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‘Lunchflation’ is real. Returning to the office is costing us a fortune

By Kathryn Vasel, CNN Business

Millions of employees started working remotely after the pandemic first took hold in 2020. But now, more people are returning to the office — and they’re being greeted by much higher prices for just about everything.

Food. Commuting. Daycare. Rising gas prices and soaring inflation have made going back to the office more expensive. And that is eating into workers’ incomes, especially if their pay increases aren’t keeping up.

Here are some of the daily costs that have crept higher, making the return to post-pandemic office life more expensive.

Eating at the office

Coffee runs and long lunches with colleagues are one of the perks of returning to the office. But they come at a higher price these days.

The index for food away from home increased 7.2% over the last year, the Labor Department reported earlier this month. Food prices were up 9.4% in April from the same time last year — the biggest jump since April 1981, the Bureau of Labor Statistics recently reported. And grocery store prices increased 10.8% for the year ended in April.

Office workers are seeing higher costs for everything from their morning coffee to their lunchtime salad: Starbucks raised prices in the US earlier this year and in October 2021 — and said prices could continue to rise.

“We have additional pricing actions planned through the balance of this year,” said then-CEO Kevin Johnson during an analyst call in February, citing cost pressures such as inflation.

Salad chain Sweetgreen has raised its menu prices by 10% since the start of 2021, the company said in its most recent earnings report.

“Lunchflation is 100% real, everything is more expensive,” said Kelly Yau McClay, who lives in Potomac, Maryland. “Before, you could get lunch for $7 to $12. Now there is no way you can get a decent lunch for less than $15.”

Yau McClay had just started a job doing branding and marketing for a real estate company as everything was shutting down in April 2020. She had been working remotely full-time until October 2021. But now she’s on a hybrid schedule, going in to the office three days a week, and estimates she spends around $30 to $35 a day on work-related expenses, like lunch, coffee and snack runs and parking.

But for other workers, returning to the office has brought some relief — at least on some fronts. Consumers changed the way they spent during the pandemic, with expenses like dining out at restaurants getting replaced with higher grocery bills and more meals at home.

Sara Hill, who works in the insurance industry in Buffalo, New York, saw her food budget increase when she and her four children were home full-time.

“I was eating more food because I am closer to the kitchen… my food spending was still increasing because we were all home,” said Hill.

After working remotely full-time during the height of the pandemic, she is now going in to the office two days a week.

Before the pandemic, she spent around $25 to $30 a day on breakfast and lunch when working from the office. But now, with many of the food businesses near her job closed, she regularly brings lunches with her.

“I pretty much bring things from home, whether it’s leftovers or a cup of noodles to get me through the day.

Getting to the office

A return to commuting has also meant more gas usage.

With gas prices hitting record highs recently, it’s an expensive time to be filling up more frequently. According to AAA, the national average for a gallon of regular gasoline is now $4.60. In February 2020, it was $2.44.

In Orlando, Florida, Mike Tobin upgraded to a minivan in August 2020. At the time, he said it cost about $40 to fill up the tank — but now it’s closer to $75.

“My biggest driving thing is going to the office…everything else is really close to where we live,” said Tobin, who works for a wholesale electric distribution company.

For Hill, the higher prices at the pump have made her change her routines to try and fill her tank up just once a week. She fills her truck with premium gas, which she said costs between $110 to $120 a tank.

“That is extremely crazy for gas,” said Hill. “I try to pack the days when I go to the office — if I can do anything right after work or on my hour lunch break I will try to squeeze things in because…it’s a day I am already driving.”

She tries not to leave her house on the three days she is working from home.

For Yau McClay, any day she goes into the office she has to pay for parking. It used to cost $1 per hour, but increased by 50 cents earlier this year. Now she is paying $12 a day — up from $8.

Ditching the comfy sweatpants and dressing up for the office again is also costly. Apparel prices were up 5.4% in April from the same time a year ago.

“Now that I am going in to the office, I have to go buy new makeup sets — so I am spending money there when I wasn’t before,” said Yau McClay. “The things you used to spend money on, like hair cuts, makeup, manicure and pedicures and updating your wardrobe, those things were essentially on pause for two years. Yes, I was spending it before… I got so used to not spending that it was really nice. And now everything is more expensive.”

Caring for the kids

Child care costs tend to be one of the biggest expenses in working parents’ budgets — and that is getting more expensive for some parents, too.

In 2020, the national average annual cost of child care was $10,174, according to Child Care Aware of America.

In September 2020, Yau McClay put her three-year-old daughter in a new daycare facility full time for $2,150 a month. Though child care tends to get cheaper as a child ages, a series of price increases has eaten into those savings, Yau McClay said.

“Every time she got bumped up [to an older age group]…later, they would announce: ‘Sorry we have another price increase,'” Yau McClay said. “Between when we started there and now, the price [for her current class] has gone up almost $200 net.”

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