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


  • Regarding the actual lunch break, unless you can use that time for preparing future lunches – travel time to and from, specifically the actual time you spend “eating” lunch wouldn’t seem to factor into the equation.

    As a working professional with an established hourly rate of compensation we should consider the time required to complete the work itself and physically being on location to perform that work – as being part of the compensated week. Or simply, a time when one cannot prepare lunch.

    Thanks for the note and will be looking forward to all the Dudes’ future posts.

  • We ran into this kind of thing where I work (Well, not where I work right now… I’m in stupid Iraq!), and we all thought about the “networking” part of it. Our solution? A group of us started a “lunch bunch,” and we all pitched in $10 or so. Then we sent two or three people to the store to buy meats, cheeses, bread, etc.

    We took a list of things people didn’t like or were allergic to, and never had a major problem with that. Then we just kept it in our department refrigerator. That allowed us to make sandwiches and chips for lunch (at work, no less), and we would join the other “lunch bunch”-ers in the conference room or outside or somewhere together.

    So, not only did we get sandwiches for less than it would cost us to eat out, we got a larger variety, as well! We would often have four or five types of meats, three or four types of cheese, two types of breads… The list could go on! This just goes to show that money can be saved *AND* you can network!

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    […] check out. Mike updates the blog with frequent posting, and dishes out handy suggestions such as frugal lunches (from his lovely wife) . Keywords:Personal Finance Interview  Email This | function […]

  • great ideas, im not a meat eater but i can sub turkey for soy meats or hummus… i see people spending 10-15$ daily on lunch, its such a waste + the $5 on coffee its crazy

  • Thank you Clever Dudette for this great post! I wanted to add a few ideas for vegetarians:

    Wraps: Tortillas, Canned Black Beans, Little bit of lettuce, tomatoes, etc.

    Also, instead of peanut butter, hummus is great with celery/carrot sticks. It’s relatively easy to make a big batch on Sunday night and package in five small containers for the week. Ingredients are simple: chickpeas, lemon, tahini, garlic, and anything you’d like to add (roasted red peppers are good!)


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  • Tobias Stange…

    I have to say, since we buy SO much produce, we only buy organic arugula and spinach consistently. most of the time, we try to just eat the less contaminated foods….

  • RYC: I think a guy who is comfortable enough with his masculinity to take a pink lunchbox to work is alright in my book.

    BTW, your wife’s website is awesome! I was looking at it today and I got so many great ideas. I think a woman that talented deserves a $100.00 lunch set…

    Good luck on training for the marathon!

  • Love these ideas!I bring my own daily, despite a shifting schedule. Raisins, cheese, fruit are all good snacks. The only time I struggle with is when I work back to back shifts (home at 11pm, up at 5:30). It means bascially packing/planning 2 days at a time, which is a whole lotta coordination on my part.

  • Stevie K:

    No, you cannot just claim a value for your time equal to your hourly pay.

    Your time is only worth what someone is willing to pay you for it. Alternatively, your free time is only worth what you are willing to pay someone else to secure yourself that free time. You only really have so many peak-productivity working hours in a given day before your start making serious mistakes at your job and becoming inefficient– significantly lowering your value to an employer.

    You need time off the clock, but nobody wants to pay you for the time you are relaxing, watching TV, sleeping, or cooking (unless you are a cook).

    If CleverDudette is not willing to pay someone else 24 dollars an hour to make lunch for her, then her time making lunch is not worth 24 dollars. She is essentially taking the hour or so of her week that is worth the least and using it to save money.

    At the end of the day, nobody pays you for your free time. You can either use that free time productively and save yourself money, or you can use that time unproductively and cost yourself more money in the long-term.

  • Limewater:

    Agreed and in a roundabout way, you’ve actually kind of made my point.

    You could pay someone far less than $24 an hour to prepare your lunch, so in Dudette’s situation, making her own lunch doesn’t seem cost-effective.

