Doing Lunch and How to Save $20,760

networking, savings

I only had one major gripe with Keith Ferrazzi’s wonderful book, NEVER EAT ALONE: what a shitty title. I thought, That’s the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard. The world would be a better place if everyone learned to be comfortable in his or her own skin, and being alone (whether you’re in a park, at a movie, or eating lunch) is integral to that. Years later, I realized I completely missed the point Ferrazzi tried to make.

Cui Bono (Who Benefits?)

Ferrazzi’s point is “never eat alone” if your alternative is breaking bread with another person and developing a relationship. They probably realized this was too long of a title, so they shortened it. I thought the title suggested this layer of insecurity about eating by oneself. Later I realized it’s not about insecurity, but cui bono: who benefits when you eat alone?

Nobody. Which is what this post is about: how to strategically maximize the opportunities when you go out for lunch, and reap benefits when you choose not to…

Let me say right away: yes, you should be going to lunches. This may sound contrary to the post’s title and to Fighting Broke. That’s of course, my intention since I’m about to drop some contrarian knowledge on you: the benefits of going out to lunch can and should outweigh the benefits of always bringing a lunch. I promise this is less Machiavellian than it sounds.  Basically what I’m saying is: if you’re fighting broke, you should have a plan with your lunches.

Before diving into strategy, a quick thought on networking: I’m just tired of the same clichéd thoughts on the subject, like:

  • This is a business built on relationships
  • It’s not what you know it’s who you know.
  • Network whenever you can! Buy lunches, buy drinks and at some indeterminate day in the future, you’ll be able to afford it!

They never offer more tactical advice, like understanding there’s a cost-benefit relationship to networking. The bad advice of “oh, just do it and worry about it later” probably won’t kill you but it’s a terrible habit. It’s the crucial difference between saying “oh, don’t worry about it” and doing nothing, versus creating a plan and saying, “I’ve done something so now I don’t have to worry about it.” We want to establish good habits, not hope to scrape by.

Here’s a framework for maximizing your networking* and managing your finances: If you’re meeting someone new for lunch, OR eating lunch with someone whom you haven’t spoken to in a few weeks (4+) then this is money wisely spent.  If the person doesn’t fall into this category, ask yourself, cui bono?

Using these criteria, let’s say you set 2 lunches a week (in conjunction with your 2 drinks per week). Two lunches a week is a reasonable goal, but decide what works best for you. That’s 100 extra “touch points” in a year — 100 new relationships forged and connections made. In a career that spans a decade, by using your lunches strategically (even if you don’t increase the number of time you go out) you create 1,000 new touch points. Imagine what your career looks like if you took the time to connect with 1,000 new people — whether you’ve broken bread with them, played dodge ball with them, or helped with an ISO. What does your career look like when you have 1,000 extra people to ping when you need someone to pitch an idea to, a list of indie directors, or just a restaurant recommendation? How does the trajectory of your career change?

It’s Easy Not To Use Lunches Strategically

Now we’re using lunch strategically, there are pitfalls to avoid. For example, honing who you go out to lunch with.** Generally speaking you should limit yourself to three kinds of people:

  1. People you haven’t seen in awhile and whom you touch base with every month to six weeks
  2. People you haven’t met
  3. People you’ve met under a different context and what to get to know better.

Here’s what strategic lunches don’t look like: going to lunch with the same person, over and over again, because it’s comfortable. This is a bad habit you can easily fall into: you don’t have a lunch, they don’t have a lunch, and you share an awkward laugh, then a bottle of wine… Eyes meet… hands touch…

Wait, no, that’s a different bad habit. The first part holds true, though: neither of you have lunches and you’re not in the healthy, money-saving habit of bringing your lunch yet. You’re slammed with work, and the easiest thing is grabbing a low-key lunch with someone in the office, whom you already know (and spend a great deal of time around). There was a 3-week period this year where that’s exactly what I did, 2-3 times a week. A friend worked in the office next door so we got lunch more often since it was so easy and convenient. Getting together for lunch required little effort on either of our parts since we were already friends.

However, did we benefit from these lunches, professionally and personally? Professionally we shared no business together. We just had lunch together the other day so there were rarely new developments on this front (I could always stop in his office when there was a question, anyway). On a personal level, yes our relationship developed some, but because we met under the same context, we didn’t really get to know each other better.

Thoughts on Eating Alone

There’s little to no benefit in eating out alone. However, there are benefits to eating in alone. Let’s say you eat out twice a week. That’s three times a week you’re:

  • Bringing in your own healthy lunch
  • Giving yourself an opportunity to recharge by disconnecting from people, from email, and from work (which doesn’t happen often enough)
  • Saving money, money which you’re going to put to work in creating your financial independence

Let’s look closer at the significant savings you’re making by thinking strategically about lunch:

A reasonable lunch can costs anywhere from $9 to $20. For the sake of argument and a conservative estimate, we’ll call it $10. That’s $30 saved a week, or $120 saved over the course of a month.

