Dough On The Side: How to Earn Extra Cash On Your Lunch Break


This is a guest post by Matt Giovanisci of Listen, Money Matters.

My frugal co-worker Brian kept an arsenal of money-saving supplies in the office pantry: peanut butter, jelly, and a loaf of wheat bread.

An admitted late eater, he’d wander into the pantry each afternoon around 1:30, just as everyone else was slipping into post-lunch comas. Out came the supplies and, like clockwork, Brian constructed his lunch: two hearty peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

They filled the office with the sweet aroma of childhood as he carried them, stacked on a single paper towel, back to his desk.

The taunts from co-workers were as predictable as the routine:

“Peanut butter and jelly again, Bri?”

“You’re gonna grow a peanut farm in your stomach.”

“Did your mom pack you a Thermos, too?”

“I thought you were a grown-ass man.”

Equally predictable? Brian’s response:

“It’s a seventy-five cent lunch!  I’d rather have the money in my wallet than, y’know, eight-dollar sushi in my stomach.”

This second sentence prompted indigestion on my behalf, because, you see, I had typically just finished a meal of eight-dollar sushi purchased from the corporate “marketplace” downstairs (“marketplace” being the fancy name given to the in-house cafeteria where you spend the very money you’re there, in the building, away from your friends and loved ones and hobbies and TV, dressed in dopey business-wear, to make. Nonsensical, I know), and eaten while staring at my computer screen.

Hardly a decadent dining experience.

I should be more like Brian, I’d self-flagellate, the fading taste of avocado rolls no longer as appealing as the thought of cold, hard cash in my wallet.

And yet, each day, Brian’s defensive preparation saved him seven or so bucks as I dropped the same amount on lackluster meals that blended together like memos from the boss. If Brian and I were that illustration where two trains leave a station at the same time, his train way waaaaay closer to Financial Freedomville than mine – which had basically stalled back at Slacker Station.

And then, on its way to Financial Freedomville, Brian’s train made an unexpected stop at Genius Junction.

“Dude, that PB&J smells good,” one of our co-workers said to him one day, randomly.  “If I give you two bucks, will you make me one?”

It began: the realization among co-workers that dessert, in the form of a yummy peanut butter and jelly sandwich, could be had by way of two bucks handed to Brian – who’d not only whip it up in ninety seconds flat, but would walk it to your desk! A short-order chef in Dockers.

By my math, Brian was earning a dollar a minute for each of these orders, while already on the clock. Only twenty percent of each transaction (forty cents or so in peanut butter, jelly, and bread) was spent on overhead.

It was a small, subtle enterprise that remained low-key enough to avoid eyebrow-raising, but prosperous enough to earn Brian close to one hundred bucks a month in profit.

And the odds are that no one in your office is currently doing it. While this is just one way of earning some extra money on the side, it bears a little further investigation. Here are a few tips for choosing an edible offering and becoming your office’s Brian:

1. Find a marketplace need. Brian’s PB&J offering was ideal because it wasn’t something you could buy elsewhere in the building (like Reese’s Cups or a Coke), or make yourself without having thought ahead about necessary ingredients. Predict the predictable: people succumb to sweet, substantial, and/or caffeinated goods in the morning, savory foods at lunchtime, and sweets and energy-boosters after lunch.

2. Tickle their tastebuds. No one’s going to give a crap about your food if they can’t smell it. And since you probably can’t – and shouldn’t – advertise the fact that you’d like to make money under the table from your workplace peers (see #5), you ideally want to let the food speak for itself. The more far-reaching its aroma, the better. A smell that’s reminiscent of comfort food, or childhood, or life beyond cubicle walls is that much more likely to provoke impulse spending.

3. Make sure there’s preparation involved in your offering. If you become a one-man/one-woman trading post, handing out candy bars from your desk in exchange for cash, HR might enact some kind of “Wire”-like investigation. But fold your side biz into an action you’re already known for – like making sandwiches for yourself at 1:30 each day – and no one will raise an eyebrow.

4. Become your first customer. Start eating this food daily. Make it your trademark. When people ask why you eat it everyday, describe its deliciousness in all its glory. Endure their jokes and teasing.

5. Don’t initiate the first transaction, or even any thereafter. Rather, let it come to you. Someone, someday will ask for a bite. Give it to them. Entice them. The next time they look at your food longingly, or ask for a taste, mention nonchalantly, “Hey, I can make you a caramel popcorn at 3:00 pm each day, too. Just give me three bucks a week to cover the cost, and I’ll make you a bag when I make my own.” Keep it nonchalant, like the idea just sprung to mind, but have your price prepared in advance.

6. Watch Fight Club. Take a cue from Fight Club. Don’t tell anyone what you’re doing.*  Don’t brag about the extra dough you’re making. Exercise caution and moderation. You’re running a micro operation, not a future Fortune 500 enterprise. A visit to the HR directors’ office isn’t worth the $5 in daily profit. Don’t become the buffoon who got fired for trying to sell a peanut butter and jelly to the boss.

*Except us. Tell us about your success. We’ll give you a pseudonym and exalt you like a demigod on our site.

Matt Giovanisci is the host of Listen, Money Matters! One of the fastest growing personal finance podcasts, available on iTunes.

Image Credit: Patrick

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  • bookishheather

    This isn’t a workplace story, but when I was younger I was in an orchestra and there weren’t a lot of snack options available during our breaks. One of the percussionists turned this into a nice little side business for himself—he brought a cooler of soda and box of snacks each week and earned money that I believe he used to help pay his way on our trips to Europe and Japan. Smart!

    • Matt Giovanisci

      Now that’s what I call an Entrepreneur 🙂

  • TheBrokeProfessional

    Ha that was a great story. I’m having a craving for some PB and J myself. It’s best when the jelly is cold. This is actually a great idea for workplace lunches. I usually try to bring lunch to work, but doing this a few times a week makes for a super quick and inexpensive lunch.

    • Matt Giovanisci

      It’s very inexpensive. Unfortunately, I’m no longer a fan of the frugal sandwiches (I was a fluffernutter kid). I just got back from a road trip, and my friend packed a cooler with tin-foil wrapped PB&Js and I couldn’t bring myself to eat one 🙁

  • debtfreeoneday

    This post made me laugh out loud, you have a great way of storytelling Matt! My hubby makes really nice breakfast smoothies, maybe he could take his supplies to work and start taking some orders…