school lunch box
Frugality, Motherhood, Saving Money, Tightwad Gazette Deep Dive

Tightwad Gazette Deep Dive: School Lunches

This series takes a deeper look at different articles from The Complete Tightwad Gazette, which is a compilation of frugal tips and articles that were published in a monthly newsletter from the 1990’s. While much of the information is timeless and the tips still useful, I’m looking at how the issues currently stand today and if anything has changed.

Note: There are affiliate links to products and books mentioned in this post.

If you read The Complete Tightwad Gazette cover to cover, one of the first articles that comes up is how to save money on lunch for your school-age kids. In the article, Amy Dacyczyn (pronounced like “Decision”) compares the cost of an average school lunch at the time ($0.90) to the cost of a lunch she could produce from home ($0.45).

Sometimes it’s easy to assume that a home lunch will always be cheaper than buying school lunch, but she totally debunks that myth. Depending on what you’re putting in your child’s home lunch, you might actually find that you’re spending MORE to go that route, especially if you’re relying on a lot of pre-packaged convenience foods.

This is actually the first school year that we’ve needed to worry about school lunch at all since the federal government covered the cost of ALL school lunches during the pandemic (when my oldest was in kindergarten) and the year after (when she was in 1st grade). Now that that relief program has ended, we’ve had to wrestle with the school lunch vs. home lunch question for the first time.

For the record, school lunch this year costs $2.10 per meal in our district. Below I’ll be breaking down the cost of sending a home lunch versus buying the option from the school.

First Considerations: The Lunchbox Itself

Here’s an interesting thing to think about: if you’re just looking from a frugality standpoint, buying a reusable lunchbox isn’t actually always the cheapest route (it definitely can be, but not always).

Some major things to consider:

  • First: How much is the initial lunchbox itself, along with any other components you might consider buying, such as a special thermos?
  • Second: Are you buying a new one each year or every other year as your child’s interests change (aka, they may no longer want to bring that fairy princess or PJ Masks lunchbox to school in the 3rd or 4th grade)?

I’ll admit, we didn’t think this one out long-term, as we bought this pink lunchbox covered in unicorns for our daughter (cost in August 2021: $12.99, although it actually only costs $9.99 currently). I thought we’d have to use it last year because I didn’t know how long the federal relief was really going to last, but this school year ended up being the first time we’ve really gotten use out of it.

While we mostly have our daughter take lunch from home, we put money into her school account to cover about five school lunches per month, which allows her to just pick out her favorite school meals to eat and allows for hectic mornings when we run out of time to pack a lunch. Therefore, let’s say that rather than her packing home lunch 180 days, she’s really only packing it about 130 days.

Therefore, the cost of her lunchbox: $12.99/130 = approximately $0.10 per use if she only uses it for this year.

If I buy brown paper lunch bags from Walmart, a pack of 50 costs $1.96, which comes out to a cost of 3.9¢ per bag. If I multiply that by 130 days, we end up spending $5.07 on bags for her to take her lunch in.

But wait — let’s say that she decides unicorns are still cool throughout all of third grade as well. That means our cost per use becomes a little more reasonable at just 5¢. We’re still not beating the price of brown paper bags, but we’re coming closer. If she manages to go for a third year (or if I reuse the same lunch box down the road if this baby I’m carrying ends up being a girl), then the cost goes down to just 3.3¢ per use. Therefore, in order to beat the cost of brown paper bags, I’d need to reuse the same lunchbox for at least three years.

(Of course, that’s not taking into account all the environmental benefits of using a lunch box versus using disposable paper bags.)

All that’s to say, if you’re going to be purchasing a lunch box to use for your child, consider the initial cost as well as the overall design. While your first grader might beg for unicorns, it might be more prudent to go for a more generic, gender-neutral design that can last for multiple years for multiple children.

Clearly we didn’t make the smartest choice money-wise on this one.

What to Pack

In the book, Amy talks about packing a cheap main option (like a basic sandwich or hot soup in a thermos), one or two sides (such as fruit, veggie sticks, or a homemade baked good), and a drink (she mentioned juice or half-and half milk, which is milk made half from powder, half from whole). For any of these things, she forgoes the use of any of the convenience versions (including of the juice) and insists on going the homemade route.

In almost every case, the homemade version will indeed beat out the convenience option, so that’s something to keep in mind as we compare different costs.

