Updated on 09.18.14

Cutting Down Work-Related Spending

Trent Hamm

Doing my taxes this year was an interesting experience. In 2008, my income was down substantially as compared to 2007 – no real surprise, considering I quit my full time job in March 2008. What was really surprising for me, though, is that our family’s spending dropped almost as precipitously.

Across the board, expenses were down. Way down. We spent less on food. We spent less on gas. We spent less on entertainment expenses. We spent less on child care. We spent less on travel. We spent less on clothes.

In short, our spending dropped enough in 2008 to almost make up for the drop in income.

For a while, I puzzled over why this happened. Were we simply getting better at frugality? Or was quitting my job really contributing that much to our spending changes?

When I started to break it down into smaller pieces, though, it became clear: my previous job was loaded with extra expenses – and yours may be, too. Not only were there financial costs, there were significant time costs as well, which would keep me from being able to do things like prepare a home cooked dinner.

Potential Hidden Costs of Your Job

1. The commute

It took me about twenty minutes to drive to work, then twenty more minutes to drive home, even without any extra stops or interruptions. Not only that, each round trip put about 30 miles on my pickup – two gallons of gas and that much closer to oil changes and other maintenance. The day-in and day-out grind of this was pretty intense – I’d lose about four hours of time each week on the road, plus $20 in gas and the cost of vehicle maintenance on top of that.

2. Decompressing and escapism

After arriving home, I usually needed half an hour or so to decompress. I’d watch something mindless on television or do something else that just ate time until my wife and kids would arrive home. Without that decompression, I’d usually be rather grumpy for a while early in the evening. Not only that, I often spent money on escapism – golfing, trips, and so forth. My daily commute would often take me right by a bookstore, where I would stop and spend money two or three times a week, as well.

3. Clothes

Although my day-to-day wardrobe for work was pretty casual, I did need to invest in reasonably nice clothes, particularly for the regular presentations and business trips I was called on to do. Not only did these clothes have a cost, I also had to invest the time in shopping for them.

4. Meals

Many days, I would eat breakfast and/or lunch out with coworkers, probably twice a week for each meal. Also, because so much of my time was eaten up by other tasks, we would go out to eat for dinner much more often than necessary – two or three times a week. Now? I eat all my meals at home save perhaps one meal a week – and, surprisingly, the time evens out, since I’ll often just run downstairs and have a plate of leftovers for lunch.

5. Social events

With my previous job, there were fairly regular social events in the evenings and on weekends that were practically required. These usually involved a couple hours at a pop (at least) and often involved an expensive meal as well.

6. Health

In the year since I left my previous job, I’ve lost almost fifty pounds. Why? I’ve been eating better, I suppose, but a big part of the equation is simply a big reduction in stress. I would get ill every month or two with a stomach bug or a cold, whereas I’ve only really had one or two illnesses since I left that job. Again, I put the blame on stress.

7. Travel

My previous job involved multiple trips each year. These trips were usually all business, all the time, which meant time away from my family and the things that mattered to me most. Even worse, these trips were often loaded with little expenses – though some of them could be deducted as an expense, many others were simply out of pocket.

8. Missed moments

On one trip, in January 2007, I found myself in a San Diego hotel room, listening over the phone as my wife told me about my son taking his first steps. On another trip, in February 2008, I missed out on my daughter’s first tooth sprouting through and my son’s first successful potty training day, something he was incredibly proud of. I often felt as though I was missing big parts of my children’s life.

These are real costs of many jobs – the kind of costs that aren’t really considered when people think about their careers. Quite often, that nice salary – when the extra costs are removed and all of the extra hours are rolled in – isn’t all that nice, and you find yourself wondering if there isn’t something better you can do with your time.

Spend a few minutes figuring up the time and money costs in each of these areas for your job. When you subtract that money (and the taxes) from your take-home and add on the extra hours, does it really feel as though your job pays you well?

One way you can make your job pay better is to seek ways to reduce each of these costs. Here are some tactics for each category.

Tactics to Trim the Costs

1. The commute

Carpool! Find someone who lives near you that you can share a commute with. If that doesn’t work, see whether or not you can take advantage of public transit. In either case, you can then use the commute for decompression or for getting a start on your work day.

2. Decompressing and escapism

Focus on the things that make you feel good without spending money – or, even better, are actually productive in and of themselves. For me, cooking is often cathartic, as is reading.

3. Clothes

There are lots of little tricks to maximize your personal appearance dollars. The best technique is to invest in a high-quality “mix and match” wardrobe – a small number of very high quality items that can be mixed and rearranged in a lot of ways, creating an impression of having a diverse wardrobe without the cost.

4. Meals

Take leftovers every day. If you’re in a situation where you have to eat with coworkers, eat minimally with a salad or something like that, then eat your leftovers later on in the day if you’re still hungry.

