The Office Cafeteria: Cheap Or Not Cheap?

From the time I first had lunch at my father's office, the workplace cafeteria loomed in my imagination as the ultimate purveyor of radically cheap eats, a magic realm of plenty in which highly subsidized foodstuffs were showered upon those fortunate enough to possess the magic ticket — an ID card for the building. Tales of the workplace cafeteria were so lush, so fantastical, it was almost enough to make me wish I had a job...

Take if from a guy sitting in a cubicle: There's not much upside to working in an office. Sure, they pay you, but it's all downhill from there. Doing work, talking about work, meeting to talk about doing more work... it's enough to make a person crave the unemployment line. And the hours! Would you believe I have to come in at 10 a.m.? What is this, Russia?

At least, for the first time in my life, I finally have a workplace cafeteria to call my own. Shoot down 10 floors on the elevator and voilà. The salad bar, the sushi counter, the grill, the surly sandwich guy I'm afraid of, the pizza station, the global food bar, the café, the sauté guy, the grab n' go refrigerated shelves — mine, all mine! It's the cafeteria of my dreams. The one I fantasized about during the lean years, back when my roommate would waltz in from work smugly well-fed, while I, theoretically trying to be a writer (i.e., unemployed), stayed home wishing my bag of baby carrots might last the whole week, like something from the Hanukkah story. [Quick aside from those days—at least three nights a week my roommate and I would strike the following bargain: He'd pay for the Ben & Jerry's if I'd walk over to the bodega and get it. Point being: I will literally work for food.]

In other words, I love my cafeteria, especially on tuna macaroni day. It's convenient, it's fairly satisfying, and it manages to trick me into thinking I'm not at work even thought I'm still at work. Yet I find myself wondering: Is it actually cheap? Am I getting a good deal or being totally ripped off? Tough questions. Questions I'm almost hesitant to answer. I don't want to believe the office cafeteria isn't the fabled land of cheap eats I've imagined it to be. But do my bank statements tell a different tale?

The 2011 Josh Aiello Workplace Cafeteria Post Mid Year Financial Report

From January 1, 2011 through July 27, 2011, I've spent what appears to be a whopping $1,110.59 at the cafeteria. I believe that's 31 weeks, so about $36 per 5-day workweek. I'm not accounting either for days off or days I ate something/someplace else, so figure it's actually more. Let's say $40 a week.

Huh. That's actually much lower than I expected. Hang on while I cancel my request to have payroll cut out the middleman and deposit my paycheck directly to the cafeteria.

OK, I'm back. So, $40 a week seems reasonable. But let's put it in perspective. I've heard rumors of people who aren't too lazy to buy groceries and make their own lunch. Assuming such people actually exist, and also assuming that day in and day out they eat turkey and Swiss on whole wheat with mustard and a side of baby carrots (like I would), I figure that comes to about $21 per week ($10 for a pound of turkey, $5 for half a pound of Swiss, $5 for bread, and throwing in a $1 for mustard). If you're that bland, you probably drink free water for lunch, so let's leave the beverage out. $21 a week, or $651 so far this year. Wow.

Now let's swing the other way. What if you eat lunch out of the office? I suppose this would depend largely on where you live and work, but in my world it's practically impossible to get out the door for under $20 per meal, including tip and tax and the beer I need to get me through the afternoon. If you were to do this every day, hot damn that's $100 per week, or $3,100 so far this year (Yes, I actually used a calculator to come up with those figures. I considered adjusting for inflation, but I'm not sure whether that's applicable — or what inflation is.). Uh, that's a lot.

Here's what we've got:

  • Packed lunch — $21/week or $651/seven months
  • Cafeteria — $40/week or $1,110.59/seven months
  • Restaurants — $100/week or $3,100/seven months


I guess I'm forced to conclude that, relatively speaking at least, the office cafeteria is [insert drum roll] CHEAP. Perhaps not quite on the level that I'd anticipated ($1,100 just feels like a lot), but way cheaper than any option I can think of save packing my own lunch. And if you've gotta be in an office all day and you're packing your own lunch, what's the point of being alive? Am I right?

How much do you spend on lunch each day? Put your own financial report in the comments.