    My position is based on the assumption that all of our time has value. One could argue “free” time is more valuable than “work” time – it’s not a question of if someone will pay you, its what you feel your time is worth.

    The attorney that bills out at $400 per hour is inclined to pass up $100 per hour clients. The attorney’s value is $400 per hour, whether or not someone actually pays the rate or not.

    Making lunch to save money at work seems more like an effort to maximize one’s compensation or value – not something done for the sake of recreation, free or otherwise “non-billable” hours.

    Just my opinion and thanks for sharing yours,

    Stevie K

  • All of our time does have value, but it is not necessarily the type of value measured in currency.

    All of your points also seem to be based upon the assumption that everyone can work as many hours as they want every week. This is generally not the case. Hourly workers are usually capped at 40 hours a week, and salaried workers have few options to boost their weekly income.

    If Dudette has the option of working an extra hour every week and can also find someone who is willing to work for less than $24 an hour AND is willing to make the commute to work twelve minutes a day, AND has a fool-proof method for avoiding the IRS then sure she should do that. I’ll write more about the IRS below.

    You don’t have the option to get paid your normal working wage for as many hours a week as you want. When Dudette makes her own lunch every week and saves $19, she is essentially paying herself $19 an hour (tax-free) to make lunches.

    Her options are most likely not a)work an hour at $24 an hour and b)work an hour making lunches and make $19. Her options are more probably a) Do something that will not yield any income or b) make $19 tax-free in an hour of lunch-making.

    If Dudette does get to work an extra hour every week and make $24, though, then she has to pay taxes on that $24. At a 30% tax rate, that means her take-home pay for that hour is $16.80. However, she does not have to pay taxes on the $19 she saves. She actually comes out ahead even in the situation where she can bill hours as she wants.

    But this whole scenario does not seem to jive with what you wrote previously. Earlier, you wrote that the travel time and wait involved in buying lunch is part of one’s lunch hour. However, if you are in the position to bill people per hour, then the travel time really is lost time you could be collecting income. If you are in a position where you have an enforced, unpaid lunch hour, then you also most likely also have a weekly or bi-weekly cap on your billable hours.

    It just doesn’t seem to work out.

    The attorney in your scenario does not yield the result you claim. In your given scenario, if the attorney really is unwilling to work for $100 an hour, then he has set his time-value to at least $100 an hour. That is all we know. That does not mean that his hour is worth $400. From the given information, his hour may only be worth $105.

    Non-billable hours are non-billable, regardless of how one spends that time, whether one spends it making sandwiches or trying to get one’s calculator to spell dirty words. Making one’s lunch is an effort to maximize one’s value– though many people find it enjoyable. And, since “work more hours” isn’t an option for most people, it is a good use of one’s time.

  • Granted, I had to go back re-read my entire post from April, but here goes…

    Yes, yes, yes – the assumption is that all time has value and Dudette’s original savings projections did not take into account “time to prepare”. I went on to say that “travel time” to work is not directly compensated, but is certainly a factor if you place value on your time. To that, so would preparing lunches for work, picking up dry cleaning, pressing your shirts or simply laying out your clothes for the next day at work.

    Agreed, based on person’s income (hourly or salary, it still can be equated into units of compensation ie; rate per hour)… based on a person’s income, I feel there is certainly a point of diminishing ROI.

    Saving money for the sake of being frugal doesn’t always justify the time spent, if one attaches any value whatsover to their “time”.

    The value, in fiscal terms, of our time is based on our rate of compensation. Personally, I feel my time is priceless, but my clients see it otherwise. 🙂

    One point of contention in your observation of my previous statements: I said that Dudette spends an hour PER WEEK at 12 minutes PER DAY preparing lunches. At her rate of compensation or “fiscal value in units of time”, I feel Dudette at an estimated $50K salary is not actually saving money.

