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There's money in that brown bag

Among the most annoying calculations in modern life are those that project how much money you could save over the course of a year if you did something simple, like give up your daily Starbucks.

It is always these modest pleasures that are targeted for elimination in the name of saving. It is never something like, "You could save $10,000 every year if you gave up buying fine jewelry." Or "You could save $100,000 every year if you lived in a tent in someone else's yard."

Most of us working stiffs were already feeling guilty about what we spend on eating lunch out. Not that any of us have time to do much of that in the do-more-with-fewer-people workplace.

Now Visa has released a study revealing that we spend an average of $936 a year on lunch, even though we only go out about twice a week.

Visa gathered the data by talking to 1,000 people on the phone, not by scanning the credit card records of every one of their members, which is how the NSA would have done things. And maybe did.

The credit card company, which recently released a report on the average amount left under pillows by tooth fairies, found that men spend about $21 a week, while women spend $15 a week, for an average of about $18 a week.

The 44 percent difference between what men and women spend can be attributed, I think, to the male aversion to carrying Tupperware containing leftovers in a charming floral lunch bag, but that is just a guess on my part. It could be that she is doing errands on her lunch hour and he is going out with his pals.

Visa was "shocked" to learn that 1 percent of those surveyed spend more than $50 at lunch, or about $5,000 a year, but I wasn't shocked and you shouldn't be either.

Sadly, the less you make, the more you spend on lunch out. Those who earn less than $25,000 a year average $11.70 per meal, more than any other income bracket. Those who earn over $50,000 spend about $9.60.

There were geographic differences as well. Midwesterners, true to their frugal reputation, went out less often and spent less, 1.7 times a week and about $8.90 per meal. Northeasterners eat out less frequently than any others — only 1.5 times a week — but spend the most, $11.40 a meal.

Where is all this money going? Apparently to a new restaurant category called "fast-casual." This includes Panera Bread, the leader with sales of over $3.7 billion in 2012, and Chipotle, Panda Express, Five Guys Burgers and Fries and Jimmy John's Gourmet Sandwich Shop.

According to Technomic, which tracks food industry trends, fast-casual makes up just 14 percent of the total $223 billion limited-service restaurant segment, but its sales continue to outpace both quick-service and full-service establishments, increasing by as much as 16 percent even while the rest of the industry is having a more difficult time.

According to Nat Sillin, head of Visa's U.S. financial education program — a man who keeps jars of peanut butter and jelly in his desk in case he doesn't have time to pack a lunch — 30 percent of the poll's respondents never eat lunch out at all.

That would include me. I always bring leftovers in Tupperware in a cute lunch bag. But I would love to open it one day and find $936 in there.

"It is a constant struggle," admitted Mr. Sillin, who tries cook on Sunday and divide it up so he has leftovers for the week. But it doesn't always work out that way.

"And sometimes you get bored with what you brought," he said. "But I set a budget and I try to stick to it."

That's the point of the Visa report, he said. Pay attention to where your money goes. You don't need to go into hock paying $10 a day for a sandwich, a drink and a bag of chips.

"We're not saying don't eat out," said Mr. Sillin. "We are saying develop a budget and stick to it."

By the way, the tooth fairy leaves an average of $3.70 per tooth, up from $3 last year, according to Visa, while the top 2 percent report leaving an average of $50 under their kids' pillows.

Susan Reimer's column appears on Mondays and Thursdays. She can be reached at and @SusanReimer on

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