Does a frugal culture exist in your workplace?

by Rocket Finance

I recently changed jobs and with my job change came a change in culture.

I recently left a job in the midwest. The town where we lived was dominated by old-country Germans. Most of the families had lived in the United States for three or four generations, but the habits and lifestyle was still present. Neat yards, sausage, sauerkraut and punctuality were critical elements to our daily lives. Our workday began at 8 am sharp and lunch was clearly defined. If we took 30 minutes for lunch, we could leave the office at 4:30 pm. If we took a 60 minute lunch, we had to work until 5:00 pm.

I then took a job in one of the western states and we live in a suburb of Denver, Colorado. The culture here is a bit more eclectic and laid back. At other workplaces in the area, I have observed individuals arriving 30 minutes late for work and not being reprimanded. Employees at my particular place of employment can show up anytime between 9:30 am and 11:00 am. In fact, when I was hired, I was not given an arrival time, my supervisor simply told me to “get your job done”. Lunch can occur anytime between 11:30 am and 1:30 pm and can last more than an hour and a half. (To be fair, there are times during the year where the employees in my line of work put in a great deal of overtime – nights, weekends, travel, etc.)

So far, while I am a little unnerved by the laissez faire approach (Mrs. Rocket is a western girl and loves it), I am beginning to adjust – although I am still the first one to enter the office every day. The area where I am having the most difficulty adjusting is in what is spent on food and beverages. In my previous job, everyone either made coffee at home or brewed some kind of inexpensive brand in the office. I didn’t spend more than $3 a month on work-day coffee. In my new office, there is no place to brew our own java and everyone who uses caffeine in the morning, stops off at Starbucks on the way to work.

Lunch is the most treacherous part of the day. In my old office, most people “brown-bagged” a sandwich to work. The few who didn’t bring a lunch, lived close enough to run home and eat. Going out for lunch was an exception, usually paid for by the boss and an event planned well in advance. At my new workplace, everyone goes out to eat every day. No exception. And it is kind of an uneasy situation because sometimes the “boss” buys lunch and other times, we all pay for our own – and I never quite know in advance whether I am paying or when someone else is going to pick up the check.

Who’s buying is critical information.

To make things worse, every lunch at this office seems to be a working lunch and there is a lot of pressure to go drop $6 or $8 or $10 on an unhealthy meal that I can’t afford. There have been a couple of situations where my boss has basically ordered me to go to lunch – on my dime. I am still the new guy, and I don’t want to cause too many waves, but going to lunch even one time during a week busts our budget. Mrs. Rocket is pretty consistent about making a lunch for me when I remember to ask the night before, so I took a lunch every day last week and got a way with it – primarily because most of my office was on vacation. I have been playing along and paying the price for the last few months, however, I must cut back.

If I dig in my heels and say that I am not going to lunch,

  • My office mates will probably volunteer to buy lunch for me.
  • At some point, I will need to reciprocate and I can’t afford that either.
  • When my office-mates buy lunch for me, they think that they are saving me $10 or $8. What they don’t realize is that they are only saving me about $1.50 per day.
  • We are not dirt-poor or in need of charity, but for some reason, brown-bagging at this office seems to imply that we are one step from applying for food stamps.
  • They don’t understand that I like the lunches that my wife makes. Mrs. Rocket makes a mean sandwich – turkey, pickles, tomato, lettuce are typical ingredients and Mrs. Rocket’s lunches cost less than $2.00 despite the inclusion of fruit, chips or crackers, cookies, yogurt etc. . . . and her lunches don’t clog my arteries quite as much. Although, the chocolate chip cookies make me wonder.
  • If I refuse to go (which I have done a half-dozen times), they will still go without me and will not have input in the discussions that take place.
  • I fear that I am gaining the reputation of a skinflint or worse: anti-social.

Here is the irony: my fellow employees cannot afford to go to lunch either! From what I can tell, they just do it as a part of the job. I suspect that several of them are racking up significant debt in the process. I estimate that they spend $40 a week on lunch, that’s over $2,000 a year! And what if you buy for someone else once in a while or take your spouse out to eat on the weekend? I think some of these folks are dropping $3 to $4K a year at restaurants! They just seem to think that $8 to $10 lunches are a job expense just like proper clothing or gasoline. I know that the restaurants in our area appreciate that kind of thinking . . .

