Balancing act: Readers find their own lunchtime balance
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This is an expensive time of year for the Kratz family.
My second daughter and my wife both have birthdays in November. My son and my oldest daughter both have birthdays in December.
And then there's Christmas.
For a tightwad like me, it's a nightmare.
So, on the day after Halloween every year, my usual freaking out about money jumps to an even higher level, much to my wife's chagrin. She spends lots of time sighing and rolling her eyes as I talk about getting a second job and cutting back on expenditures that I determine to be extraneous. (She thinks food and shelter are necessities. I say that's crazy talk.)
My guilt about eating lunch "out" also increases at this time of year. However, as I mentioned in a column a few weeks ago, I think there is value to spending money to eat lunch out now and then if it gives me a chance to reconnect with friends.
As it turns out, many readers also see both the downside to eating lunch at restaurants too often and the upside to building friendships over a nice meal. I like some of the points they made, so I'm going to share a few this week.
A reader named Mont wrote in an email that he has been "an avid brown-bagger" for more than 40 years.
"We have made a conscious effort to actually invest this saved money in an account for our retirement," Mont wrote. "We are now facing retirement and find it nice to be able to do some nice/fun things without a lot of concern about breaking the bank."
However, he wrote, he does understand the role of lunchtime get-togethers in maintaining relationships with friends and family.
"We have a group of friends that worked together 35 years ago that still get together for lunch once or twice a year," he wrote. "I am grateful that my brown-bagging did not get in the way of establishing these friendships and that I am still included in these annual meetings.
"I think you nailed it with the idea of balance. The informal get-togethers need not be weekly, but they do need to be regular enough to build and maintain the relationships."
Another reader, Becky, sent an email in which she expressed similar sentiments.
"Lunches out are worth it in both time and money," Becky wrote. "What better way to connect with friends, family and colleagues in a neutral place and share a meal? Generally for less than $10 an hour, you can catch up with important events in the lives of people that you care about."
Another reader, who chose to remain anonymous, wrote in an email that it is important to recognize the importance of saving money, but a person shouldn't be "so tight he isn't happy."
"Our daughter is a mental health therapist, and judging from the number of clients who spend $100 per week for one session, she agrees that many of them could spend far less by sitting down to lunch with loyal friends once a week," she wrote. "Many people only need a loyal and listening ear.
"This is the same daughter who married a guy who has brown-bagged it every day to his corporate job and paid for his and her master's degrees in cash. He meets his friends at the gym (paid for by his boss). He is not cheap. He is thrifty. Bottom line: friends and food on Friday — win, win."
This makes sense to me. My weekly lunches with friends often serve as a kind of therapy when I'm facing challenges in my life. Just think of all the money I've saved by not having to seek professional help! (Some would say I should still consider the latter, but I'll stick with my lunch therapy for now — especially if it involves bacon.)
Another reader posted a comment on the original column explaining his plan for handling the lunch issue.
"After graduating from grad school and when we started to get a paycheck, I finally felt like I could eat out without the guilt of living outside of our means," he wrote. "After a couple years of this so-called 'freedom,' I quickly realized how much we were spending on eating out.
"We recently went to a cash-only system for lunches. I get $30/month in cash for 'lunch money,' and my wife gets $60 a month (she runs around with four kids and sometimes needs to get a quick bite for everyone if time doesn't allow). This has been a great system for us. We spend less, eat more healthy, and force ourselves to pay more attention to our spending habits."
I have a friend who has a similar system with his wife, and it's worked great for them, too. My wife and I have tried it, but it hasn't worked for us. Perhaps we lack the discipline to stick to the limits.
Still, I agree with the person who posted this comment when he went on to say that "if everyone sat down and wrote down everything they spent each month, they would be shocked at the totals." It definitely adds up quickly.
Another reader posted a comment online in which she wrote that her husband works at a company that has an on-site cafeteria, where lunches usually cost about $5. If he goes out of the office, that increases to about $8.
"We had to look at what the meal I sent would cost subtracted from the meal cost at work," she wrote. "We found that it was only about $2 to $4 a day more. At $4 a day, we would be saving about $80 per month.
"However, this is only part of the equation. There is something about leaving work, or at least your office, that helps break up a very stressful day. My husband has a very good, well-paying job, but he has a lot of responsibility, and we found it worth it to have nice, hot lunch or a tasty salad out. ... We have found other ways to save."
As with everything, it's important to decide what works for you and your family. It sounds like this reader has that figured out.
I think I do, too. And I'm definitely looking forward to a therapeutic lunch this Friday.