Money

I traded homemade lunches for a $120 meal subscription service—and it was worth every penny

During my first two years in the working world, I can count on my hands the number of times I went out for lunch.

Packing lunch started out of necessity. My first five months in New York City, I was an intern stretching a $12-an-hour paycheck. So I did what any money expert or super-saver will tell you to do and cut costs by going homemade.

Once I started earning a better salary, the habit had stuck. But after two months on a "cash diet" in 2017 — which limited my spending to $60 a week and ultimately saved me four figures — I decided to treat myself … at least, when it came to lunch.

I didn't want to completely undo all of my savings from Cash Diet, so my compromise was to sign up for MealPal, a meal subscription service that offers lunch for about six bucks a day. I paid $120 upfront, which got me 20 lunches from a huge selection of local restaurants for the month of March.

I simply logged onto the app every morning, selected my meal for later that day and picked it up at lunchtime.

Six dollars a meal is a pretty good deal, especially in New York, where a salad can easily set you back $13. That being said, I typically spend $120 on all of my groceries for the month, and my brown-bag lunches can end up costing less than $3 a meal.

Still, I didn't once feel guilty about going out to eat every day. I even signed up to use MealPal again in April. Here's why:

A typical lunch, pre-March
Kathleen Elkins
A typical lunch, pre-March

1. I made room in my budget for the expense

As I mentioned, in March, lunch alone cost me the amount I normally spend on food for the month. I knew this going in, so I reviewed my budget, found other areas to cut back and simply allotted myself less money for happy hours and coffee shops.

So while I spent more money on lunch in March, my total monthly expenses weren't that different from a typical month.

For the month of March, I decided to treat myself ... when it came to lunch
Kathleen Elkins
For the month of March, I decided to treat myself ... when it came to lunch

2. I saved time and energy

Preparing lunch every night isn't entirely free: It takes focus and resources. With MealPal, lunch became one less thing I had to worry about each night and remember to grab each morning.

It sounds insignificant, but the little things add up. After all, there's a reason billionaires Mark Zuckerberg and John Paul DeJoria wear the same thing every day — repeat outfits mean spending less time and thought worrying about what to wear and directing that energy towards more important decisions.

Taking lunch out of the equation every day is another way of paring down decisions and freeing up mental space.

A salad in New York will typically cost you between $10 and $15, but this one was $6
Kathleen Elkins
A salad in New York will typically cost you between $10 and $15, but this one was $6

3. I ate healthier, more balanced meals

When it comes to cooking, I stick to what I know and what's cheap, which often results in painfully simple, monochromatic meals: buttery pasta, eggs and rice.

With MealPal, I could choose from salads, wraps, sushi, poke bowls and hundreds of other delicious and nutritious meals far outside the realm of my culinary abilities. I probably ate more greens in March than I did in all of 2016, and I felt great!

Of course, there's a middle ground between my minimalist home-cooking approach and complex restaurant meals. As food blogs like Budget Bytes, Stone Soup, and BrokeAss Gourmet show, it's more than possible to cook tasty meals on a budget — it's just not for me.

There's no way I'd be able to replicate this salmon poke bowl
Kathleen Elkins
There's no way I'd be able to replicate this salmon poke bowl

4. I took time to "pause" every day

We've all heard it time and time again: Take breaks. Get up from your desk. It's good for you.

As entrepreneur Arianna Huffington says, taking "pauses" can boost productivity and decrease stress: "Take a colleague and go to a cafeteria or go to a table away from your desk in your office and have lunch. Even if you take 20 minutes to do that, it's more recharging than what so many of us do which is eating lunch while working."

Grabbing lunch everyday forced me to step outside of the office. Even if I brought my food back to my desk, I used the time spent walking to and from the restaurant to clear my head and recharge.

Some days were healthier than others
Kathleen Elkins
Some days were healthier than others

While I still agree with the financial gurus that going homemade is one of the most effective money saving strategies, shelling out $120 last month for lunch was one of the best investments I've ever made.

For the record, I'm not promoting reckless lunch spending. I realize that I'm lucky enough to live in a city that offers an affordable, healthy meal plan like MealPal. Had I been spending upwards of $10 a day on lunch, I don't think I could have classified the expense as a wise one.

If you brown-bag it, power to you. I've been there, and I'm sure I'll be back. But for now, I'll be the one with the $6 lunches.