As the coronavirus pandemic winds down, and more and more people get vaccinated, life is beginning to return to normal in many parts of the country.
As places end COVID-related lockdowns, and people are returning to work full time, some may face a degree of financial stress and their ability to manage their expenses, control their debt, and pay their bills on time. We’ve all spent over a year with a disrupted routine, and formed all new habits.
As we all resume our pre-pandemic work schedules and start commuting every day, it will be important to remember the full costs of leaving home to go to work five days per week.
1. Gas and commuting costs will return
Gasoline prices have shot up in most of the country during the first few months of 2021. As more people start commuting every day, gas costs will get even higher. That means the most basic costs of commuting—fuel—will cost more than we were paying before the pandemic.
Shop around for the best deals—a few cents per gallon here or there adds up, so it’s worth your time to keep an eye out for good gas prices. There are smartphone apps designed to help people find good deals in their area or get you cash back on gas, so ask around and find out what people in your area are using to shop for gas.
You can also take advantage of loyalty programs or memberships—like buying gas from a members-only retailer like Costco, or using a gas company’s credit card to pay at the pump.
Beware, however, that using a credit card for gas can backfire if you don’t pay off the balance in full every month. The idea is to use the gas company’s card for convenience and to build a good credit rating. And if they give you a few cents off due to a loyalty program, even better.
But if you don’t pay off the balance before the grace period, you’ll lose any benefit of shopping around for better gas prices. So pay off that gas card diligently every month, and try to only use it for gas, not merchandise in the filling station’s convenience store.
2. Lunch out gets expensive
During the pandemic lockdown, many of us got used to preparing meals for ourselves at home. This is a potentially healthier way to live, both for our bodies and our finances: statistically, it’s five times more expensive to dine out than to prepare your own meals!
When we return to commuting, and getting ready to leave the house every morning, time will become scarce and many people will find they don’t have spare time to prepare meals for workday lunches.
But we urge people to make time. Just as you budget your money, budget how much time you have so you can set aside a night every week for meal prep. By making five days’ worth of meals at home, you could save around $50 that week vs buying lunch every day.
$50 per week is $2,600 over the course of a year. Who wouldn’t want to give themselves a $2,600 raise?
And these are just using average numbers. If you eat last night’s leftovers for lunch a few days a week, you can save even more. The cost of eating lunch every day really adds up, so don’t neglect to plan ahead for this budget item.
3. Buying coffee every morning adds up
Getting a cup of coffee on the way to work costs an average of $3 every day. Brewing a cup of coffee at home can cost around 30 cents or less. That means it’s ten times more expensive to buy at the coffee shop versus making it yourself.
Just because the daily expense is only a few dollars doesn’t mean this amount isn’t important. Coffee is one of those things that really adds up if you buy it daily.
Don’t think about that single $3 cup you’re buying, but think about the $780 you’re spending every year and how that could be $780 saved instead.
4. New work clothes can be costly
Returning to the office means no longer wearing pajamas while you stroll to your home office, or going casual for zoom meetings. Workplace attire comes with extra costs that have to be budgeted for.
For one thing, people gained an average of more than 20 pounds during the coronavirus lockdowns so far, so some of our old work clothes might not fit as well as we remember.
On top of that, costs of laundering and/or dry-cleaning business wear is probably an expense we’ve blissfully forgotten about while the suits have stayed in the closet.
Our free “Surviving a Job Loss or Reduced Income” booklet (available as a free .pdf download from our FIT Academy) includes some tips on dressing inexpensively for job interviews. These tips are just as applicable to anyone returning to work without a suitable wardrobe after a year of telecommuting.
5. Childcare is another expense to watch for
Just as the pandemic seems to be waning and a return to full-time work is imminent, the kids’ school year is winding down. That means coming up with an affordable childcare solution after a year of homeschooling for many families.
Some parents formed “pods” for at-home learning, and these could become sensible childcare arrangements as well. Work together with other families to see if there’s a way to share the childcare duties as everyone returns to work.
The pandemic was a tough time for childcare providers, as most families who stayed at home didn’t need outside-of-the-home childcare. Now that those needs are returning, you may find the costs of childcare to be a little more affordable than before the pandemic. Still, shop around and make sure your kids will be well cared for without spending more than you have to.
Budgeting and planning for future expenses
Whatever strategy you use to save money when returning to work—carpooling, mass transit, buying clothes on sale—it all starts with budgeting.
And if you’re already carrying more credit card debt than you can handle, don’t let the transition back to commuting push your finances over the edge. Talk to a certified nonprofit credit coach for free counseling and expert advice. Take initiative to create a budget you can live with that will let you return to work without adding to your debt.