What Does Lunch Really Cost?

Eating lunch at desk saves money

Simple daily choices — such as whether to go out for lunch a few times a week — can have a much bigger impact on your wallet and on your savings than you realize.

A Visa survey shows that Americans go out for lunch an average of 1.8 times a week, spending an average of nearly $10 per outing. That works out to $936 per year.

Men outspend women at the lunch counter by 44% on a weekly basis (spending $21 per week on average vs. $15 for women) and are also more likely to eat lunch out.

Looking at the two extremes, 1% of people spend more than $50 per lunch, or nearly $5,000 per year, while 30% of respondents said they never buy lunch out.

What’s troubling is that those who earn less than $25,000 annually spend more per meal — $11.70 — than do those in any other income bracket, according to the survey. In contrast, those earning more than $50,000 a year spend an average of $9.60 per meal — or 22% less. Clearly, rich people are rich because they make smart financial decisions, and poor people stay poor because they persist in making bad ones.

There are also regional disparities. For example:

  • Southerners lead the nation in spending for lunch per week. The average Southerner eats out twice a week, spending $10 each time.
  • Westerners mirror the national average, spending $10 per lunch 1.8 times a week, for an average of $18 per week.
  • Midwesterners go out for lunch 1.7 times a week, spending only $8.90 per meal for a $15.13 weekly average.
  • Northeasterners eat lunch out the least often but splurge the most when they do. They dine out 1.5 times a week but spend an average $11.40, or 14% more than the national average, for a weekly average total of $17.10.

I’m not saying you should never go out for lunch. Rather, make sure that doing so is not interfering with your efforts to save for homes, college and retirement. Eating out less often and spending less when you do can free up some cash that you can invest toward truly important goals.

If instead of spending $72 per month (the national average) on eating lunch out, you invested that amount for 40 years at 8% per year, you’d accumulate $251,353.

Or you could have lots of burgers, fries and soft drinks. Your choice.

This is a hypothetical illustration meant to demonstrate the principle of compound interest and is not representative of past or future returns of any specific investment vehicle.

Originally published in Inside Personal Finance April 2015

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