Thursday, May 26, 2011

Why Lunch is Evil

For many working-class people, the big decision of the day is where to have lunch.

Lunch can be evil.  If you work at a job, particularly at an office, lunch is a big part of your day.  And if you are like me, you get sucked into these deals where everyone starts talking about "where to go for lunch today?" at about 10:00 AM and then finally everyone piles off in cars and goes to lunch, usually coming back far too late and after having spent far too much.

How much?   For many folks, lunch can cost an hour's labor each day.  For example, suppose you make the median income in America - about $50,000 a year.  Hey, that's not bad money, right?   What that works out to is about $25 an hour, for a 40-hour workweek, at 50 weeks a year.  But after taxes, of course, you end up with maybe 2/3rds that, if you are lucky, perhaps less.  So in reality, you might be making $16 an hour.

So you go out to the local comfort food eatery to get a sandwich and a beer.  They want $8.99 for the burger-and-fries, and a beer is $4.50.  With taxes and tip, that comes to about $16.50.  You work eight hours a day, and one whole hour of labor is just for paying for lunch.

And it doesn't matter how much you make, either.  Because if you make less, you probably eat at a cheaper restaurant.  You make more, you spend more.

There is an opportunity cost for working, if you go out to lunch.  Commuting is another expense, too.  If you drive 20 miles to work in your SUV, you might be looking at $4 in gas each way - plus the wear and tear on the car and the underlying cost-per-mile, which easily could mean a second hour of your day's labor is devoted to just commuting costs.

You can see why telecommuting is such a nice thing now - no car expenses whatsoever.  And a tuna sandwich can be made in your kitchen for about a dollar.

You show up for work at 9:00 AM, and it is 11:00 before you make any real money.  Actually, if you throw in the Federal and State taxes, it isn't until 3:00 in the afternoon that you really get ahead.

Bringing your lunch to work is, of course, one option.  But it has a whole set of social disadvantages as well.  You have to make your lunch in the morning, store it until lunchtime (and people in offices will steal lunches - sad but true!) and then find a place to eat it - other than the hideous "break room" usually provided.  But it is one way to recoup nearly an hour's labor in the process.

There are other advantages as well.  By not getting sucked into Office Politics (which is all the lunch crowd talks about) you end up happier and more productive, too.  And by not coming back late from lunch, all bloated and tired, your boss will notice you are punctual and more productive - and more likely to get a raise.

For the average working person, lunch is a huge trap.  And I say this, being sucked into the Lunch trap at nearly every job I've had.  I used to go to lunch with a fellow at work when I was making $4.50 an hour.  We'd have a sub sandwich and a beer at the local deli, which would cost easily $6 or more.  We were hardly making any money, but spending it faster than we made it.

And even working at a law firm, the same deal was true.  All the young Associates wanted to go to lunch every day - which at downtown restaurants, was often staggeringly expensive.  But as young superstar lawyers, we all thought we were made of money.  Or so we thought.

Eating out is a fun treat, no doubt.  And I am not saying that you should never eat lunch out.  But for many Americans, the restaurant has replaced the kitchen as the primary source of food.  Making food at home is a lost art, and most of us are "too busy" to cook, or simply don't know how.  We rely instead on restaurants for our food, and the results are pretty evident in our obesity and debt epidemics (which, as I have noted before, are related).

If you are eating in restaurants more than 1-2 times a week, ask yourself why.  Are these special occasions to go out and socialize and relax and enjoy food you cannot prepare at home?  Or are these just stops to refuel - with unmemorable food, unmemorable service, and a hefty bill added to an already overladen credit card?

I don't miss lunch - not the way we did it at work, nearly every day, sapping my wallet dry and adding to my waistline.  That sort of eating and spending wasn't good for me.  Lunch is evil - or it can be.