Going back to the office? It’ll cost you

A return to the office may come with a big price tag, especially with inflation so high.

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Myles Ma

Myles Ma

Senior Reporter

Myles Ma is a senior reporter at Policygenius, where he covers personal finance and insurance and writes the Easy Money newsletter. His expertise has been featured in The Washington Post, PBS, CNBC, CBS News, USA Today, HuffPost, Salon, Inc. Magazine, MarketWatch, and elsewhere.

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About 43% of work-from-home workers have gone back to the office as of May, according to occupancy data from Kastle Systems, a security provider. Aside from learning how to make small talk and figuring out how to use the company printer, many people are finding that going back to work also means spending more money.

Here’s how returning to the office could impact your finances and how to adjust your budget.

1. Transportation

Commuting from your bed to your desk costs nothing. Making it to the office costs more than nothing. A gallon of regular costs over a dollar more than it did last year, [1] while inflated car repair costs and busier, more dangerous traffic conditions are raising the cost of car insurance. 

If you drive to work, make sure you pay the lowest possible price for gas. Apps like Gas Buddy or Gas Guru have large databases of gas station prices to help you choose the cheapest place to fill up. Your grocery store or credit card may have a fuel rewards program that cuts your per-gallon price depending on how much you spend.

Public transportation is often a cheaper option if it’s available in your area. Many employers offer commuter benefits, which allow you to use pre-tax money from your paycheck to cover mass transit expenses. These programs may also cover parking costs.

You can save on car insurance by shopping around. Policygenius can help you compare quotes based on your location, age, vehicle, and other factors. Changing your coverage limits and deductibles may also help lower your premium, but this comes with tradeoffs: A lower premium may also mean you pay more out of pocket in the event of a crash.

→ Read more tips on getting affordable care insurance

2. Food

Inflation has also likely raised prices at your local office lunch spot. Your sad $10 salad in a plastic bowl is now more like a sad $13 salad in a plastic bowl. Luckily, if you want to avoid this cost, you can keep eating the same food you’ve been eating at home for two years. Just invest in some plastic containers and bring that food to work.

3. Childcare

By now you’ve inadvertently been on an important business call with an uninvited child (maybe it was your child!). Bring-your-kid-to-work day happens just once a year, so many parents will have to pay for childcare. And they’ll have to pay a lot: More than half of families spent more than $10,000 on childcare in 2020.  [2]

Working parents can claim a tax credit for child care expenses of up to $8,000 for one dependent under 13 and $16,000 for two or more dependents. Similar to your commuting costs, some employees may offer a dependent care flexible spending account that lets you use pre-tax money to cover childcare costs.

Budgeting for return to office

Returning to work is a big lifestyle change, and it may be helpful to re-examine your budget to account for your new expenses. Figuring out which expenses are wants, like going out for lunch, and needs, like childcare, can help you prioritize how you use your finite money.

“It’s a matter of priorities,” says Trey Bize, a certified financial planner in Oklahoma City. “If you want to eat out, that’s great.” But you have to be prepared to pay extra.

Because of inflation, you may have to set aside extra for needs like food and gas, and spend less on wants. Depending on how flexible your employer is, you may be able to stay at home some days to save on commuting costs. Unfortunately, there’s not much you can do about the causes of inflation, like pandemic-related supply chain disruptions and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. You’ll just have to adjust your budget until the situation improves.

“Right now you’re just going to have to deal with the reality,” Bize says. “It should get better but I don’t know when that’s going to be.”

Image: Luis Alvarez / Getty Images