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Brown-baggers get a financial treat

Cooking

Packing lunch instead of eating out might be considered too obvious for anti-recession advice.

But market research shows Americans still aren't packing as much as they could. Brown-bagging has risen in recent years, but it's still below levels of the late 1990s, when the economy was booming.

"For six or seven years now, we've been watching an increase in brown-bagging," said Harry Balzer, a vice president at the NPD Group, which tracks consumer trends. "We certainly expected that these economic times would increase brown-bagging" even more.

But they haven't - so far. The portion of "carried meals" per American stayed the same as 2008 progressed, even as the economy got worse, NPD surveys showed. Based on other data that show restaurant lunches holding steady, Balzar expects the packed-lunch index to remain unchanged when NPD reports results from a poll performed this month.

Bringing a lunch every weekday can conservatively save $1,000 a year, if you figure you can make lunch for less than $2 and have to spend $6 at a cafeteria or fast-food place. Load up on what NPD says is the most popular daily brown-bag item after fruit and chips - the humble peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich - and you can do even better.

Hate making lunch every night? Start a "lunch pool," as recommended recently by mybargainbuddy.com's Karen Hoxmeier to The Hartford Courant.

Have three or five work colleagues take turns making lunch for each other.

"A sandwich made by somebody else always tastes better," Hoxmeier told The Courant. "With any luck, there'll be one person who wants to outdo the other, and you end up with great lunches."

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