'Lunchflation' is real: Returning to the office is costing us a fortune

Millions of employees started working remotely after the pandemic first took hold in 2020. But now, more people are returning to the office -- and they're being greeted by much higher prices for just about everything.

Food. Commuting. Daycare. Rising gas prices and soaring inflation have made going back to the office more expensive. And that is eating into workers' incomes, especially if their pay increases aren't keeping up.

Here are some of the daily costs that have crept higher, making the return to post-pandemic office life more expensive.

Coffee runs and long lunches with colleagues are one of the perks of returning to the office. But they come at a higher price these days.

The index for food away from home increased 7.2% over the last year, the Labor Department reported earlier this month. Food prices were up 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 increased 10.8% for the year ended in April.

Office workers are seeing higher costs for everything from their morning coffee to their lunchtime salad: Starbucks raised prices in the US earlier this year and in October 2021 -- and said prices could continue to rise.

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"We have additional pricing actions planned through the balance of this year," said then-CEO Kevin Johnson during an analyst call in February, citing cost pressures such as inflation.

Salad chain Sweetgreen has raised its menu prices by 10% since the start of 2021, the company said in its most recent earnings report.

"Lunchflation is 100% real, everything is more expensive," said Kelly Yau McClay, who lives in Potomac, Maryland. "Before, you could get lunch for $7 to $12. Now there is no way you can get a decent lunch for less than $15."

Yau McClay had just started a job doing branding and marketing for a real estate company as everything was shutting down in April 2020. She had been working remotely full-time until October 2021. But now she's on a hybrid schedule, going in to the office three days a week, and estimates she spends around $30 to $35 a day on work-related expenses, like lunch, coffee and snack runs and parking.

But for other workers, returning to the office has brought some relief -- at least on some fronts. Consumers changed the way they spent during the pandemic, with expenses like dining out at restaurants getting replaced with higher grocery bills and more meals at home.

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

"I was eating more food because I am closer to the kitchen... my food spending was still increasing because we were all home," said Hill.

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

Before the pandemic, she spent around $25 to $30 a day on breakfast and lunch when working from the office. But now, with many of the food businesses near her job closed, she regularly brings lunches with her.

"I pretty much bring things from home, whether it's leftovers or a cup of noodles to get me through the day.