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Return-to-Work Sticker Shock: How to Save

From commuting to eating, it’s gotten a lot more expensive to go back to the office

Fingers hold a pink sticky note that says, "Welcome Back" with a smiley face, over a computer keyboard

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Returning to the office has gotten pricier post-pandemic. Two years after the world shut down due to COVID-19, prices for everything from gas to food are skyrocketing. That’s causing dismay for many of the nation’s workers as they return to the office full or part time after months of working remotely from home.​

“There is absolutely sticker shock for people who are paying gas prices that are 30 percent or 40 percent more than what they paid two years ago pre-pandemic,” says Lynnette Khalfani-Cox, cofounder of TheMoneyCoach.net. “It’s not only that. There’s a whole bunch of other expenses that have skyrocketed in price.” ​

Supply chain delays, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and strong consumer demand have all played a role in driving inflation to a 40-year high in February. Gas prices as of February were up 38 percent year over year, while food away from home costs were 6.8 percent higher than a year ago. Apparel and transportation expenses were both up more than 6 percent from last February. Add increasing childcare costs to the mix, and workers are paying a lot more to go back to the office. Short of negotiating a remote work arrangement, returning employees have to get creative to keep those expenses down. The good news is there are many ways to do that. ​

Commuting costs ​

Whether you drive, take public transit or use a ride-sharing service, getting to and from work has gotten a lot more expensive since COVID-19 hit U.S. shores. That means a bigger portion of your disposable income has to go to commuting costs when you return to work. There are several ways to save on gas, including shopping around for the best price, limiting the number of trips you take and keeping your vehicle properly maintained. To take the savings even further, Khalfani-Cox says, workers need to think about substitutions. “Yes, you have to get from your place of residence to your job, but does it really have to be in your own vehicle,” she says. “What opportunities are there to take public transit, is it viable to carpool, or perhaps ride a bike or even walk to work?” If you are a two-car household, use the vehicle that is cheapest to fill up for the longest commute or, even better, carpool together. If your employer is flexible, try to come into the office and leave during off-peak times. You won’t be stuck in traffic, wasting gas as your vehicle idles away. ​

Brown-bag lunch ​

Returning to the office usually means buying lunch from a local sandwich-and-salad shop, fast-food restaurant or food truck. Post pandemic, that’s going to cost you a lot more. According to Block, the digital payments company formerly known as Square, a bowl of greens costs 11 percent more now than a year ago, while the average price for wraps is up 18 percent. Meanwhile, tacos are 12 percent higher and sandwich prices are up 14 percent year over year as of March 1. To avoid lunchtime sticker shock, experts say to brown-bag it. Sure, you have to prepare in advance and it may not be as tasty as the sandwich shop or salad bar, but it can result in big savings. “Bringing it from home takes the cost of lunch from $20 back down to $5,” says Pam Krueger, founder of Wealthramp.com. “You just gave yourself an inflation hedge by planning a little more and being more conscious about what you are spending on.” Substituting store brands for brand-name groceries can increase the savings further. ​


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Do with what you have ​

After months of wearing sweatpants and loungewear, the idea of returning to work may cause you to panic as you plan what to wear in the office. The inclination is usually to run out and buy a work wardrobe, but doing that amid soaring inflation can get really pricey. A frugal alternative is to take stock of what’s in your closet and try to work with what you’ve got. ​

“Don’t automatically have reflex actions and think you need to get a new pair of earrings, a new purse or a new suit to look the part,” says Khalfani-Cox. “Don’t let spending be the default reaction.” A low-cost way to spruce up an old suit is to get a new shirt to go under it. If you have a black skirt or slacks, find ways to wear them three times a week instead of once. If you do need to spend on apparel, experts suggest shopping sales, off labels and discount stores. You can find quality work attire for a discounted price going that route.

​Lean in to family, friends for childcare help

Even before the pandemic, childcare costs were soaring, eating up a large chunk of household budgets. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, childcare accounts for 14 percent of median household income, so finding ways to curb this expense is important. That’s where leaning in to family, friends and neighbors comes in. If you can’t enlist someone to watch your child or children for free or on the cheap, see if you can split the cost of a nanny or babysitter with a friend or neighbor. Changing your work schedule to limit the need for childcare can also help you save money. “It’s important to take inflation super seriously,” says Krueger. “It creeps up on you, and if you don’t really stop and do the math and acknowledge the impact on your budget and continue to spend the way you were, inflation gets its evil way.”​

Donna Fuscaldo is a contributing writer and editor focusing on personal finance and health. She has spent over two decades writing and covering news for several national outlets, including The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Investopedia and HerMoney.​