In one year you’ve saved $1,400 just by using a little strategy when it comes to eating out lunch. That’s ~25% of the maximum yearly IRA contribution, and if you combine it with your savings from using Fighting Broke’s tips on saving money on drinks, you can already contribute about half of the maximum yearly IRA contribution. (Remember, this money is tax deferred so each year you invest, you’re compounding on tax-free dollars.) In ten years, with compounding, strategically thinking about your lunches is the difference between 20,760 little soldiers chillin’ in your bank account, shoveling coals into the fire of financial independence so you can get out from under the heel of bosses and clients, and $20,760 NOT in your account. Instead, you spent that money on unremarkable lunches, which did nothing to advance either your financial independence or your career.

How to Save Cash$ on Lunches

Understanding the higher-level strategy behind your savings is important. However, analogous to the networking clichés and the fools who spout them like Gospel, I don’t want to just tale about unspecific and unsanctionable thoughts. Without specificity, we can’t convert thought to action. And without action, we only meet frustration. Thus, here are some tactical applications on both going and not going out to lunch:

Going Out to Lunch

  • Coordinating lunch logistics is a greater challenge than drink logistics. If you’re still answering someone else’s phone, you’re tied to a geographic location. You need to get back in time to man the phones (and your lunch date will face similar challenges). Thus, lunch requires a little extra thought:
  • Connect with people in the area, whose offices are nearby.
  • Get lunch with people whom you see in other contexts, but never had a meal together.
  • Lunches will cancel more often than drinks. Thus, keep the pipelined filled – as you email or connect with other assistants, fill the pipeline with people you’d like to meet.
  • Don’t just think about costs, but also speed and convenience. You still have to get back in time.
  • Learn the places in the area that are good and fit your price range.
  • If your lunch buddy asks why you don’t want to grab lunch with him anymore, be honest. Say you’re trying to save some money, and suggest another date. Then you can schedule it after an appropriate amount of time.

Staying in for Lunch

Use these ideas for when you’re staying in for lunch:

  • Each time you make dinner, cook double portions. Bring the extra portion with you for lunch the next day. I realize this sounds simple but it isn’t — you may never actually have time to cook dinner during the week! If that’s the case, an alternative is to cook a double portion on Saturday, and cook triple portion on Sunday. This will provide you with three lunches for the week, so when it’s time to eat in, you’re all set.
  • Trader Joe’s lunches – I know some assistants who swear by Trader Joe microwavable lunches. They have a wide variety, though personally I’m not a huge fan. They cost $4 – 6, and I’m never full afterwards. After two hours I’ve ravished again and start snacking like mad. I’d much rather go buy lunch and be satisfied than spend half the price for half the food, and be grumpy on an empty stomach for the rest of the day. I’ll leave one or two of these in the office freezer in case I’m in a pinch but don’t like to rely on it.
  • Leave food at the office if you need a snack: salad dressing, peanut butter, fruit, nuts and almonds, etc.
  • When you bring lunch, make sure to still get outside and walk around if you have the opportunity. Healthy nutrition, sunlight and fresh air will re-energize you for the afternoon.
  • When others in your office bring their lunch, suggest a “bring lunch” date, so you get the best of both worlds.


“But Ming,” naysayers might whine, “I want to rub shoulders! I want to go to Bouchon and Gulf Stream for lunch!” If expensive lunches are something you aspire for, if it’s part of the cost of your financial freedom, great. You can work to reach that goal. However, it takes times time, and you have to think about it strategically.

There’s a cost to networking as a whole. Too often people hear advice like “you should network” but no one talks about the logistical and financial impact of networking. Networking, building your career, and creating financial independence are long-term endeavors. We don’t want to just blow your money for no reason this early in the race. In the long run, my goal is that we can all have our lunches, and eat it too.


*In this context, I see business lunches as opportunities to maximize your networking. The reason you take these lunches is to meet people. If you’re trying to create financial independence but you’re not meeting someone new for lunch, then you may as well bring your own lunch.

**To be clear, I’m not an advocate for only networking with people who are “above” you in status, aka, being a complete ass kisser. If you think someone is intelligent, has a lot of potential, or is just a great person to be around, you should get to know them more. I love eating lunch with interns who have these qualities, even if everyone else typically snubs them. I respect and want to get to know people who understand how to create value, regardless of where their relative position is at this point in time.

Photo Credit: Jenny Downing

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