Inflation: Can You Afford to Return to the Office?

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At first, employees voiced health concerns about returning to the office. Would they be safe? Would office germs, including coronavirus, spread like wildfire?

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But now, workers also face another set of fears: Being able to afford the added costs of their return to work with high rates of inflation.

A reduction in work-related expenses — from commuting to lunches out — since March 2020 helped ease financial woes during the pandemic. Combined with stimulus checks to bring in extra funds, fewer outside-the-home experiences, and less driving, many Americans were able to save more during the pandemic, reports say. GoBankingRates reported that the savings rate rose to 32.2 in April 2020 vs. just 12.7% in March 2020.

The return to work brings these expenses back — and then some.

Prices Rising Across the Board

First, prices as a whole have gone up since people left the office. According to the Consumer Price Index, prices have risen an average of 8.5% since March 2021. Food costs have gone up by 8.8% in total, with food at home rising 10% and restaurant meals and take-out rising 6.9%, on average.

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Clothing costs have risen by 6.8% in the past year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics Consumer Price Index for March 2022.

Gas, which cost roughly $2.60 per gallon in spring 2019, according to the New York Times, today costs $4.12 per gallon according to AAA.com’s average gas prices for the U.S.

In spite of employers doing their best to raise wages and increase benefits to entice workers back into the office, these added costs make it difficult to justify the expense of that daily commute. CNBC.com reported that employers expect to pay an average of 3.4% more to employees across all industries in 2022.  

Let’s break down the costs in a variety of categories to see how much of a raise you might need to return to the office.

Rising Gas Costs Make Commuting Painful

According to ABC News, the average American drives 32 miles to and from work each day. The average vehicle gets 25.7 miles per gallon, which means commuters spend roughly $5.15 on fuel daily, or more than $25 weekly.

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If you’re looking to grab lunch outside the office, even McDonald’s is going to cost more. The price of a Big Mac, the iconic fast-food burger, has risen from $3.79 pre-pandemic to $6.05 this year.

If you decide to bring your lunch from home but splurge on coffee break, instead, you’ll pay 15 cents more this year for a Starbucks Grande Latte, up to $4.45 from $4.30 in 2019, according to Finder.com’s Starbucks Index.

And these are just daily expenses.

A New Work Wardrobe Could Set You Back

For many, a return to the office also includes buying new clothes. Whether you gained pandemic pounds that you haven’t lost or jumped on the fitness trend and spent time working out while you were working from home, your weight and body composition may have changed during the time away from the office. That means purchasing a new work wardrobe.

For women, these costs could be significantly higher than for the men in the office. GoBankingRates reported that women spend nearly 76% more on clothing per year than men. Not only are women’s garments more expensive, comparatively speaking, due to the “pink tax,” but women also require a broader wardrobe.

“Women are inclined to have multiple pairs of shoes, sweaters, trousers, blazers, blouses and dresses, and maintain other unspoken beauty norms like manicures and makeup,” Kimberly Mayhew, U.S. managing director for image and style consultancy firm House of Colour, told GoBankingRates in a previously reported piece.

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If you’ve been living in slippers — or going barefoot — for the past year, you may also want new shoes. The price of footwear has gone up 6.6% in the past year, according to the CPI.

Haircuts, Manicures & the Pink Tax

Just as women set high standards to present themselves professionally and attractively in the workplace, they also spend more than men on things like haircuts and color. Styleseat.com reports that the average price for a women’s haircut is $58, while a haircut costs men just $32, on average. That’s not including the price for a professional dye job or special styling like keratin treatments.

During the pandemic, 33% of women dyed their hair at home with 80% doing it without any help, according to a study from SalonToday.com. But many people may want to splurge on a professional treatment as they return to the office.

Women are also more likely to want a manicure than men, a back-to-work service that will cost roughly $20 to $25 for a regular manicure, according to SmartMomHQ.com, without any acrylic or gel nail upgrades.

Impact of Return to Office on Women

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Added Costs: Pet Care & Childcare

During the pandemic, 25 million American homes adopted or purchased a pet, according to ASPCA statistics. What’s more, 90% of new dog owners and 85% of cat owners are taking pet ownership seriously, with no intentions to re-home their new family members once living situations changed.

This presents new challenges for dog owners, particularly, those who may not be able to leave their fur babies unattended for eight hours or more. The average cost of a drop-in petsitter, according to TrustedHouseSitters.com, is $25 per half hour or $32 per hour.

Let’s imagine you have someone come in to let the dogs out just once a day. That’s $125 per week added to your household expenses or $500 per month. Having more than one pet adds to the overall cost.

While it’s often not practical to work from home with young children underfoot, many parents during the pandemic were forced to do exactly that with daycare centers and nursery schools closed. Now, as offices re-open, you will need to pay for childcare again.

Childcare costs vary widely by region and are eligible for a tax credit that can reduce some of the sting. But the average cost of childcare in the U.S. for an infant sits at $1,230 per month, with costs slightly lower for toddlers and preschoolers. If you haven’t had to pay that bill in nearly two years, it can be a shock to your family budget — especially in the absence of the Child Tax Credit that was distributed in 2021.

Reducing Costs to Return to Work

Of course, you can reduce some of the costs associated with your return to the office. You can make arrangements with co-workers to carpool. You can pack a lunch from home. You can also make coffee at home.

Employers, too, are working to reduce some of the costs — and entice people back to work — by providing free snacks and coffee in the office, according to the New York Times.

If you need new clothing, consider shopping secondhand or thrift stores or trying a service like ThredUP, where you can find lightly used, name-brand clothing at significant discounts.

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Depending on your needs and how your family expenses have changed since the start of the pandemic, a pay increase may justify a return to the office. But many workers will be hard-pressed to sacrifice the intangible benefits of working from home, especially when they factor in the added costs.  

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About the Author

Dawn Allcot is a full-time freelance writer and content marketing specialist who geeks out about finance, e-commerce, technology, and real estate. Her lengthy list of publishing credits include Bankrate, Lending Tree, and Chase Bank. She is the founder and owner of GeekTravelGuide.net, a travel, technology, and entertainment website. She lives on Long Island, New York, with a veritable menagerie that includes 2 cats, a rambunctious kitten, and three lizards of varying sizes and personalities – plus her two kids and husband. Find her on Twitter, @DawnAllcot.
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