5. Social events

For the cost of such events, just eat minimally and cover your own bill – a salad and that’s it. You can eat more later. For the time you’re there, maximize it by getting to know as many people as you can – don’t just fade into the woodwork or the time really is wasted.

6. Health

Eat healthy items as much as you can – lots of green, leafy vegetables and plenty of water, for starters. Try getting some exercise, starting with a simple at-home routine that at least gets your body moving and your breathing a bit heavy (in fact, this can be a good “decompression” activity).

7. Travel

When traveling, maximize every moment. Talk to and get to know as many people as you possibly can on that trip. Make it your goal to eat a meal with as many different people as possible. The more strong contacts you can build in your industry, the stronger you make your career. As with social events, it only really becomes a loss if you fade into the woodwork.

If you can reduce costs and time investments – and increase the value of the time you do invest – you increase the overall value of your job and you put more money in your pocket.

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  1. Great post! Timely for me. I feel like I’m running my car into the ground with my commute and actually can’t wait to be laid off to not have to drive so much everyday. Sad, I know. I’ll definitely be using your tips once I secure my next job.

  2. Johanna says:

    You were surprised? No, you weren’t. In March 2008 – before you’d even quit your job, it seems – you wrote a post called “How quitting my job saves me $8000 a year.” It looks like you anticipated most of these areas in which your spending would drop way back then.

    As some of the comment writers noted in your post last year, it would be really interesting to see how your actual savings compare to your anticipated savings, and whether there were any areas in which your spending actually went up in ways you didn’t anticipate. But maybe you have your reasons for not sharing that information.

  3. Carmen says:

    Congratulations on the weight loss Trent, that is an excellent achievement.

    I also stopped working last year. Interestingly it was the first year since having kids that we saved (a lot of) money. A combination of determined effort and the elimination of hidden costs like you mentioned was the key to our success in this area.

  4. Weight and stress are a chicken and egg deal. Does being overweight cause stress, or does stress cause weight gain?

  5. MoneyEnergy says:

    Thanks for these reminders…. I wish it were that easy for me to lose 50 pounds! As a graduate student I’m at the computer a lot, which isn’t good for health, even though I don’t have huge commutes, etc. either. So it can’t be as simple as stay home=lose weight. Nope.

    I’ve also started hearing more about stress itself leading to weight gain, and this could explain why many grad students gain weight while trying to finish up their degrees and theses.

    Congrats on living a better life with the change you made. Sometimes I think that it’s just change we need sometimes. Because for me right now I’d love to have a structured workplace where I get to leave the house more often.

  6. jc says:

    johanna, you’re supposing that he’s making only $8000 less than he was when working full-time. perhaps, but seems implausible. seems more like he’s surprised at the magnitude of savings than the fact of savings, which as you note, he’d already anticipated.

  7. Tori says:

    Trent, I think I found the weight you lost in 2008. :P

  8. mb says:

    I left my torturous full-time job in February and I, too, have been amazed at how little money I need day to day for expenses. Of course, I have the usual “what if” money worries, but I have a pretty good savings cushion for unexpected bills. I am have been pleasantly surprised at how many opportunities are out there once you open yourself up to them.

    Keep on savin’!

  9. Sandy says:

    One trick my husband uses about work lunches: Usually he packs his lunch and snacks, but occasionally, he goes to the salad bar and picks up his lunch. What he found though, is that the salad’s cost is by weight. And he often would get heavier items like cottage cheese or beans, as well as the greens. Well, one day, he took his cottage chees with him, and found that the weight of his salad, and thus the price, went way down.
    He also keeps a water jug on his desk rather than go through literally hundreds of plastic bottles during a work year….he brings it home and fills it up (it’s about 1 1/2 gallon) and keeps a glass nearby. 0 waste! Pennies for drink at work.

  10. Vanessa says:

    By not working (SAHM would agree with me)you free up time to research the best deals in all areas of spending, to cook your own meal, grow your own food, make your own beauty products.. the list goes on and on..

  11. Mike says:

    Do you have any before and after photos of your weight loss? That would be nice see. Congrats on the great accomplishment!

  12. liv says:

    i totally appreciate my tv when i come home from work. that is my hobby. what’s wrong w/ that?

  13. Marie says:

    Decompression: I noticed years ago that I can decompress while driving home. I just got in the middle lane, went the speed that everyone else was going and reveled in the fact that no one was talking to me, that no one could make demands on me.

    My husband can NOT decompress while driving. He is trying to optimize his trip home, decide on the fastest moving of the possible routes, determine whether to move to the left lane here and risk not being able to exit if there’s a backup around the curve, etc. He’s not a reckless driver by any means, but he is not a passive driver either.

