After working remotely for the past year, Rahul Iyer, 45, says he’s back in the office three days a week just as food prices are rising and gasoline is up to $5 a gallon.
But Iyer, an engineer living in Mesa, Arizona, says he learned to be frugal in the wake of the Great Recession more than a decade ago. And those lessons will come in handy as it bounces back amid the highest inflation in four decades.
“During the recession, I got fired five times in one year,” says Iyer.
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He’s not alone. With many offices shutting down during the COVID-19 pandemic, employers are increasingly demanding their employees be back on site, at least part of the time, and some workers are concerned about commuting costs amid rising inflation and gas, which hit record highs last month.
A Harris poll conducted for the US TODAY found that 78% of employees were concerned about being able to afford gas for their commute, while 72% were concerned about food prices and 38% were concerned about it made to pay the fare for journeys on public transport.
“After two years without many of these expenses, prepare to see a chunk of your paycheck disappear every month,” Sara Rathner, personal finance expert at NerdWallet, said in an email.
In addition to gas mileage, “commuting also wears out your car, so there are maintenance costs to consider,” says Rathner. Parking can cost commuters a few hundred dollars a month in some cities, and public transit fares can add up to more than $100 a month, she adds.
The way back to the office brings with it other expenses. “In February 2022, the cost of eating out increased by 7% compared to the previous year,” says Rathner. “Refreshing and maintaining a professional wardrobe can also be expensive.”
How can we fight inflation?
But there are ways to save.
On Friday nights, Iyer and his wife plan what they’re going to have for lunch next week, and then head to the grocery store with their weekend shopping list.
“Usually we help each other cook on a Saturday or Sunday and prepare lunch for the coming Monday through Friday,” he says. He says he probably saves about $13 a day by bringing lunch from home.
Iyer has also decided to skip the company’s gym. “I checked the numbers,” he says, adding that it would cost him $25 a month to train there compared to the $11 he pays at another gym. “I told them straight out that I wasn’t going to participate.”
Also, Iyer prefers to drink flavored water from his own reusable container instead of buying drinks from the vending machine in the office. And at Starbucks he doesn’t have to spend any money because he prefers to make chai at home.
But there is one big expense he is willing to bear.
Iyer could pay $4 a day to commute by bus. But that would require two changes and a 90-minute journey to his office in Chandler, Arizona.
While a gallon of gas costs $3.50 to nearly $5 depending on where he fills up, Iyer says he’d rather pay at the pump and drive 20 minutes to work than waste time trekking on public transit.
“Your time is worth more,” he says.
How do you beat gas prices?
Here are some more tips from Rathner at Nerd Wallet.
If you drive, you should look around. “Use an app like GasBuddy or plot your route on Google Maps or Waze to see gas prices at nearby gas stations.”
Use loyalty programs. Fuel programs can shave pennies per gallon off your bill. And check with the loyalty program at your grocery store to see if you can earn points as you shop, which will ultimately lower the price of gas at the chain’s gas stations.
Remember your credit card: A cash back card can allow commuters to receive 2% or more cash back on gas purchases.
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Drive less: “If you’re realistic about carpooling, using public transportation, cycling or walking, or even working from home a day or two a week, you can save a lot of money over time ‘ says Rathner.
If you’re using public transport, check if your company can help you: Some employers offer monthly grants to workers who use public transportation, or allow employees to use pre-tax revenue to cover these costs.
Buy a weekly or monthly ticket: “If you rely on public transit for both work and going out, it can lower the cost per trip,” she says.