The Things We Do for Work

Years ago, I worked in an office environment where I was expected to dress reasonably nice. The office was about a 25 minute commute from my house. A few times a year, I had to travel for work, usually for most of a week, and the travel usually wasn’t to anywhere interesting, usually just to the same remote location I’d been to several times before so that I could work there instead. I often went out for lunch with coworkers, usually because we were interviewing or hosting people and it was kind of expected that we would go out to lunch with them without reimbursement. There were times when my job was really stressful and I would just go home, flop on the couch, and either play a mindless video game or watch something unplanned on TV just to unwind.

At the time, I didn’t really think too much of those things. I thought of them as part of what it meant to be a professional in my field.

Then, one day, I was reading the book Your Money or Your Life, which offered a discussion of the concept of one’s “real hourly wage”.

The idea is a really simple one at its core. Your real hourly wage is the amount of money you earn in a year minus all of the work-related expenses you incur divided by the total number of hours in a year that you devote to work and things you have to do solely because of work.

As an example, let’s say you work 40 hours a week for 50 weeks (that’s 2,000 hours in a year) and your salary is $40,000, so your hourly wage is $20 per hour. However, you have a 30 minute commute each way each day, adding 5 hours each week, and you have a half hour unpaid lunch where you basically twiddle your thumbs, adding 2.5 hours each week, and when you get home you’re so stressed you just unwind for an hour, adding 5 hours each week. That adds up to an additional 625 hours in a year. You also have to commute 20 miles each way, adding up to 10,000 miles per year, which at the federal reimbursement rate of $0.56 per mile is $5,600 (think fuel, maintenance, insurance, car depreciation, parking, etc.). You have to dress nicely, which is another $1,000 per year. You have to keep a cell phone, which is another $1,400 per year. You go out to eat with coworkers regularly, too, so that’s another $2,000 per year. That’s $10,000 in additional expenses. So, your actual true hourly wage is $40,000 minus $10,000, or $30,000, divided by 2,000 hours plus 625 more, or 2,625 hours, which is actually just $11.43 per hour. If you can make $12 an hour working at a factory down the block from your house (assuming identical benefits), you’ll probably have more money in your pocket since you’ll have a higher “real hourly wage” and be paying lower taxes.

The point is this: all of the extra hours you give to tasks related to work and all of the extra expenses you have due to your work chip away at what you’re actually earning per hour, often quite dramatically.

Oh, the things we do for work.

The catch, of course, is that it’s a trap that ensnares a whole lot of people. Most people have to commute to their jobs. Many people have to dress nicely for work. Many people have lots of extra time commitments baked into their jobs, like travel, extra work at home, and so on. Many people are expected to be constantly available via their phones.

The easy advice is to simply encourage people to seek a different job, one that eliminates a lot of these costs even if the hourly wage is somewhat lower. If you can find a job that eliminates many of the extra time and money expenses without reducing your actual income very much, you’ll have a lot more money staying in your pocket with a lot more free time and less stress in your life.

However, for many people, it’s not that simple. There are often reasons to stick with your current job, such as lack of availability of similar jobs in your area or a contract agreement or the simple fact that you do love large aspects of your current job.

What do you do in that situation? Look for ways to raise that real hourly wage without switching jobs. Here are some ways to do just that.

Reduce Your Overall Time Commitment

These strategies aren’t about reducing your actual time at work, but more about reducing the time you commit to tasks outside of work. This effectively raises your true hourly wage by reducing the hours you’ve committed to your job, giving you more free time to either enjoy life, enhance your career, or explore other opportunities, plus it will almost always help alleviate stress.

Move closer to your workplace. If you can move 15 minutes closer to where you work, you’ve instantly added 30 minutes of extra time to every single workday. You can leave 15 minutes later in the morning and get home 15 minutes earlier without altering a thing about your working day.

This is obviously an easier strategy for some, particularly single people who might be living in an apartment, but it can have appeal to people who might be realizing that living in an outer suburb or even outside the city comes with an enormous constant time cost. A couple that I’m friends with recently moved away from the rural area where I live into the Des Moines area so that they could both be a lot closer to work, saving them both a whole hour each working day.

Telecommute as often as possible. Telecommuting means that you simply work from home for the day, which allows you to completely drop the time commitment of commuting. If you normally commute for an hour but you can telecommute today, you’ve suddenly saved yourself an hour, which has a real impact on your true hourly wage. You now have an extra hour to do things like prepare meals at home or take care of some chores so that you can do something fun this weekend.

Put your phone in “do not disturb” mode often, and carefully adjust the settings in that mode. Rather than having your phone yell at you constantly with notifications, turn off those notifications regularly during your time away from work, allowing only certain personal notifications through and blocking everything else. By all means, check the other notifications a time or two throughout the day, but don’t let your life be ruled by those work notifications when you’re attempting to have a life outside of work.

Multitask your lunch time with personal tasks or other professional benefits. Don’t just spend your lunch break slowly eating a meal while staring at social media or reading a gossip website. Find ways to get actual value out of that time. Use it to do things to enhance your career and future professional opportunities, like networking with people in your profession or writing articles about your career and sharing them with colleagues on social media or work toward a personal certification that will help you get a new job or a promotion.

Alternately, use that time for personal tasks. Intentionally use it to find holiday gifts for people or to make a grocery list or to revise your personal to-do list. Use it to fill out some personal thank-you cards or write a letter to someone. Use it to do research on a home improvement task or make a meal plan. There are lots of things you can do with just your phone or a computer during your lunch break that will save you time at home.