The most expensive “home lunch” option would likely include something along the lines of a full-meal Lunchable, which includes your main option, a drink, and a treat of some kind. A full Lunchable currently costs $2.86 at Walmart (or you can even get the “upgraded” Lunchable for a whopping $4.24). Clearly in those cases, the school lunch option would definitely beat out the Lunchable option from both a money standpoint AND a health standpoint.

I will note that there is a less expensive Lunchable option that only includes the main dish for $1.82. If you only sent that along with nothing else, you might still end up slightly cheaper even once you factor in the cost of a brown paper bag or a lunchbox, but not by much.

(I’ll take this chance to say that if you buy Lunchables, there is NO JUDGMENT from me. I am not against convenience food at all, as you’ll see below, so I’m purely looking at this from a frugality standpoint.)

Going the opposite way, one of the cheapest main dish options you can have remains the good old pb&j, as the price of peanut butter and jelly hasn’t gone up as much as, say, deli meat and cheese or even eggs (if you were going the egg salad sandwich route). Indeed, that is our #1 main option of choice as it’s super easy to make and we almost always have the ingredients on hand.

We currently buy our bread from Sam’s Club, and a two-loaf pack comes in at $4.34, or $2.17 per loaf. In each loaf there are 16 pieces of bread (not counting the end pieces, which I’ll admit we’re less likely to use in sandwiches and which often get fed to our chickens), which means that each piece of bread costs 13.6¢. We also get our peanut butter and jelly from Sam’s Club, with the store brand of peanut butter coming in at $4.06 for a 40-ounce jar and the Welch’s jelly costing $2.32 for a 30-ounce jar. Now, I’ve never gone and measured just how much we use per sandwich, but if I just go by the serving size of two tablespoons of peanut butter and one tablespoon of jam, each serving of peanut butter costs 11.6¢ and each serving of jam costs 5.5¢.

Therefore, each pb&j sandwich costs 13.6 + 13.6 +11.6 + 5.5 = 44.3¢

I’ll admit that for a drink, I go the convenience route — most often, my daughter will take an Apple & Eve juice pack that I get from Sam’s Club, which currently comes in at a cost of 31.9¢ apiece.

While I used to send two sides along with that, we’ve since gone down to just one because we discovered that our daughter just didn’t have enough time to eat all of it, and so a lot was going to waste. The perfect amount currently seems to be a sandwich, a juice box, and one other side.

Here are the most common sides we do (just pick one):

  • bag of Cheetos, purchased in a 50-pack (34¢)
  • applesauce pouch (49¢)
  • whole pear (58.7¢)
  • whole apple (47.2¢)
  • grapes (49.8¢)

Looking at the whole picture, our cheapest lunch combination costs $1.10, which comes in a whole dollar less than the school option and therefore saves us around $130 a year. (If we only brought lunch from home every day, the savings would be more like $180 per year.) Our most expensive combination costs more like $1.35, which still saves us 75¢ per meal, or close to $100 over the course of the year.

Of course, when you factor in the cost of the lunch box per use or brown paper bag plus any baggies that you use, the savings are less, and the more realistic totals range from $1.22 to $1.47.

Keep in mind that if you were to add a second side, the savings become much less pronounced. On the flip side, if you go for cheaper sides, such as a homemade muffin (I would guess the cost of which would be somewhere between 30-35¢, unless you’re putting in more expensive ingredients), for example, or baby carrots (around 15¢), you could also be saving more than I am in my example. You could also save more by having your child just drink from a water bottle rather than take a drink such as juice or milk, or you could still have them take those things but just make them from concentrate or get it straight from the gallon and put it in a thermos, rather than relying on prepackaged options.

One last note: If your household qualifies for reduced lunch, I think you’d be hard-pressed to try and beat that price by using a homemade option.

Is It Worth It?

Right now, having our daughter mostly bring home lunch saves us around $15 a month, which admittedly isn’t a huge amount. However, as Amy Dacyczyn often says, it’s often not just one frugal thing that’s going to make the difference for you — it’s the accumulation of ALL the frugal things you’re doing.

Plus, you definitely need to consider how the savings compound once you add more and more kids to the mix. If we had two kids in school, I’d be saving $30 a month, and then $45 per month for three. Because my husband also takes his lunch to school every day, that’s easily a savings of much more than $2.10 per meal (since he couldn’t find that kind of price on lunch anywhere)! Therefore, you need to make sure you’re looking at the larger savings picture when you calculate if putting in the extra effort to go the more frugal way is worth it for you.

Okay, I’d love to know your thoughts on this! Do you pack home lunch for your kids? If so, what are your favorite options? Does school lunch cost the same where you live? Drop a comment below and let’s chat!

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