When the COVID-19 pandemic first struck in the late winter of 2020, suddenly countless American commuters found themselves working from home. At the height of shutdowns, lockdowns and quarantines in May 2020, as many as 35% of Americans were working out of home offices. For many, this new working situation was a shock to the system. Hastily fashioned workspaces were created out of guest beds, dining rooms, and kitchen counters. Your annoying co-workers were replaced by your annoying children. Perhaps you discovered that your spouse is one of those people who uses the phrase “circle the wagons” during work meetings and now you’re not sure you ever really knew this person at all.
For many of us, working from home has been a true test of patience, professionalism, and productivity. On the other hand, do you have any idea how much money you were saving? We recognize that not everybody has the option of working from home. It’s pretty hard to run a dry cleaning business, drive a truck, shingle a roof, or test laboratory specimens from an office you’ve constructed out of your wash room and a stack of laundry baskets. But if the pandemic did allow you to explore the wide world of working from home, then perhaps you have also gained some appreciation for the small ways in which it helped improve the budgetary balance of your household.
According to Hudson River Community Credit Union, an individual working from home can save as much as $4,000 a year, though the exact rate of savings may vary depending on factors like geography, profession, and lifestyle habits. Still, there are plenty of saving opportunities for anybody who trades in the briefcase and the commute for a home office and a new ergonomic chair. So if telecommuting is actually an option for you, either permanently or partially, it may be worth considering.
Before we explore some of the ways that working from home can save you money, let’s take a look at how the pandemic has reshaped the work-from-home landscape.
Telecommuting and the COVID Crisis
The onset of the pandemic changed work and life for all Americans, whether the change meant new risks, new safety precautions or a new working environment altogether. The last of these was the experience for many white collar workers who faced both the challenge, and enjoyed the luxury, of transitioning to online working.
As many American workers settled in for the long-haul at home–especially those whose children were without school, daycare or childcare for extensive periods of time–there was much discussion that America’s office buildings and corporate complexes would be a lot more sparsely populated, even after the heady early days of the pandemic were behind us.
Journalists rhapsodized about a work-from-home revolution in which employees, employers, and accountants all came to recognize the value and opportunity in a staff capable of working remotely. We were told that working life would change forever.
With more than a third of all American workers Emailing, Texting, Zooming, Slacking, Jabbering, and otherwise communicating through any number of web-bound applications with onomatopoeia-inspired names, work-life did indeed feel very different in 2020. For some Americans, the loss of a commute hardly felt like a loss at all. In fact, for many, it meant a morning routine with a more measured pace. No traffic. No rushing to the train. No drinking coffee or eating breakfast sandwiches on the go.
For others, it was a disruption to a long established routine, and perhaps a routine that, for many, played an important part in drawing boundaries between work and life. Some faced serious practical and psychological challenges as they searched at home for the rhythm, productivity and focus that the office environment might have provided.
Employers also had mixed feelings about the new arrangement. While there were many who viewed this as an opportunity to save money on office expenses, just as many others feared the loss of accountability, the absence of dynamic interaction between personnel, and the erosion of company culture.
In the context of these decidedly mixed feelings, the early phases of the pandemic have since given way to a new phase defined by vaccinations, safety requirements, and CDC-informed procedures in the event of COVID exposure. In other words, we’ve largely returned to work. And while some former office workers remain at home today, the number of daily telecommuters is down dramatically from just a year ago.
<a href=“https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2021/09/work-from-home-numbers/620107/“>The Atlantic</a> reports that by March of 2021, exactly one year after the onset of the pandemic, 21% of Americans were still working from home. The decline in telecommuting continued steadily through the summer, even as an outbreak of the Delta variant threatened to slow America’s fitful return to business as usual. By September of 2021, says the Atlantic, just 13.4% of Americans were still working from home. When all was said and done, the landscape of working hadn’t transformed as dramatically as was perhaps anticipated.
A significant number of businesses did adopt a more hybrid approach, allowing employees to split their time between on-site and online working. According to a study from HR consulting firm Mercer, “The vast majority of a group of 510 employers with a flexible work program in place, 70%, plan to adopt a hybrid work model, while 20% will return to a predominately office-based model, according to a May survey by HR consulting firm Mercer.”
That said, very few of these companies had any active plans to implement such strategies in the short-run. The focus for most was simply getting back to business as usual. And even fewer companies indicated that they had any plans to move toward a fully online model of employment.
Still, the number of people working from home on some or all days the week is higher now than it was before the pandemic. And for those American households where this is the case, there are some clear economic advantages. Among them…
One obvious financial benefit to working from home is avoiding the commute. While the average American will traverse between 5 and 13 miles each way for work, some will travel in excess of 45 miles, morning and evening, just to be in the office. Whether you’re taking the train, the bus, or your own car, the costs of travel can really add up. Gas, in particular, can put a strain on your budget, and one that can be difficult to plan for based on wide fluctuations in pricing. For instance, the Bureau of Labor Statistics notes that, in 2018, the average American household spent $2,109 on “gasoline, other fuels, and motor oil.” This constituted a 7.2% increase in the price of gas from just the previous year. Working from home can cut a big chunk out of this cost. Even for those who go hybrid, dropping just two days of commuting from your schedule could cut your annual gas bill by a few hundred dollars.
