Are you among those who are heading back to the office after the pandemic’s pause? Office occupancy continues to climb steadily. In fact, it’s now reached its highest level since March 2020 — 43.4%, according to an ongoing 10-city measure. But along with the transition, many employees are finding that their return to work has gotten pricier than before, thanks to record-setting inflation pressure on everything from food to gas.

To help deal with the back-to-work sticker shock, here are four expenses that will likely cost you more — and some budget-friendly tips to save money.


1. Commuting

The average one-way commute in the U.S. is at an all-time high of 27.6 minutes, the latest data available from the U.S. Census Bureau shows. What’s more, the percentage of workers who say their commutes have gotten shorter has declined, while those who say their drivetime has gotten longer have increased.

Couple these facts with the current surge in gas prices — up 45% in May 2022 versus the previous year — and today’s commuters face a perfect storm of higher expenses to keep the gas tank filled, and get to and from work. How much more? AAA estimates it now costs about $23 more to fill up than it did a year ago. That means a bigger portion of your disposable income has to go to commuting costs when you return to work.

Tips to save: Take advantage of gas apps, such as GasBuddy, which can locate the cheapest gas near you, offer rewards and cash back and help plan your routes with fuel efficiency in mind. If you own more than one car, use the most fuel-efficient model for the work commute, and see if you can arrive and leave work during off-peak times when there’s less gas-guzzling traffic. Or consider whether public transit or carpooling might be lower-cost options.


2. Childcare and Pet Care

Spending on childcare inched down during the height of the pandemic, when more people were at home with their kids and daycare providers reduced services or temporarily closed. But even before that, research shows the cost of childcare was continuing to rise and exceed the rate of inflation — eating up a greater share of household income.

What can you expect to pay now as you return to work? Childcare cost varies widely, but a national average estimate is $10,174 annually, and most family households must allocate at least 10% of their income to cover it. Check this map to see estimates of what childcare costs in your state.

And what about Fido? Going back to work means potentially rehiring dog walkers, taking your pet to daycare, or coming home midday to let them out (adding to the cost of your commute).

Tips to save: Engage family, friends and neighbors if you can — with both children and pets. For example, get together with other families to see if there’s a way to share the care duties as everyone returns to work. Or see if you can split the cost of a nanny or babysitter with a friend or neighbor. Perhaps the teenager next door will take your pup along with hers for a daily walk. And is there any flexibility to alter your work schedule to limit the need for childcare — say, after school? Tweaks of time can help you save money.


3. Clothing

Apparel prices have been impacted by inflation’s rise, too, increasing 6.8% over the last year, according to CPI data.

What should you do? First off, make sure you’re up to date on your workplace’s current dress code. Some offices, for instance, have relaxed expectations and adopted more casual attire as the norm. Plus, if your company has moved to a hybrid work model, in which you can still work from home a couple of days a week, you also may not need as much professional apparel.

That said, maybe you’ve changed jobs in the meantime. So, if you decide that parts of your pre-pandemic wardrobe won’t work at the new place, take inventory of what will. Concentrate on staples and mainstays that you can build on and rotate often and easily, with just a change of shirt or shoes to vary the look.

Tips to save: Shop sales, look for off-labels and gather up discounts wherever you can. Focus on wash-and-wear apparel versus dry-clean only items to avoid the extra cost. Time purchases as the seasons change, which lets you take advantage of store clearance pricing as they make room for the next season’s merchandise. And buying clothes out-of-season — such as a winter coat in June — can also be a good way to snag big savings on regular-price items.

Two other tactics to try? Consignment shops that focus on dressier outfits and on-trend accessories — either brick-and-mortar or online — have been inundated with items that newly remote workers no longer need. Or do you have a friend who’s a similar size? Suggest a fashion swap to help refresh her closet and yours. 


4. Food

Returning to the office typically means getting lunch out — but thanks to “lunchflation,” that habit will cost noticeably more. The proof? The latest Consumer Price Index (the most commonly used metric for tracking inflation nationally) shows the cost of food away from home rose 6.9% over the last year — the largest 12-month hike since December 1981.

Drilling down further, a recent analysis by Square found that the average price of wraps is up 18% from a year ago, with sandwiches up 14%, tacos up 12%, salads up 11%, and burgers up 8%. Restaurants’ rising costs of doing business are largely to blame for the more expensive menus.

Tips to save: Skip the expensive deli, restaurant or food truck lunch and bring a homemade meal and snacks to work instead. It may take more planning and effort, but the savings add up. And when you’re grocery shopping for the makings of your brown-bag lunch, buy store brands — they’re often of comparable quality to national brands, and the prices are much lower.


How to Maintain Your New Back-to-work Budget

Whatever strategy you use to save money as you return to work, reevaluate the budget in light of the new daily routine. Know what’s important and what isn’t, and take into account the impact that today’s inflation trends may have on your key work-related spending.  While at first it may seem daunting, know that just tracking your spending can help you make more informed budget choices and help you plan for tomorrow.

Reset a budget with these changing needs in mind and make a plan that “works” for your work life and your finances.

Next related article

COVID-19 might have a lasting impact on how we budget and manage our money.

How COVID-19 Might Change the Way We Approach Personal Finance

July 8, 2020

COVID-19 might have a lasting impact on how we budget and manage our money. These are the lessons we’ve learned so far.