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Pandemic savings: How some people have saved thousands by working from home

Pricewatch: Many saving on commuting, food and coffee costs, but utilities are up

Next Thursday marks the first anniversary of the last full day Pricewatch spent working in the office. On the evening of March 11th, 2020, we left the office and set off for home calling into a few pharmacies along the way, half-heartedly searching for hand sanitiser and surgical masks, without a notion we’d not see the old clock hanging above The Irish Times door for a long, long time.

Apart from one brief visit to the office on Tara Street on budget day to interview smart people for a Facebook livestream and another before Christmas for a chat with Santa Claus from our swanky podcast studio, we've not set foot in the place since.

It is the same for hundreds of thousands of participants who have been taking part in an involuntary working-from-home experiment that no one really wanted, even if many of us have benefited from it all the same.

It was imposed on almost a third of the workforce almost overnight as schools, offices, shops, restaurants and pubs closed and we were all warned against making unnecessary journeys in a manner which would have made Teresa Mannion’s pleas from back in the day seem like the essence of Zen-like calm.

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While working from home has come with many challenges for many people, the challenges faced by people who have lost their jobs or who have been unable to work because their business has ceased to function or who have had to work on the front lines of the health service or in essential retail have been much greater.

In many ways, many of the working-from-home cohort are actually better off now than they were this time last year, at least financially – someone who has been able to avoid two passes of the M50 tolls each working day since last March has saved themselves the guts of a grand already.

But there have been more ways working from home has cut costs and it is clear people have been spending less than they ever have since the start of the crisis. Between July and September alone, Irish households managed to save €2.3 billion on top of what they had been able to set aside in the same period the previous year and the level of savings have been described as "extraordinary" by the Central Statistics Office.

Last week we polled our Twitter followers, or at least those who have been lucky enough to be able to work from home throughout the crisis, about their changed financial circumstances since the start of the crisis.

We asked if people had spent less, spent more or spent the same. Close to 2,000 people answered the question and while we have to acknowledge that Twitter polls are neither scientific nor representative, they do at least offer a glimpse of what has been happening to many people.

All told, 69 per cent of those who responded said they had spent less over the last 12 months because they were working from home, while just 10 per cent said they had spent more. The remainder – 21 per cent – said they had spent the same.

But how much have people been able to save and where are the biggest savings and highest additional costs to be found?

The cost of commuting and keeping a car on the road have fallen dramatically thanks to Covid-19. According to the AA, the average price of a litre of petrol in February was €1.34, almost exactly what it was this time last year.

For many people the commute now means a sleepy walk from the bedroom to the couch or kitchen table – or home office if you are very snazzy

In a normal year, the average motorist can expect to drive 16,000km and if the average price of petrol is €1.34 a litre, then driving the average family car, which does 12.4km per litre, our average driver would have spent about €1,729 on fuel over the last year.

Given that for almost six months few of us were permitted to travel more than 5km from our homes, with the reasons to travel further dramatically reduced for the rest of the year, we have travelled less than a quarter of the distance we normally would which the amount spent on fuel is down by around €1,300.

Many people with cars also commute to and from work using public transport. For many people the commute now means a sleepy walk from the bedroom to the couch or kitchen table – or home office if you are very snazzy. That has led to big savings. A monthly rail ticket for a Dublin commuter covering trains and the Luas costs €180, so a person accustomed to buying such a ticket has been spared that financial burden for the last 12 months and has saved themselves a not-too-shabby €2,160.

Utilities

There is a flip side, however. And that is electricity and gas usage as a result of never leaving your house. But that is not as bad as you might think. According to the Cost of Running a Home analysis from AA Home Insurance that we published on this page late last year, the average household will spend an additional €210 on gas and electricity combined as a result of more people working from home and some older children who had previously been renting opting to move back into the family home.

Another saving that has emerged from the great working-from-home experiment is lunch. In days gone by, the sums people typically spent on food – often eaten al desko – varied wildly depending on who they were, what they fancied and how far away payday was. But let’s say you were accustomed to buying some class of sweaty sandwich found resting in a plastic coffin in the Spar next to your office, a bag of crisps and maybe some class of drink of a normal workday lunch. That would see the weekly cost easily reach €35 which, spread over the cost of a year, allowing for six weeks of holidays, would come to €1,610. That money is no longer being spent.

Of course, people still have to eat lunch, but leftovers and sandwiches eaten in the home cost a lot less than €1,610. As you may recall, in the early days of the crisis people were cooking up a storm and every time they went to the supermarket they shopped like they were heading into a nuclear winter or an Irish Christmas but we get the sense now that people have settled down since the early days of Covid – certainly we have seen a lot fewer pictures of banana bread and weird salads popping up on our Instagram feed in recent months.

So we are going to assume that the working-day lunch is once more a simple affair. A block of cheese in Tesco costs €3, while a large sliced pan will set you back €1.60. That will easily cover lunch for three days and if you have leftovers on the other two working days then the total weekly spend because you are working from home comes in at no more than a fiver or just €230 over the course of a year.

Takeaway coffees have also been taken off the table for many people thanks to the poxy pox. People able to work from home have now avoided going into their offices on about 230 occasions since the crisis began. If a takeaway cup of coffee costs €3 and you have just one cup each working day, then the amount of money you have not spent on the little treat since the middle of March is €690.

To be fair, we will add the cost of coffee at home. If you have a Nespresso machine and have two shots of coffee each day it will cost 80 cent, which works out at €184 a year, so you are still more than 500 quid up. You’ll be up more if you use coffee grounds or instant.

Another area which has taken a massive hit when it comes to spending is our social lives. Pubs, cinemas, restaurants, gyms, non-essential retail and almost every other outlet where you might want to go to spend money have all closed for what seems like forever.

