Illustration by Dave van Patten

Bringing Lunch to Work Is Hurting Your Career

It can pay to eat out with colleagues

Visit any personal finance website or read any book on the subject and you’re sure to be told that one of the easiest, most effective ways to reduce spending is to pack your own lunch.

Personal finance guru Dave Ramsey says brown-bagging it to work can help you save thousands of dollars a year, and savings can be even higher for workers in more expensive cities. (Cutting down on coffee trips and vending machine purchases can push those savings to more than $4,000, others say.)

There are digital calculators solely for determining lunch savings, and entire Reddit threads on how to plan ahead and cook meals for the workweek. Bringing a lunch to work helped one reddit user erase $40,000 in student loan debt in just two years, and nearly every person in MEL’s debt-paydown series “Into the Black” has made bringing a lunch to work part of their savings plans.

But what if eating alone at your desk every day actually hurt your career prospects and earning potential? In the long run, might it cost you more money than you save?

For many high-wage earners, the benefits of eating out with your colleagues outweigh the savings of bringing a meal in from home, according to Ben Waber, CEO of workplace productivity startup Humanyze.

If your performance affects your salary, and your salary is six figures or more, “then it’s not even a question at that point,” Waber says: You should be out eating lunch with your colleagues.

Waber’s conclusion is based on data gathered in Humanyze’s consulting practice. The company advises Fortune 500 companies on how to increase worker happiness and efficiency, which it does by outfitting employees with monitors that measure their speech and movement patterns. The monitors provide data on how members of an organization communicate with one another, which Humanyze then analyzes and uses to make recommendations.

Ben Waber Wants to Track Your Every Movement at the Office

Humanyze has found that time spent socializing with co-workers — time we might typically consider wasteful — actually increases employee happiness, and in turn, productivity. Casual interaction with the people working on the same project can speed up completion time by 30 percent, Waber says. For one IT company, productivity increased 16 percent when workers spent 10 percent more of their day talking to one another.

And increased job performance should (ostensibly) result in a bigger paycheck.

Waber’s math appears to check out. Using Bankrate’s lunch savings calculator, we can see that if you swap a $3 brown-bag lunch for your usual $12 takeout lunch, you’ll save about $180 each month, or roughly $2,160 per year. But if you make $100,000, and eating out with your coworkers helps you earn a 3 percent raise, then it makes sense to go out — your bump in income ($3,000) will be greater than the money you would have saved eating in.

And if you make $72,126 — the median salary for individual upper-income earners — then it’s essentially a wash; a 3 percent raise ($2,163.78) is almost exactly equal to the potential savings.

Eating out with co-workers also increases your likelihood of getting promoted, Waber says. Managers are more inclined to promote workers they actually know and enjoy, and you can’t socialize with management while you’re eating alone at your desk.

The key here is to eat out with your co-workers. Eating out alone does nothing for job performance or upward mobility in a company.

One potential solution? Bring your own lunch and eat it at a communal table with the rest of your co-workers. Humanyze has an informal policy to encourage this behavior: You can go out for food, but if you do, you have to bring it back to the office and eat it among your colleagues.