    To your arguement, if a person has a fixed or otherwise limited income, Dudette’s projections start making fiscal sense. But at $50K, I think her time could be better spent if saving money was the only goal.

    Granted, the value of creating your own lunch, to your specific tastes is virtually impossible to attach value, but the prepartion takes time – that is undeniable. From my experience in business and life – time is money. If the task is making lunch to save money then I feel “time spent” is a COGS or Cost of Goods Sold.

    I’m enjoying the challenge of backing up my statements, so keep it coming!


    Stevie K

  • I sort of agree with you about diminishing return on investment, though I hesitate to call it a diminishing return. The amount of time spent and the amount of money saved remains fairly constant when adjusted for inflation. If you have a large income you just naturally care less and less about the $19 a week, even if it does add up to almost $1000 a year.

    You may value your time very highly, but that’s not really the type of value you can readily measure in money unless you can easily convert that time into money. Time is money when you’re on the clock. Time is money when you only value your time spent by its opportunity cost. But without money-making options for that time, your opportunity costs don’t really translate to dollars.

    From a purely monetary point of view, frugality always makes sense unless one engages in frugal behavior that prevents that person from engaging in other, more financially profitable behavior. It’s when you start dealing with other, non-monetary values that suddenly clipping coupons is not worth the time.

    I followed your original discussion about the twelve minutes per day spent making lunches. I’ve based all of my replies upon it. Perhaps I was unclear in my little joke paragraph about the practicalities of hiring someone else to make one’s lunch.

    Assuming Dudette has the option to work 41 hours a week, she still comes out ahead by packing her lunch because the $19 a week she saves is tax free. I discussed that in my previous post. Assuming she pays about %30 in taxes, she only takes home $16.80 per hour. If she can save $19 for an hour’s work, then she is $2.20 ahead for that hour. That’s really her most highly-paid hour of the week because she doesn’t have to pay taxes on it!

    Even assuming he time is worth $24.04 an hour, I don’t see how you can say she isn’t saving money by making lunch.

    But again, your measurement of “fiscal value in units of time” is erroneous because she can most likely only convert 40 hours per week into fiscal units. There is no opportunity cost for her time past that unless she starts working a second job.

    You wrote:
    “To your arguement, if a person has a fixed or otherwise limited income, Dudette’s projections start making fiscal sense. But at $50K, I think her time could be better spent if saving money was the only goal.”

    Who ISN’T on a fixed income? Is a salary not a fixed income? It seems that most people in the workforce are on a fixed income.

    If Dudette makes $50K a year working 40 hours a week, how do you suggest she can better spend ten or twelve stray minutes a day, or even one hour a week saving money? And how does her salary affect what she can do to save money in her free time?

    Can you really calculate unbilled time as a cost of goods sold? I think that’s a little inconsistent. Here’s why:

    I’ll attempt to apply my understanding of what you are saying.

    Say I want to make lunch over the course of a week. This costs me an hour. We’ll say that hour is worth $24 and I live in some tax-free wonderland. Making lunch saves me $19, so I’m five bucks in the hole.

    I also go in to work five days that week. We’re in wonderland, so I don’t have to spend time on a commute. My hours are worth $24 and I make $24 an hour. So by the end of the week I’m netting $0 because the time I spent at work is COGS.

    So, by making lunch and going to work, I’ve lost $5 this week.

    Of course that’s silly. This is why I think it’s a little misleading to start declaring the value of your time this way. One can’t directly treat one’s time as money, especially at one’s normal pay rate. One has different opportunity costs for different hours of the day, and one’s work hours have a higher opportunity cost than one’s other hours. If I don’t go to work, then I don’t get my $24 an hour. But, after my work hours are over, I don’t have the option of working at $24 for any more hours that day, and the monetary value of my time is lower. My time might be valuable in other ways, but these don’t translate directly to dollars.

    When I spend an hour during the week making lunch, it doesn’t cost me $24. It costs me an hour’s-worth of whatever else I would be doing with my time.


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