    He gets home faster, but I got home decompressed and ready to go and he gets home needing down time – so in the end I made more efficient use of my time.

  14. Joey says:

    I decompress by riding my bike instead of driving whenever possible, and by listening to music whenever I can (but especially at home).

  15. Nelson says:

    Two things:

    1) Stopping at a book store is hardly work related spending.

    2) How many times are you going to re-hash the same post? I realize you’re churning out a lot of stuff, but enough with the save money @ work stuff.

  16. Marilyn says:

    I found this article fascinating, as I am new to the blog. I was in a well paying but demanding job and took a year off when I felt that I just needed to be alone with myself . I spent very little money in my year off and started to notice things in nature and in myself that I was formerly too depleted to take in. I came to the realization that I had to make a major change in profession and was in a financial position to do so. I am now part time at a job I love and find that this is a good balance for me.

  17. RDS says:

    Carpooling and public transportation is great. However, there are other planet, wallet, and health friendly ways to commute. Biking and walking being the two most obvious. It saves money and allows you to multitask by working out while you commute.

  18. KC says:

    My husband and I recently moved to another city for his job. The main criteria in looking for a house was proximity to his place of work (I knew I wouldn’t be working for a while). OF course we weren’t going to buy a house we didn’t like or couldn’t afford. So we found a great home about 8 mins/ 2 miles from where he works. Of course there are saving in gas and car maintenance that we have yet to calculate. But what was most important to us was time. He’s trimmed 20 mins off his commute one way. So that’s an extra 40 mins a day or 200 mins a week he gets back. Of course this isn’t practical for everyone to just up and move, but if you are contemplating a move you really should consider living close to work.

  19. Socalgal says:

    So if you work from home now, how has your salary changed and does your spouse work? Is it enough stable income, or do you still have to work say part time on the side as well? Sorry, new to the blog.

  20. Trent- These expenses are exactly the same things that are discussed in Your Money or Your Life and I recently wrote an article about how these expenses reduce your hourly wage. It is quite interesting to consider exactly how much money and time we devote in keeping our jobs. I know that I was spending a lot of money to keep my job, and now that I am laid off, my spending is very specific and doesn’t flow out of my bank account as often for little things like junk food out of the vending machine.

  21. Debbie M says:

    I’m afraid I would save very little, if any, money from these sorts of expenses when I retire:

    The commute – I ride a bus for free. Walking to and from it gives me more exercise than I get on weekend days, and I get most of my reading done on the bus.

    Decompressing and escapism – I do this reading on the bus. I do work-related stress eating during the day which costs me money and calories, and this is where all my savings would be. Maybe $20/month.

    Clothes – I wear slightly different clothes for work than I would otherwise, but they cost the same amount at the thrift stores where I shop. Pants, slacks, jeans, or shorts–they’re all $3. I don’t wear make-up, either. I just don’t have the kind of job where you have to spend a lot of money on your appearance to be taken seriously. In fact, my whole city is fabulously casual (you can wear short to the Four Seasons, for example.)

    Meals – I eat breakfast at home and bring my lunch and snacks. I don’t have the kind of job with work-related lunches except that there are some professional associations, paid for by my employer, that offer free lunch or breakfast every month. I actually save a little money here by working.

    Social events – all my work-related social events are during work hours and most involve free lunch.

    Health – I definitely have more stress than I would not working and less time to exercise. However, I also have free health insurance that’s quite good and forced walking to and from the bus stop and between offices at work. Yes, sometimes I get paid to walk (walking to meetings across campus). Love that.

    Travel – on the rare occasions when I travel, it’s all paid for. If we’re going someplace cool, I’ll take adjacent vacation days off, switch to a cheaper hotel, and get a cheaper-than-usual vacation out of the deal. Again, this one saves me money.

    Missed moments – I don’t have any kids, and most of my friends work the same hours I do. However, there are a lot of activities going on during the day that I wish I could be doing instead. (Fortunately, most of them are free and won’t hurt my budget when I retire.)

    I’m afraid that keeping me busy forty hours a week doing things that don’t cost me money, and staying in the free air conditioning all day instead of cooling off my house saves me a fair amount of money.

  22. Johanna says:

    @jc: It’s true that I have no idea whether Trent’s drop in income is more or less than $8000, because he doesn’t give any numbers. And again, I’m not faulting him for *that* – he’s within his rights to keep some of the specifics of his financial situation private if he wants to.

    And as I said, if he’s written a post that said, “I’m actually cutting my expenses by a whole lot more than I thought I would, and here’s why,” that would have been one thing. But to say, as he basically does here, “Wow, I had NO IDEA that I’d spend less money on gas by not driving to work every day,” kind of insults the reader’s intelligence.

