Minimizing the Expenses of Working from Home

Megan writes in with a great question:

Hi Trent! I am hoping your years of experience working at home can help out here.

My husband started a new job on January 1 where he works from home. We were excited for this change as we have a preschool aged child and the flexibility of his new position could really help out with child care. We were also excited about the big savings in commuting, food, clothing, and other work expenses.

It hasn’t quite worked out like we’d hoped, and we’re hoping you’ll have some good ideas with some of the problems we have run into.

First of all, Mark gets stir crazy most days working from home all day long. About every other day, he has to go somewhere and he usually winds up at a coffee shop or a restaurant where he orders several items throughout the day and ends up spending $20 or so just to have a table to work at. In the last few weeks we have looked at some coworking options but they’re all more expensive than we’d like. Ideas?

A related problem is that he really wants to get out of the house and do something when I get home and all I want to do is crash for a while. We’ve agreed to an arrangement where he goes out and does something a couple nights a week but then he’s spending money when he’s out. He usually goes out with friends that don’t have kids.

He’s gained about ten pounds since starting this new job. At his old job he walked around a lot during the day. They would have walking brainstorming meetings and so on. At home, he mostly just sits in a chair. What’s a good solution here?

This whole thing just isn’t working out like we’d hoped and I’m hoping you’ll have some ideas that can help.

I’ve tackled all of these issues over the years. Here are some of the solutions that worked well for me in terms of solving these problems.

For starters, cultivate a set of free places to work in the community. Where can you go with your laptop and work without having to buy stuff? I have a pretty nice list. I go to the library. On nice days, I go to a park near where I live and work in the shelter house. I go on campus at two different local colleges and find an empty table either outside or in pretty much any building. I sometimes work in a grocery store deli, where they really don’t care if I just sit and work – I do usually buy a refillable cup for water there for like $0.50, but the place is mostly empty all the time and they don’t mind.

I work in those kinds of places about twice a week, with the other three days spent at home. Even when I work at home, I don’t work in the exact same place all the time. I often work at my desk (more on that in a bit), but I also work in another room in our home with a lot of windows.

You’ll have to hunt down places in your community to work, but it’s worth the effort. Expensive spots like coffee shops and restaurants are the low hanging fruit, but they’re expensive. Put in the footwork to find the free places.

Another good strategy is to build up relationships with other people who work remotely in your neighborhood. This can be difficult if you don’t know anyone, but one way to do this is to see if there are any groups in the area for telecommuters and remote workers and get involved with that group. You can often find such groups on Meetup and sometimes through the local library, as I’ve seen a few libraries organize such groups. These kinds of groups are really helpful for support, for sharing locations for working, for strategies, and so on.

Another advantage to hooking up with a remote working group is that if you start building good relationships with people in the group, you may end up working at each other’s houses somewhat regularly. It’s pretty easy – you just go to another person’s house and work in their living room for the day and they fix you lunch, and then you reciprocate fairly quickly thereafter. It gives you a new environment to work in, gives you a free lunch (though you’ll reciprocate in the future), and gives you someone to eat lunch with.

Yet another advantage of getting involved in a group like this is that it can really take the edge off of that social itch. Mark may just find that if he finds some people to associate with during the day, it takes the social edge off of his day and he feels less inclined to want to go out in the evenings.

The weight gain is probably a mix of two factors: a more sedentary lifestyle and the convenience of food at home. These two factors were a real challenge for me for years, as I gained quite a bit of weight when I started working from home. I no longer commuted any further than a walk across the hall and there was a ton of food on hand all the time.

For me, the solution to this problem was to simply be more mindful of my diet and exercise. I tried out a number of diet modifications until I found a few simple rules that worked well for me (a mix of vegetarian and intermittent fasting). Basically, I very strictly count my calories before dinner, sticking almost entirely to fruits and vegetables, and many days that means just eating one meal before dinner, which for me is usually about 11 AM (a late “brunch”) along with maybe a piece of fruit in the morning, a piece of fruit in the afternoon, and some coffee and tea throughout the day.

I also started exercising, starting with simply doing bodyweight exercises at home. I have a routine of planks, push-ups, sit-ups, and other things that I do every day (or almost every day). I also joined evening taekwondo classes with the rest of my family – though it’s an expense, a martial arts class might be something that works well for Mark. My honest encouragement is to just try a lot of bodyweight exercises and try to find things that you enjoy that tackle all of your different muscle groups. I also started consciously going on a lot of walks, usually when I needed to think about a particular problem.

I’ve also switched to a standing desk and use it about six hours a day when I’m at home. A standing desk burns about 0.2 calories per minute of use compared to sitting, so if I’m standing at the desk for six hours, that’s 360 minutes of standing, which equates to 72 calories. It doesn’t seem like much, but if I do that for 50 days, that’s 3,600 calories, which is a pound of fat. Plus, standing rather than sitting for long periods reduces the chance of a bunch of severe ailments.

The point here is that he needs to think about his diet and exercise more than he once did. There are a lot of different strategies that might work for him and I can’t say which one will, but the most important thing he can do is to just keep it in his mind and try to make choices that are more in line with healthy living. He should keep trying things until he finds what works well for him, but this should be an ongoing search until he finds good solutions.

For me, the hardest adjustment to working from home was the gradual shift toward an expectation that I would always be at home and could handle all kinds of home tasks, which ate into my day. As frustrating as it might seem, he does need to set some firm work boundaries or else his stress level is going to skyrocket. Yes, he’s at home all day, but he’s working, just like you are. He just happens to not have an office and is improvising. That means that things that would interrupt your workday and leave you stressed will also leave him stressed. If you’re expecting him to do something during his workday, imagine what it would be like if he insisted that you do that very thing during your workday. You’d probably be stressed out by the request, even if you went along with it. Keep that in mind.

Working at home has a ton of advantages, but it’s not always easy. I found that physical health, a lack of social interaction, distractions, and a sense of being unappreciated were all challenges to overcome. They can be overcome, but you have to handle those things seriously.

Good luck!

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.