As a recent university graduate, starting your first "real world job" while trying to budget your expenses can be quite difficult. Expenses at uni are less pricey than the post-grad life for most people, making it easy to fall off the wagon and end up spending more money than you anticipated.
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I'm interning this summer in New York City, and I knew going into this that my lifestyle was about to change. And it did: From having a meal plan included in my tuition to spending $16 on a single salad, I've had to adjust my budget, fast. Changing my food spending habits is definitely harder than I had anticipated, and I'm still trying to figure it out. But after a couple weeks of adapting to this new life, I've learned a few tricks for saving money on weekday lunches.
Pack Your Lunches
The most obvious, tried-and-true strategy for saving money is, of course, to pack your own lunch. You won't be the only one, trust me. You can prepare it the night before (making a double portion of your dinner to have leftovers for the next day), or go the meal prep route and make your lunches ahead of time on Sunday so you don't have to do it throughout the week. (And we have a ton of tips on meal prepping and saving on groceries to get you started.) However, if you decide that this alternative is not for you because you're either too lazy or suck at cooking, there are other options.
Set a Daily Budget
While it can be easy to spend $20 or more on lunch - especially if you pile on extra toppings and/or condiments - one way to mitigate the problem is to set yourself a specific limit. I try to limit myself to $10 per day on food, and when I do so, I don't spend money on dinner or other activities. Rather than splash out for the overpriced salad, I opt for things like slices of pizza, deli food, soups, tacos, and egg sandwiches. By walking around my neighbourhood and with a heavy assist from Yelp, I was able to find affordable places, using the search by price range feature.
For instance, a cafe on the corner from where I work sandwiches for under $8. A nearby pizzeria offers two slices of pizza for less around $10. I recently had lunch at Bite after finding it on Yelp and got a large homemade soup for $7. Yelp is a good tool to help you find "cheap" go-to places by comparing your options based on your budget. Look at what surrounds your office and try to find the best deals. Keep in mind that prices will vary from one city to another, so make sure your budget is realistic.
The 50/50 Solution
If you're like me and get bored easily with food, consider what I call the 50/50 solution. Alternate packing your lunch and grabbing food at a restaurant each day. You could also buy a small snack - under $5 - or bring one from home instead of a full meal that will cost you more. Peanut butter sandwiches, protein smoothies, oatmeal, or even hummus with veggies can be good substitutes for a meal. You'll save money and be saved from boredom from your old prep meals. (Though I would recommend still maintaining the same budget you set for yourself, whatever balance of options you end up with.)
Keep Your Takeout Leftovers
Restaurant portions are usually larger than they need to be, and when I can, I keep some leftovers for my dinner to use as the next day's lunch. This stretches the money that I spent on dinner into two meals, and also saves the time I would have spent prepping. Even if you don't have enough leftovers for a complete meal, you can still make something out of it. Use your small leftovers ingredients, such as veggies, to complete a meal. For instance, turn a plain omelet into a veggie omelet or plain rice into veggie fried rice. Cook your leftovers based on what best suits your diet to make a healthy, filling meal.
Scour food delivery services for deals
Home delivery services are convenient, but if you're prone to ordering in, you should consider mixing it up. You'll have to keep in mind that ordering food is still not a cost-effective method and probably won't be your cheapest option since you'll have to pay for your food and a delivery fee. Still, if you're going to do it, may as well do it as cheaply as possible.
Most of the time, when you sign up on a new platform, they will give you some sort of discount on your first order, or will give you $X off for downloading their app. It can be a smart way to try new places and save money on couple of your lunches.
Similarly, coupons can sometimes be a convenient way to get your food delivered and save you money at the same time. Sign up on delivery apps and restaurants to get all the updates, latest promotions and deals they have. You can also use a service like MealPal, which will give you a discount code if you refer a friend.
Getting an affordable, healthy, and easy lunch routine in place is a years-long process for a lot of people, so don't beat yourself up if you don't get it right immediately, and don't be afraid to experiment with different options.
And if you've found your own methods to eat well without blowing your weekly food budget on sad salads, let us know in the comments.