2. Dining Out Expenses
A coffee on the way to work. A breakfast bar from the vending machine in the break room. A salad from the takeout place next door. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but day-in, day-out, these little snacks and meals are costing you a fortune. According to an Accounting Principals’ Workonomix survey, “50 percent of the American workforce spends approximately $1000 a year on coffee, or a weekly coffee habit of more than $20. And the spending doesn’t stop there. Two thirds (66 percent) of working Americans buy their lunch instead of packing it, costing them an average of $37 per week – nearly $2,000 a year.” Of course, if you work from home, you can brown-bag it every single day. You’ll have to make smart purchasing decisions at the grocery store, but it should go without saying that a barrel of coffee from Costco could replace your daily Starbucks stop for pennies on the dollar. And don’t get us started on the price of takeout salad these days.
3. Dry Cleaning
Most employers prefer that you show up to work in presentable attire. For many American office workers, this means collared shirts, unwrinkled pants, and freshly pressed skirts. This also means weekly trips to the dry cleaner which, in addition to being kind of a hassle, can run you anywhere from a few dozen to a few hundred dollars a month. Working from home gives you a bit more freedom with your wardrobe. You don’t necessarily have to run to the dry cleaner every time you throw on a nice shirt for a Zoom meeting. Just put it back on the hanger and return to your state of t-shirted comfort as soon as the meeting is over.
4. Tax Breaks
Now bear in mind that we are not tax accountants. This is not advice on exactly how to file your taxes or to exactly what benefits you should be entitled. Your situation will vary depending on the terms of your employment, the ways in which you use your home, the manner in which you file, and the resources that you use within your home. However, we will only note that working from home may give you access to certain tax credits, deductions or write-offs. Flex Jobs indicates that “Tax breaks can include: Home office deduction; Healthcare expenses; Pass-through deduction; Retirement contributions; [and] Depreciation of equipment.” You should obviously consult a tax professional and discuss your own employment outlook and working status before determining which deductions or credits you can take. But just be aware that telecommuting can come with a few inbuilt filing benefits.
For families with children who are under public school age, the cost of childcare is enormous. The New York Times places the cost for the average 2-year old at about $1100 per month. The United States is unique among developed countries for the paucity of its public support for pre-kindergarten childcare. This means that many of us are stuck in a vicious cycle—paying for childcare so we can work; working so we can pay for childcare. Working from home offers a financial reprieve from this challenge. Now, we won’t lie and tell you that it’s somehow easy to balance work and childcare. Full disclosure—my own recently quarantined 5-year-old has repeatedly interrupted the writing of this very sentence with alternating demands for carb-heavy snacks and manual assistance opening and closing her 3-in-1 Barbie Dream Camper. Still, if you can find a way to balance—which again, is not easy—you can give yourself some financial breathing room. And if you do find yourself at the end of your tether, just remind yourself that the promise of kindergarten and publicly funded primary education is just ahead.
6. Pet Care
Caring for your kid(s) while working is no walk in the park. On the bright side, caring for your pets could be just the opposite. I mean, literally, instead of paying somebody to do it for you, you could take a walk in the park with your dog. In fact, this could be a great way to stretch and take a break in the middle of your work day. Save hundreds a month on dog-sitting and walkers while adding a nice breath of fresh air to your routine.
7. Car Insurance
In the wake of the pandemic, many of the leading insurance companies have proven quite flexible to the changing needs of drivers. For commuters in particular, insurance premiums may be based at least partially on how many miles you drive annually. According to The Balance, “Post lockdowns and stay at home orders, many insurance companies offered refunds and discounts. These refunds may not be the only discounts you’re entitled to. There are other ways to save money on your car insurance beyond the credits that insurers have already paid out.” In other words, now is an awesome time to reach out to your insurance company and find out if there are any benefits, refunds or reductions available to you based on your changing work situation.
8. Geographic Freedom
If working from home becomes a permanent reality for you, it can come with a life changing opportunity. If you live in your present location because of its proximity to work, this could be your chance to relocate without changing jobs. Perhaps you’ve been bound to the expensive city where your company is located. It’s possible that you’ve settled in a costly neighborhood simply to shorten your daily commute. You may even be bound to a region where living expenses are higher because of your job. Telecommuting removes these imperatives and gives you the latitude to relocate according to your budget. You can leave the city for a more affordable suburb, venture to a more cost-effective neighborhood a few miles further afield, or even explore a new region altogether. With telecommuting comes a type of freedom that could change the financial outlook for your household by changing where that household is.
9. Happy Hour
Ok, stick with us on this one. We know Happy Hour can be fun, but sometimes, it can also feel compulsory. Aren’t there days when the whole gang is heading out for drinks and you’d just prefer to be home in your PJs binge-watching Ozark? Of course, you don’t dare miss out on this vital aspect of workplace culture. Some of the most important relationships are nurtured during the social events that take place in the after hours. But Happy Hour isn’t free, and it rarely lasts just an hour. If you’re working from home, you may feel less obligated to attend every barstool session. Now, instead of coming up with flimsy excuses for why you need to hurry home, you can either choose to attend, or simply ghost your colleagues at EOD, as is your right.
10. Time Is Money
Well, we can’t prove this scientifically, but there are a lot of ways in which working from home can improve your ability to manage time spent both in pursuit of your profession and your personal life. Naturally, taking the commute out of the process is a big deal. For most people, this is literally like finding two new hours in the day. Calculate what you earn per hour, then multiply that by 10. Strictly from the standpoint of your salary, this is the monetary value of the time you’ll be getting back each week. This is to say nothing of the time you’ve gained back for household chores, repairs, and other small checklist items that can be quickly dashed off any time you take a break between work tasks.
Again though, we recognize that not everybody has the freedom to telecommute. If this isn’t an option for you, there are still plenty of ways to trim your budget. In fact, some of our favorite tips also double as great ways to protect the environment. To learn more, check out our look at 5 Ways to Save Money and Help the Environment.