I Spent A Week Living On Office Snacks & Here's What Happened

Photographed by Rockie Nolan.
Millennials love snacks. Or at least everyone says we do. Major food companies are basing entire brand strategies off the idea, and start-ups full of young people are keeping their employees happy with fridges stocked full of freebies. No, seriously, it’s a fact that millennials find access to free food at work to be extremely important. But we also get criticized for it. How could we care more about a soda machine and a constant supply of artisanal coffee than real benefits?

I’ve never based a decision to take a job on the inside of a fridge myself, but I do enjoy (and constantly find myself munching on) the freebies that Refinery29 provides. There also always seems to be an overflow of food from a catered lunch meeting or leftovers from a birthday celebration. You get the idea.

After a year of snacking on afternoon string cheese, granola bars, and anything remotely decent from the free table (a magical place where people put food and other stuff they’re looking to get rid of), I began to wonder if I could actually sustain myself on office spoils alone. I wanted to see if the so-called millennial obsession with snacks would translate into a real money-saving benefit. Could I go an entire workweek without spending any cash on food during normal office hours?

The ground rules were simple. During office hours, I couldn’t pay for anything. Freebies at work were fair game, and people could give or buy me food, but under no circumstances would I become an office lunch thief. Here we go.

Monday
Breakfast: Cold-brew coffee and doughnuts
Lunch: Half a Shake Shack burger

Monday was a little too easy. My boss brought in doughnuts from The Doughnut Plant for breakfast, and R29 provides free cold brew on tap during the summer months, so breakfast was taken care of. At lunch, my coworker got a delivery of the latest burger addition to the menu at Shake Shack. She had enough for my team, so lunch was also a no-brainer.

Tuesday
Breakfast: Cold-brew coffee and oatmeal
Lunch: Potbelly turkey sandwich
Snack: A bar

Tuesday was similar. R29 has oatmeal, cereal, and granola in addition to the coffee, so I grabbed an instant packet of my favorite oatmeal flavor — apple cinnamon. I had assumed this would be my first smorgasbord of kitchen snacks. For lunch, however, I had a weekly meeting with my boss, and she was planning on buying herself a Potbelly sandwich. Luckily for me, she decided to buy me one, too! Let’s chalk lunch up to the fact that she wanted to do something nice for me and also probably felt a teensy bit bad for egging me on to try out this experiment. Either way, I was set. In the late afternoon, I ate a mini blueberry-pistachio This Bar Saves Lives bar from the kitchen. I headed home having eaten better than I do on some of my more normal workdays.

Wednesday
Breakfast: Cold-brew coffee and oatmeal
Lunch: Cereal and mac 'n' cheese

Same breakfast again, but I pretty much eat this every day, regardless of whether I’m doing an experiment, unless I splurge and buy myself a croissant. This was the first time I actually felt like something was different. I had a dentist appointment that blocked out a good portion of my morning (during which time there was free pizza at the office). When I got back, there was none left, so I had a small bowl of cereal with almond milk and seriously considered ordering lunch. But then a coworker generously shared some of her mac 'n' cheese with me, so I closed the Seamless window on my computer, phew.

Thursday
Breakfast: Cold-brew coffee and oatmeal
Lunch: Dos Toros
Snack: String cheese and Pirate's Booty

So I’m clearly a creature of habit when it comes to breakfast. I won the lunchtime lottery when there was leftover Dos Toros from an intern orientation. There’s a serious art form to scoring said leftovers because the whole office wants them. You have to hear about it in time and do some shameless hovering once it looks like everyone in the meeting has already eaten. Eventually, whoever ordered the food will open it up to the rest of the office with an e-mail. But the trick is to already be there when the e-mail goes out, otherwise a line forms. I grabbed a taco plate and saved half of it to eat for dinner. A snack of string cheese and Pirate's Booty (while not the most healthy or well-rounded) held me over in the afternoon.

Friday
Breakfast: Cold-brew coffee and bagels
Lunch: Intern happy hour

I broke the breakfast mold because it was bagel Friday. Yes, Refinery29 does bagel Fridays every Friday, and yes, I am once again acutely aware of how ridiculously awesome the food situation is at work. I often don’t really eat lunch on Fridays because of the bagels in the morning, and over the summer we end the week at 3 p.m. However, as luck would have it, there was a 3 p.m. happy hour, complete with salad, mini sandwiches, and other charcuterie. I had an afternoon sandwich, some salad, and some fruit that was meant to go in sangria. I didn't eat too many veggies this week, so I was happy to end the week with some leafy greens.

The Results
Ultimately, I survived the week without ever picking up my credit card or even opening my wallet at all. While I wouldn’t necessarily want to live off cereal, oatmeal, and random office eats all the time, this experiment was definitely an eye-opener.

According to my quick cost breakdown, spending no money on breakfast or lunch during work is a major way to save. If I were buying cold brew for myself every day, that would total $16 a week, not including a $3 pastry. (Sure, I could make myself breakfast, but I don't always get it together to do so, and even buying my own bars would be around $1 per day.) Lunch is a whole different story. If I'm making for myself, I probably spend $5 or less, which is pretty good, leaving me at a total of $25. But if I'm ordering Seamless, I usually spend closer to $12-$15, which adds up to $60 or $75 per week.

So really, anytime I'm skipping spending at the office because of provided snacks or meals, I'm actually saving quite a bit long-term. A perpetual breakfast buyer could save up to a whopping $1,820 per year if work provides breakfast, which in my book is actually a worthy factor to consider when making a job decision. Let’s just say that I have to agree with my fellow millennials on this one: While I wouldn't necessarily pick free snacks over, say, health insurance, an endless supply of string cheese is actually more of a real-world benefit than I originally thought.
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