So even if you spent just €50 each week on fun things in normal times as you went to and from work and have seen that spending fall by 80 per cent over the last year, you will have saved yourself €2,080 since Ireland went into lockdown last March.

Haircare

When Pricewatch has looked at spending in Irish homes in the past we have worked on the assumption that a man might visit a barber eight times a year, while a woman might visit a hairdresser once every 10 weeks. For reasons which may be obvious, Pricewatch is an exception to this rule and has not visited a haircutter of any description since the early part of this century.

But for people who are not us, the total cost of haircare in a normal year would be between €120 and €800 or so, depending on their gender, age and hair-care routine. Given that the barbers and hair salons have been closed for at least half of the year just gone and the need for extensive personal grooming – or any personal grooming, to be honest – has diminished as a result of sometimes not leaving the house for weeks on end we reckon we can shave at least half of that cost off, saving about €400.

We know all too well that the savings have come at a terrible cost in terms of lost lives, sadness, gloom, a shattered economy

The need for clothes for work have also been dramatically reduced during lockdown, with shoe leather saved, the need for fancy clothes or indeed any clothes almost entirely gone and the possibility that one can work for weeks on end wearing nothing more elaborate than shabby tracksuits and a manky T-shirt the savings on clothes can quite easily be put at €500.

There has also been a significant drop in incidental spending too.

For many people spending money is a habit. We are not talking about essential spending but incidental spending. That has largely disappeared for many people – not least because you are taking your life into your hands, or fear you might be – if you nip into the corner shop to buy so much as a packet of chewing gum. If you spent just a tenner a week in normal times on stuff that wasn’t necessary then you have saved yourself more than €500 by working from home and not passing all the places where you might be tempted to spend money as you go to and from work.

In a normal world, when Pricewatch points to savings of as much as 10 grand over the course of a year, we feel super smug, unbearably so, in fact. But the savings outlined here are no cause for celebration and we know all too well that the savings have come at a terrible cost in terms of lost lives, sadness, gloom, a shattered economy, hundreds of thousands of lost jobs and stress levels that have been off the charts.

And we have to say we – like many others, we suspect – look forward to a time when we can spend a few euro on a takeaway coffee or a pint or a sandwich made by a stranger or a random thing found in TK Maxx because we had time on our hands while on the doss from work and a spare tenner in our pocket.

We asked Twitter: Has the pandemic saved you money?

These are the questions we posed on Twitter last week and, below them, just a handful of the responses.

If you’re lucky enough to have been able to work from home since Covid hit, has it saved you money? Or has it cost you money? Or do you reckon your spending has stayed the same?

"I would say spent less because of lockdown but working from home costs more. More heating and electricity used, during bad weather especially – I don't think what's saved in diesel/petrol would balance it." Stella Purcell.

“I used to cycle to work with my packed lunch, so for me the costs are way up – utility bills especially.” Ruth McManus

“Costs of running the car has dropped, but cost of electricity and gas has risen.” Jen Halley

“Way less, coffee from the kitchen instead of from the cafe. Not stopping at Tesco on the bike ride home, husband not driving to his office so a tank of petrol lasts months.” Frances Mac

“Not having to do my 170km daily round trip to work has saved me a fortune in petrol and tolls. Really has made me think about trying to get work closer to home in the future.” Anita Egan

“I’ve become aware that no employment is certain, no matter how much it seemed like it before all this started. So I’ve stopped spending on trivial things and started building up a cash reserve. Just in case.” John H Cummins

“Much more. Expense-paid job. Travelled a lot. Breakfasts/lunch/dinners paid for maybe three times a week. Mileage. Work gave some money towards home office but not near covered costs. Should be grants for home office pods too IMHO. But it’s priceless being home with the family so I’m OK.” Phil Moore

People will not have the legal right to remote working, just the right to ask for it. Employers will also have the right to say no

“I have stopped casual spending when in town or at petrol stations, etc, so that’s a saving. The decrease in spending on diesel has been offset by the increased cost in home heat and electricity.” Mairéad Ní Laochdha

“Less as no lunches/coffees out, not popping in to shops when passing, no diesel cost as no commute. Laptop & phone provided by employer. Partner was at home by day anyway, so no major increase in utilities.” Siobhán O’Carroll

Working from home: the future

When it comes to working from home in the months and years ahead it is unclear what happens next. What we do know is that people will not be returning to their offices in great number for months yet and the year (and counting) we have just had has prompted the Government’s to develop a national remote-work strategy which should see remote working at least some of the time becoming a long-term option for many people.

According to the Central Statistics Office, more than 60 per cent of people want to see a mix of working from home and from the office in the future, while one in six want to go back to the office full time and one in four would like to work exclusively from home.

When the Government’s plan is implemented, employees will have the legal right to request remote working. The key word in that sentence is “request” and it is important to stress that people will not have the legal right to remote working, just the right to ask for it. Employers will also have the right to say no.

The Government is, however, keen to see more people working from home, pointing to benefits such as greater flexibility, less pressure on office space and reduced traffic, leading to lower emissions. It has promised to invest in remote-work hubs and expedite the national broadband plan, while a review of the working-from-home tax relief will be completed in Budget 2022.

There is also tax relief on the table, although it is a lot of hassle for not a whole lot of money back. People working from home can claim a portion of their household heat/lighting and broadband bills as a tax rebate but they will have to gather up bills and send them to Revenue and all for little more than €50 a year.

Employers can step up to the plate by offering remote workers up to €3.20 a day, which works out at just under €800 a year, tax-free to their employees but there is no obligation on them to do that.