu about 2-3 times a week. The other times I go for chinese or greek food 🙂

  • We shop at Sam’s once per 2 weeks. I spend about 30 minutes making enough PBJ sandwiches for a 2 week period then freeze them. We buy canned fruit, so that lasts longer and is easier to transport.

    I make the turkey sandwiches the night before work so they stay fresh.

    Like I said, I still eat out a couple times a week because I like variety, but it comes at an expense. The time to make these meals is minimal if you plan your shopping trips ahead of time, but not everyone can or does buy in bulk. Just think of this post as a way to open your eyes to how much you could really save if you tried a little (and burned your taste buds out of your mouth 🙂 )

  • I’m going to bring into view something that has yet to be mentioned: the opportunity cost of lost networking time. This may depend on your place of business and type of work that you do, but it’s something that does apply to many of us. Yes, we could all bring our lunch and eat at our desk everyday and save $1,000 per year. However, does this equate to the lost value of networking with your peers and managers?

    Of course, it’s tough to quantify this, but it is worth thinking about. The $6 per day spent on walking over to the food court, sitting down, and networking for an hour may be worth it in the long run.

  • I agree on the leftovers comment. We are a family of two and we often cook meals for 6. That way there will be two servings leftover for each of us. It also saves time to prepare meals in bulk and then reheat them later. We pack our own cans of soda (a small splurge over fountain water), but even that is very cost effective at a mere 16 cents per can (12-pack for $2). Fruits are inexpensive and healthy side dishes, as are yogurt, pudding and jello packaged into your own tupperware containers!

  • We’ve been packing our lunch since the new year. Even if you ‘splurge’ on drinks, if you buy them in bulk you’ll still save over buying them one unit at a time each day. For example, a bottle of water at my workplace costs about $1.29. Last time we went to Costco, we bought a flat of 24 bottles for under $5. I usually refill my water bottles for a couple of days, but even if I didn’t, it would still be a savings.

    Same goes for other food. It’s about $1 to buy an apple at my office cafeteria. After a few of those, you’ve spent as much as a whole bag costs at the grocery store.

    If you can’t give up purchasing your lunch once in a while, another way to cut back is to bring all your snacks and drinks, and then purchase soup or just a sandwich. The total cost of your lunch is still much lower than what you would normally spend to buy the whole thing, and it’s easier to resist adding a chocolate bar or bag of chips to the meal.

    Since we started bringing our lunches, my husband has noticed that his waistline is shrinking too. We pack more food, typically, than what is shown here, and often it is leftovers from dinner, which probably has more calories. Still, it’s much better for you than hamburgers and other fast food (most of what’s near our workplaces are burger joints and other greasy options).

    Because we don’t restrict ourselves to bland PBJ twice a week, we probably are not saving as much as this couple, but we don’t feel deprived at all by bringing our lunch. We load up our sandwiches with our favourite toppings and buy special treats in bulk.

    Once you get the hang of packing a lunch (and identify your favourites) you may actually find that the quality and variety is better than what you can buy, especially if you don’t have many good restaurants nearby or your office cafeteria is sub-par. On the days I forget to pack a lunch, I often feel cross, because I pay $6-8 for a sandwich that is less tasty than what I make at home, a snack that would cost me 1/4 as much if I’d brought it and a bottle of water or other drink. I’m more often disappointed in the taste and quality from the options around here than those in my fridge.

  • I buy PB and keep it at my desk. Then I buy 2 loaves of bread from sams, the good whole wheat kind and freeze one. I bring a 12 pack of soda to work, and some lunch meat, cheese, lettuce and kashi bars. These all cost about 15 – 20 $ a week and I am always satisfied. My colleagues go to lunch everyday “to get away” but since they are gone, I am really getting away. They spend about 10 – 12 dollars a day. that is a huge savings. That is how I afford ipods and other fun electronics.

  • When buying lunchmeat and freezing it, how do you avoid the slime that inevitably seems to grow on it after a week or two? I’ve found that if I don’t eat lunchmeat within a week to ten days after purchase, it becomes inedible. I only buy the premium meats, as well, not the $2.99/lb “turkey”.

  • I definitely agree that this can be done. I’ve eaten the same type of meal for the past ten years – turkey sandwich, pbj, tuna or maybe just a yogurt as the main “dish”. I like bland foods and don’t ever crave for different types of things, so it won’t work for those who are more experimental.

  • for vegetarians, try hummus:

    – 1 can of chickpeas (about a buck)
    – 1 clove of garlic (or use garlic powder; under a buck)
    – juice of one lemon (lemons are what? 3 for $1? leave out if you don’t like it tangy)
    – 1/4 – 1/2 cup olive oil depending on how chunky and/or olive oily you like your hummus (depends on how pricey you like your olive oil. i recommend cold-pressed extra virgin which is usually pricier, but worth the flavor)

    1 tbsp tahini (optional…depends on whether you like or can find tahini)
    salt to taste.

    mince chop the garlic in a food processor. then add the chickpeas and everything else until it’s mashed to your liking.

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