Lunchflation is real: It’s costing us a fortune to return to the office

After the 2020 pandemic first took hold, millions of employees began working remotely. But now more people are returning to the office — and they’re being greeted with much higher prices for almost everything.

Meal. Commute. Day care center. Rising gasoline prices and rising inflation have made going back to the office more expensive. And that eats away at workers’ incomes, especially when their wage increases don’t keep up.

Here are some of the day-to-day expenses that have risen, making returning to office life more expensive after the pandemic.

Coffee breaks and long lunches with co-workers are among the perks of returning to the office. But they come at a higher price these days.
The home food index rose 7.2% last year, the Labor Department reported earlier this month. Food prices rose 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 rose 10.8% for the year ended April.

Office workers see higher costs for everything from morning coffee to lunch salad: Starbucks raised prices in the US earlier this year and in October 2021 – and said prices could rise further.

“We have more pricing action planned through the end of this year,” then-CEO Kevin Johnson said during an analyst call in February, citing cost pressures like inflation.

Salad chain Sweetgreen has increased its menu prices by 10% since the beginning of 2021, the company said in its latest earnings report.

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

Yau McClay had just started a branding and marketing job for a real estate company when everything shut down in April 2020. She had been working remotely full-time until October 2021. But now she has a mixed schedule and goes to the office three days a week and estimates that she spends about $30 to $35 a day on work-related expenses like lunch, coffee and snacks, and parking.

But for other workers, the return to the office has brought some relief — at least on some fronts. Consumers have changed how they spend during the pandemic as expenses like eating out have been replaced by higher grocery bills and more meals at home.

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

“I ate more because I’m closer to the kitchen … my grocery expenses still went up because we were all at home,” Hill said.

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

Before the pandemic, she spent about $25 to $30 a day on breakfast and lunch when working in the office. But now that many of the grocery stores near where she works are closed, she regularly brings lunch with her.

“I pretty much bring things from home, whether it’s leftovers or a cup of pasta, to get me through the day. Lunchflation is real: It’s costing us a fortune to return to the office

Laura Coffey

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