Multitask your commute time, too. The last thing you should do on your commute is sit there silently listening to pop music or morning zoo DJs. Spend your commute listening to an audiobook or a podcast related to your field. Use your commute to take voice notes about ideas in your head or to fill up a big to-do list – I constantly use only my voice to add reminders to my phone. Use your commute to give someone a call, like your mom.

The key is to not just leave that time as blank space. Use it for something so that when you’re at home and have lots of options, you have fewer things that need to get done, meaning you’ve effectively turned that commute time, which is otherwise just an extension of work, into “household maintenance time,” which means that you have more actual free time.

Get maximum value out of your trips, and use them to multitask, too. If you have to travel for work, look for ways to get maximum value out of that trip. For example, every time you need to travel for work and have some downtime during that trip, use it to shop for unusual gifts for loved ones for upcoming holidays, which means you don’t have to invest time and thought into that task when you get home. Use it for mundane tasks you can take with you, like writing thank-you cards or knitting a blanket or doing some research for a home project.

Another approach is to use any and all downtime for professional advancement. Use that downtime to do an online class or study for a certification or update your resume or portfolio. Use travel time to listen to a useful professional audiobook or some professional podcasts.

Get maximum value out of your travel time – time in which you have limited options for your own personal life and personal tasks – so that you have maximum free time when you get home and have richer options. In other words, turn your trip downtime into professional maintenance or personal maintenance time so that you don’t have to devote time when you get home to those tasks and thus have more free time for other goals.

Reduce Your Professional Expenses

Another approach to improving your true hourly wage without changing jobs is to find ways to trim the expenses you incur related to your job. Here are some strategies you can use to make that happen.

Carpool. Finding someone you can drive back and forth with to work a time or two a week adds up to a tremendous savings over the course of a few years. Every time someone else drives you to work, you’re saving on fuel and depreciation and maintenance on your car, so the more frequently you can make it happen, the better. Plus, when you’re doing this in a larger city, you can take advantage of HOV lanes for a faster commute which can actually save a little time, too.

It can be tricky to find carpooling partners. Don’t just look for people in your immediate workplace, but people within a nearby radius as well. Are there people that live close to you that work at places near you, too, with similar working hours? Don’t hesitate to ask around about where people work, and if you discover folks that work near you, see if carpooling can work out.

Consider alternative methods of commuting, like mass transit, bicycle, or scooter. If you switch to getting to work via the bus or the subway or on a bike or scooter, you’re going to save a lot of money over the expense of driving a car back and forth to work. Mass transit, particularly if you buy a longer term pass and use it every day, is a big savings over the cost of driving a car, and using a bike or a scooter is an even bigger savings.

Telecommute as often as possible. This isn’t just a time savings, but a financial one, too. You’re avoiding all of the expenses that come with driving – wear and tear on your car, fuel, maintenance, and the risk of accident and injury, too. Not only that, you’re also going to be eating lunch at home, which is cheaper than almost any workplace option.

Buy sturdy work clothes that mix and match well. The secret to a good professional wardrobe, I’ve found, is to have a handful of really well made items that will last with a lot of wear that you can mix and match to give the impression of having a lot of outfits. Seven shirts, five ties, and five different pairs of pants, all of which reasonably go together, give the impression of having hundreds of outfits, and it’s easy to expand this by adding a tie or two. For my wife, it’s even easier, as there are lots of small additions that can add serious variety to her professional outfits.

Make sure the clothes you buy are well made. Check all the seams to make sure they’re well stitched and that the stitching holds together well before you buy it, and make sure the fabric itself is sturdy, too – don’t buy things that you’re afraid will be easily damaged. Try to stick to things that are easily cleaned as well. Such clothes might cost you more up front, but you’ll save a ton over the long run if you can get three times as much wear out of that item before it looks worn or becomes damaged.

Bring your lunch to work and start a “brown bag” club. Rather than eating out with coworkers, start brining your own lunch bag to work and encourage others to do the same. Eat together in a break room if you want to seek out professional connections and networking during your lunch. If you’re fine flying solo, use your lunch break to take care of personal tasks. This is particularly true if you have to leave the premises to find food or if delivery and tipping are part of the equation, as those costs can really add up.

Keep some cheap nonperishable food staples in your desk for those times when you forget to bring a lunch. Sometimes, you’ll inevitably forget your lunch. The best way around that is to keep a few lower-cost nonperishable items in your desk that you can use for meals in a pinch. In my old work desk, I would keep a bunch of mayo and mustard and relish packets, some tuna, some crackers, some peanut butter, some nuts, some dried fruit, some steel cut oats, and a few microwaveable containers of soup, along with a spoon, a butter knife, a fork, a bowl, and a small plate. Whenever I was in a lunch pinch, I could either have some kind of soup, a bowl of oatmeal with nuts and fruit in it, or some tuna salad on crackers, and it was available whenever I wanted. All of those items will last for a very long time in a desk drawer, all of those items are pretty inexpensive, and they can all work as a nice lunch in a pinch.

Final Thoughts

Having a higher real hourly wage is a great thing. It means that you’re getting more money in your pocket out of every hour you devote to your work or some task brought on by your work, and that means that you have more resources to spare, whether it’s more time or more money.

While changing jobs is a great way to chase a higher real hourly wage, it’s not always possible for everyone. However, most working people can benefit quite a lot from finding other ways to trim the extra hours given to work and to spend a little less on the extra costs associated with their job.

If you can find just a few things to do on either side of that equation, you’ll find that the things you do for work are suddenly a little less oppressive and interfere with your life a little less, leaving you with greater financial and time freedom than ever before.

Good luck.