Personal Finance

The unexpected ways co-workers are busting your budget

Key Points
  • 18 percent of workers have stolen someone else's lunch from the office fridge.
  • The average worker spends $2,746 on lunches each year.

You know that old adage, "There's no such thing as a free lunch"? For nearly 1 in 5 workers, there is — because they're stealing their co-workers' food.

In a recent survey, 18 percent of workers told American Express OPEN they had eaten someone else's lunch out of the office fridge. The charge card issuer polled 1,061 employees during late May and early June.

Packing your lunch instead of dining out is a tried-and-true savings strategy, with good reason, said consumer savings expert Andrea Woroch. Smart shoppers stacking coupons and sales can easily purchase enough supplies to make a weeks' worth of sandwiches, for the price of one takeout sandwich meal.

"Consumers definitely need to be packing their lunch to save money on takeout costs, which can be an extremely big part of your budget," she said.

The average American spends $2,746 per year on lunches, according to a 2015 Visa survey.

That includes two lunches out each week, at an average $11.14 per meal ($1,043 annually) and five packed lunches or meals at home, averaging $6.30 per meal ($1,704 annually). One-third of workers said they always brown-bag their lunch.

So a stolen lunch is a double financial drain. Not only are you losing that average $6.30 spent on groceries for homemade fare, but you're incurring another $11.14 to purchase a replacement takeout meal.

An occasional missing lunch may not be a budget-buster, but more regular thefts add up. (AmEx didn't ask if those lunch-stealing workers are repeat offenders.) If an office thief takes your packed lunch once a month, those expenses tally to roughly $210 over the course of a year.

Lunch theft happens more often than you might think. Alison Green, author of the Ask a Manager blog, says she receives "a startling number" of questions and complaints about such issues, including workers who have their sandwich stolen daily and people dealing with a lunch thief who happens to be their boss.

"What people tend to try first, if this is an ongoing problem, is that they label their food," said Green — but that rarely works.

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"By definition, someone who is stealing your food is breaking the social contract," she said. "So they are unlikely to be deterred by a note."

Readers report more success by limiting the thief's access to their food, Green said. That might mean keeping your lunch at your desk in a mini-fridge or insulated bag with ice packs. Or buying a lunchbox with two zipper tabs that can accommodate a small luggage lock or padlock.

"The locking lunchbox cuts right to the core of the problem," she said.