  23. Larry says:

    I have three children, ages 15, 10 and 9 months.
    If you had asked me if I was missing out with my first two kids I would have replied that I had not. With my 9 month old I am happy to say I have seen all of his firsts, first roll over, first tooth breaking through, first pullup to standing, the list could go on from here. Having changed my life from having a “job” to being home and working I am sure saves money, but most important I am home with my kids. I can never recapture what I missed while at a job with my first two kids….was being at a job I realy didn’t like worth what I was missing at home?
    Trent, as an older than you guy I am glad you can also see the value in your family life.
    I enjoy your posts….keep up the good work in all areas of your life.

  24. Kate says:

    I don’t have to drive to work in the summer and I am also amazed at how much extra money we have floating around because of it. So I can understand the surprise. Although you KNOW that not driving saves money it isn’t until you actually have that extra money in the bank that it makes the impression.

  25. Brian says:

    I agree completely about the expenses of maintaining clothes for the job. One small trick I can pass on is invest some money in a good pair of nice looking shoes. You can always wear a cheaper pair of jeans or khakis with them, and still look smart casual, but it doesn’t work the other way around. And use some polish on them, too.

  26. Bill in Houston says:

    In a decentralized city the size of Houston it is hard to find someone to carpool with you to work. The closest guy to me lives ten miles west and works a different schedule (Our company uses a 9/80 schedule and also split between 7-5 and 8-6 to cover our customers.) This could work for some of our employees who live closer to work.

    To decompress I change clothes the moment I get home. My wife gets me a dry martini and… sorry, I was channeling my Dad. Once I change we go for a walk before dinner. It helps us both unwind and we get the exercise points on Weight Watchers. I lost 40 pounds last year and want to keep it off. Before I used to just pull on running shorts and watch TV.

    I also have a mix and match wardrobe. Most of my shirts are white Polo buttondowns (bought either at Costco or at the factory outlet store for under $30). I also have pastel yellow and blue shirts as well. Both of which match my blue or khaki dockers. My office is business casual. I might wear a suit twice a year. I do have my shirts drycleaned (and my wife’s blouses) because it is more cost effective (79 cents a shirt, $1.25 a blouse).

    I brown bag nine days out of ten. In addition to my sandwich (or leftovers from the previous night) I add fruit (apples, grapes, bananas) and vegetables (cut up carrots, radishes, bell peppers). Part of it is the Weight Watchers thing, but the other part comes from me being a heart patient. I want to keep my cholesterol down. The one day out of ten I eat out is usually a departmental lunch (once a month) or a friend’s birthday. Not too horrible.

    My wife does the same work clothes things although her wardrobe is a lot more colorful. She does mix and match when she can. Her office is a bit more formal than mine.

  27. I currently have the shortest commute of my life, but the 7 miles takes about 20 minutes. Lots of traffic lights!
    This leaves less time to decompress, but I’ve become a master at this, and use the last 15 minutes of my day, when I also get tomorrow’s to-do list ready.
    I do the mix-and-match thing with my clothes, sticking to blacks/grays/blues.
    I brown-bag my lunch, which takes less than 10 minutes to prepare in the morning.
    There aren’t many social events that are compulsory, but I do golf once in a while with some coworkers.
    I’ve dropped 20 pounds since February by cleaning up my diet and exercising more often, and my job doesn’t require travel.
    I’m still trying to get my blogging time organized, which I do usually later at night. So, the blogging has actually ADDED some “fat” to my day!

  28. SP says:

    I have to side with Johanna here. You knew you were about to cut all this stuff. Also, I have a crazy memory and i remember there was some post where you said you learned you didn’t actually NEED to decompress like you’d though. Sorry, that sounds like I’m some TSD nutso stalker. I’m not. Just hang onto pointless details.

    Whatever though, these are valid tips on cutting down work related stuff for others who have jobs that cost them in small ways.

    Anyway, congrats on the weight loss — that is going to save a lot of money on health care in your future, and you are already enjoying a higher quality of lif.e

  29. Not surprising– work costs money! I love vacation time– the gas savings are big!

  30. Kris says:

    No offense, but a 20 minute commute is nothing. The job I was recently laid off from was 45 minutes away in the morning, an hour in the afternoon. 25 miles each way. I listened to books on tape to pass the time pleasantly.

  31. Leslie R says:

    Trent – you write great articles. I’ve really enjoyed your info.

    One positive point of business travel that was overlooked…I used to do quite a bit of business travel and always collected points through the airlines, hotels, car rental agencies, etc. for every trip. Got some wonderful perks – like enough airline miles for my family of four to fly to Europe free twice!!! Plus free hotel rooms while we were there. My kids were older when I traveled so I didn’t feel like I was making as large of a sacrifice and we all loved our trips to Europe (plus some other free trips as well).

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