A further irony is that salaries are approximately 15% higher (for virtually the same work) at my new job than my old job – yet the number of complaints about compensation are far greater here in CO than in WI. I believe that with a minimum amount of effort, they could give themselves a 10% to 15% raise without begging from the boss. I have not taken much of a stand on this issue up to now, but I am quickly approaching the moment when some kind of discussion will need to take place.

Maybe I will start my own personal finance movement called the “brown bag factor” in my office.

How have you dealt with a clash of finance culture in your workplace?

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  1. 13 Responses to “Does a frugal culture exist in your workplace?”

  2. By Aryn on Jul 14, 2008 | Reply

    Maybe you should start saying you have to do something else at lunch. Do you belong to a gym near the office? Go there instead. Then eat lunch at your desk. That way people won’t think you’re being anti-social, just dedicated to fitness.

  3. By rocketc on Jul 14, 2008 | Reply

    Hmmm. . . that is a possibility. Actually, there is a weight room in our facility. That might be an easy scheme to pull off. Maybe I would start a trend. . . I’m not the only one in my office who needs to lose few lb’s.

  4. By L on Jul 14, 2008 | Reply

    Do you have a board room or other common area where you could have these lunches? In my office we have a weekly group lunch seminar- admin provides a jug of coffee and everyone comes with their own lunches to eat during the presentation.
    Some go and buy their lunches and bring them back in, but most people are sitting with their own tupperware. Some weeks someone will bring in cookies etc for the group.
    Perhaps if you suggested a more structured lunch meeting then others could get takeout and bring it back but you could stick with your brown bag?
    Other than that I can’t help, sorry, one of the bonuses of working in academia is that very few of us have money to throw around.

  5. By plonkee on Jul 15, 2008 | Reply

    Oooh, starting up seminars is a good idea. As is saying that you need to keep yourself in shape (as long as your pride isn’t too harmed by this idea).

    But, at the end of the day I think you’re going to have to add it as a budget line. If they really go every single lunch time, then you’ll need to go sometimes, and probably a lot more often than you’d choose to.

  6. By rocketc on Jul 15, 2008 | Reply

    I was afraid of that answer . . . it will be a lot easier to add a budget item when my house sells.

  7. By Jane on Jul 18, 2008 | Reply

    If there a lot of restaurants around where you work you can always try to introduce the go and buy it then meet back at the office and eat together. Then just slip in your brown bag. We did this a lot at my old office because A) many of the favored take out place did not have a lot of seating B) you all didn’t have to eat at the same place. As for the coffee, I got a thermos from Walmart and it stayed warm until after 2pm+. Just say you like your home brew better. Or at my old office we had one of those hot/cold water cooler and a friend made french press coffee no one thought he was cheap b/c it was french press.

  8. By deepali on Jul 21, 2008 | Reply

    This is a tough one. Adding in a day or two a week for the gym could help. Perhaps suggesting lunch-in a day a week would also be good. But it does sound like 1-2 times a week, you’ll have to go out, especially if there is decision-making going on. Reminds of that Friends episode where Rachel takes up smoking… I never saw the end of it, wonder what she worked out.

  9. By LC on Jul 21, 2008 | Reply

    My workplace sounds about halfway in between your old and new jobs. Around here, if we schedule a meeting around lunchtime, it is catered (company-paid), so many people can get their lunch for free almost every day. Maybe suggest that to your management. To them, the cost for each meal is far less than the extra hour of productivity per person (that is if you are ok with the idea of not getting a lunch break).

    But I would also just change your mindset from “that is a lot of extra money I have to spend just for lunch” to “This is part of my job and this is how much I need to spend to have a say in company decisions.” Then automatically deposit $20 per paycheck into a savings account so you don’t miss it. Then I would make a point to go out to lunch at least once a week with the group, perhaps with your own ideas of what you’d like to discuss (work related). You may actually find that they are not discussing business and haven’t been missing out. I would still say go every now and then just to maintain relationships with your co-workers.

    But I also think it’s a good idea to join a gym or “invent” appointments or errands for your lunch break.

  10. By MITBeta @ Don't Feed The Alligators on Jul 27, 2008 | Reply

    My workplace is a mix of brown-baggers and take-outers, but most people still end up eating in the conference room. My suggestion is that if lunches out turns out to be a required part of the job that you check with you tax preparer to see if you can claim at least some of the expense as a deduction. It certainly seems to me that if your boss is making you go and pay your own way that this is a deductible expense.

  11. By rocketc on Jul 27, 2008 | Reply

    MITBeta, great idea, I think I will look into this.

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