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Young Professional Problems: I Spend All My Money on Food

by Borderstan.com February 26, 2013 at 10:00 am 9 Comments


Working to eat? (Luis Gomez Photos)

From Lauren Levine. Email her at lauren[AT]borderstan.com

You’re a young professional, and you live in the District. Your “save the world” job makes you feel good, but it only puts Shake Shack on the table and you’re looking for some Birch & Barley. Our generation loves food (for proof, check Instagram). Yet food has us counting more than just calories. Here are a few suggestions for making the most delicious and cost effective decisions.


I don’t even want to count how much I’ve spent in 2013 on Sweetgreen salads (damn you February seasonal salad for being so delicious). Buying lunch out five days a week will add up before you can even figure out how to pronounce Pret a Manger. The minimum $6 you spend for lunch will add up to nearly $1,500 over the course of a year.

Obviously, you can bring lunch. I aim for compromise by telling myself that I can only eat lunch out Monday and Friday, but must bring lunch Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday. If not bringing, try finding your local cheap eats. Food trucks and mom-and-pop type shops usually have more affordable prices than your DC-wide lunch staples. Also, skip the drink and chips. Nantucket Nectars is delicious and expensive.


I used to fear those “birthday dinner” invitations – you know when your friend makes everyone go to a fancy restaurant because suddenly drinking excessively for someone’s birthday isn’t enough? Well that still sucks, but I’m more scared by brunch. Do I want to go to brunch with you? Hell yeah. I love me a bloody mary and some crab cake Eggs Benedict. But it is expensive to go to brunch in DC these days!

I have a “one brunch per week” rule. For the other days, bagels are an excellent solution to any breakfast problem. You can buy a dozen and invite friends over, probably for cheaper than brunch, and you can ask your friends to bring the mimosas. For a romantic bagel brunch, walk to Bethesda Bagel and bring your bagel to Dupont Circle. Too trendy for bagels? Wander the farmers market with friends, grab some goodies and sit down then and there to share and enjoy.


I don’t need to elaborate here – groceries in the district are prohibitively expensive, even compared to other cities.

Have you met my friend Joe? He’s a trader, and while his produce is terrible, his prices are right. Thankfully there’s another one opening up at 14th and U. It can be hard to be an extreme couponer when you don’t live in the middle of Nebraska with a shed devoted to stock piling groceries, but you gotta work the deals to save some cash. If there’s a 2-for-1 sale on couscous, eat couscous all week! Learn how to freeze extras.

Or, the next time you find yourself outside of the District, hit a grocery store there and I guarantee you’ll save money.

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  • Lindsey

    “Buying lunch out five days a week will add up before you can even figure out how to pronounce Pret a Manger.”
    –By far one of the best & truest things I’ve read lately.

    • Thanks, Lindsey! Don’t even start me on Le Pain Quotidien…

  • Joel

    Middle Age Professional here with two thoughts: 1) great article, nicely done; and, 2) don’t do what I did, which was to wait until much older to have truly delved into cooking. The joy of learning to cook is priceless. If you’re just putting together your lunch for the office, the taste will be far better than anything you could’ve purchased prepared (yes, you can even learn how to easily prepare things like Thai food, so you won’t get bored). And when you cook for friends, the entire experience is wonderful, creating memories. We love dining out too, but think of this: I can still remember the dinners a roommate would prepare, decades ago, when I was Young Professional in a group pad. I remember them down to the conversation, the light, the moment. By contrast, I honestly can’t remember a single brunch from those days.

    • Thanks, Joel! That’s a great point. Cooking is a great hobby, and I agree that most of my fondest social food memories are enjoying a meal at home with friends. I especially enjoying having a friend over to help in the actual preparation — you can trade tips and techniques. That’s how I learned to properly use a knife, actually!

  • NS

    Good advice, Lauren! A Sweetgreen-addict and nonprofit employee myself, I’d encourage everyone to look closely at the cost of the seasonal salads. Sometimes it’s cheaper to order a custom salad with the exact same ingredients. February is almost over, but this month, that strategy will save you $1 a salad.

    • Wow – great tip! I had never even thought of that. I definitely could use that $1 though, especially for an afternoon frozen yogurt!

  • How about trying a meal planning service? That way the research and planning is done for you and all you have to do is cook. Check out http://www.mealime.com! It provides weekly shopping lists and daily 30-minute recipes that cover dinner and the following day’s lunch. That way you know exactly what to buy and what to cook.

    • Just checked out Mealime — what a great idea. Thanks for sharing, Maria! I’ve seen a few similar services, but nothing quite as comprehensive. I wish it was free, though. Do you use it yourself?

      • Hi Lauren,
        I’m actually the co-founder of Mealime. Being a recent grad myself, I realized how time-consuming and expensive cooking can be! Like you mentioned in the article, a lot of $$ spent on takeout/restaurant dinners as well as going to the grocery store too many times and so much food waste :(. Yes, there are similar services but it seems most cater to families. We wanted to create something super simple that specifically helps young busy professionals. There is a subscription fee, but following the plans on a regular basis saves a lot of time and money.

        We’ve going to be introducing a FREE course with 7 tips on stress-free cooking for busy professionals very soon. It will be a series of emails with various tips and ideas that save time and money (most of these come from our experience in creating the meal plans). If you’re interested, I’d love to share a link with you when we have it up and running. Can I send it to your email that’s listed above or would you prefer it on twitter? My personal twitter is @Maria_Golikova

        Btw, read your other article “The Happy Hour Quandary”. I really like the first point “Do what you want”. Oftentimes, people don’t spend enough time doing things they enjoy. You feel pressure to fulfill a promise, but honestly is the best policy 🙂


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