Working From Home Isn’t as Cheap as You Think It Is
When the shelter-in-place order was first announced, hordes of people went on panic-buying trips for coffee, toilet paper, and everything in between.
Consciously or not, they tapped into a crucial aspect of life in quarantine: When you’re spending every waking hour at home, you need to stock up on all the essential items your office usually provides. So while those of us who have been lucky enough to bring our work home during the Coronavirus pandemic have been saving on commuting costs and lunch money, we’ve also seen other bills balloon.
Over the last few months, your budget has probably shifted in some unexpected ways. Maybe you’re spending more on utilities to keep your home office at a comfortable temperature, or you’ve had to drop an impressive sum on a new computer monitor or desk chair.
Whether you’re eager to get back to the office now that states are loosening restrictions, or you’re trying to convince your boss to let you work remotely for good, it's worth it to take a good look at where your money is going, and to try to find ways to save. Here are a few things to consider.
Household costs (it's not just toilet paper)
The cost of at-home living is less tangible than keeping a fully-stocked bathroom cabinet (sorry TP hoarders).
“People are using more electricity, running the dishwasher more, and generally doing more activities at home,” says Douglas Boneparth, president of Bone Fide Wealth. “In warmer months you’re also cranking up the AC to stay cool.”
It can be tough to get a full picture of just how much these things will fluctuate until three to six months down the road, he cautions. That’s when you can take a look at your expenses over time (if you didn’t catalogue them regularly, check your payment history), compare them to last year’s expenses and make any necessary adjustments.
Of all these, energy costs can be the most variable over time, and the most adjustable with a few tweaks. Consider designating one room your office, and only keeping the AC running when you’re in there, with the door closed. Since you’re probably able to wear more comfortable, looser clothing than you would in your office, you may not have to crank it up so high either.
No office manager = no office snacks
If you like to pick up a specialty coffee on the way to work every day, you might expect to see a lot of savings now. But coffee-making can be an expensive hobby, and if you’re not set up for brewing at home, you'll need some good beans and reliable equipment. Likewise, if you’re used to getting free drinks and snacks throughout the day via the office kitchen, your lunch budget has probably skyrocketed.
A combination of meal planning and smart storage can help you save lots of money in this category. You’ll be able to use up everything you buy, and avoid using too many dishes (thus saving on energy costs) You’re probably already shopping more strategically due to the pandemic, but take a few hours on a Sunday afternoon to plan out what you’ll shop for, how you can use ingredients in more than one meal, and how to make dinners that can become tasty leftover lunches the next day.
Home office woes
If you’re used to doing most of your work in a place that’s designed for work, you may be surprised by how uncomfortable—or even unusable—your kitchen table-desk-hybrid is.
Ergonomic chairs and standing desks are pricey, but they can also have a big impact on your long term physical and mental health (check out Money's guide to the best standing desks for options that start at $85.).
Technology expenses are another budget line item to consider.
Not only are you likely working on a slower internet connection at home, you may be sharing it with your entire family. If you’re making Zoom calls while your kids attend virtual classrooms, you might have to upgrade to a faster connection or a fancy new ethernet cable.
“From monitors to technology to extra bandwidth from an internet provider, you’re hitting up things right now that may become recurring expenses,” says Boneparth.
The cost of staying fit
At the moment, gyms across the country remain closed, and in-person fitness classes have been nixed for the foreseeable future.
For some people, this has yielded big savings.
Many fitness studios—and especially apps like ClassPass—impose hidden fees on full-time employees in the form of jacked-up prices for classes in the early morning and evening. It may not be obvious yet, but choosing to stay home can also mean an overhaul of your schedule that allows you to take breaks midday to go for a run outside, or hit up your basement treadmill. Over time, that can add up to serious savings.
There might be tax breaks
The 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act eliminated all tax deductions employees might have seen from unreimbursed expenses — so unless you’re self-employed, you won't be able to take advantage of the annual home office deduction, or deduct any work-related set-up and maintenance expenses like internet and phone bills.
But you may get a break from a 1988 federal law called the Stafford Act, which gives the IRS authority to offer tax relief to those in "disaster areas."
President Donald Trump invoked the Act in March, though it's still "very unclear how long you might be able to take advantage of this," says Marisa Rothstein, founder of Siena Private Wealth. "The Coronavirus is unprecedented ... it’s not the kind of normal natural disaster the Stafford Act was designed for.”
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