Tightening the Toolbelt - 5 Saving Strategies for the Workplace
Where does my paycheck go?
As with most of you these days, money is tight. As a result, I have been scrutinizing my household budget and trying to figure out exactly where my money goes. I've always been good with saving. I have a 401K, an IRA, some (although not nearly enough) college savings for my children, and (again, not quite enough, but an adequate) emergency fund. I'm self aware enough to know that I am not, by nature, an organized person, so I obsessively balance my checkbook, pay bills to the letter and keep a watchful eye on all our major financial endeavours so they don't get away from me.
What I'm not so good with is the small stuff. If I happen to have cash, I'm never quite sure where it goes. Since I have 2 small children (read: "no social life" and "no free time"), I hardly ever go anywhere that I might spend money. So, where is that $20 that I had in my pocket last Tuesday? I found some ones and a few nickles in its place, but the twenty is conspicuously missing.
It finally dawned on me, that, while I may not realize it, there are ample opportunities for me to fritter away my pocket money at the one place I never would have expected... my job. Upon coming to this revelation, I challenged myself to keep better track of those moments and figure out just where my money went. And, as a longer term goal, decide how I could keep it from going there.
So, how does one save money at work? Read on, my friends, for 5 simple tips: Ways I found to keep from giving my company back too much of my paycheck.
The Company Cafeteria
This is probably the most obvious offender when it comes to pocket money pilfering. Its so much easier to spend a fiver on a sandwich and chips from my company cafe, then to make one at home. A no-brainer it may be, but, even in tough times, I found myself having trouble convincing myself to cut it out, so I included it here. Hopefully some of what I present may convince you that the easy-out lunch isn't worth the money you are losing each week.
The simple math is this. I work 4 days a week. On average, I would spend $5 for a lunch in my "subsidized" cafeteria, or $10 including tip and delivery at a take-out place if I order in with some other staffers. Let's assume I buy 3 days per week most weeks and order in once every 3 weeks. (I'd tell you what I'd spend doing this everyday, but the reality is that I thought if I packed sometimes and bought sometimes, I was doing o.k. That's not really the case. Even splurging from time to time makes a huge difference.) Ok, so, for the previous example, I would spend $860 per year, or $71 each month on lunch money! That's a huge chunk a' ca-ching!
"Well," say you, "You have to buy something to eat!" I do, but if its from the grocery store, here's an average of what I would spend, for a much healthier meal. For a sandwhich, some pretzels, some carrot sticks and a yogurt each day, I would spend about $1.50/day; for a grand total of $312/year or $26/month. That's an annual savings of $548. (Not to mention a waistline savings of probably a few inches.) To sweeten the pot, I started using the small refridgerator in the breakroom to store a large container of yogurt and some hummus instead of spending the cash on individual serving sizes.
If packing your lunch seems like too much of an endeavor for the time crunched among us, here's a few even simpler solutions:
If you pack lunches for your kids, pack one for yourself at the same time. It takes about 1 minute longer when you do it all together (I timed it last night.)
Just make a sandwich and buy yourself a small salad or something at work to complement it. Not buying the main entree will stretch your dollar a long way. Alternately, just grab a piece of fruit and a yogurt from the fridge. Only buying a sandwhich without the requisite "meal package" or sides will also save you some dough.
Keep cans of microwaveable soup or other no-fridge-required meals at your desk. If you're in a pinch, or are too tired at night, it might save you from the temptation of "just buying this one time."
Most importantly, treat yourself every once in a while. Bringing from home can seem pretty mundane and repetitive. Especially if the rest of the office is eating sushi while you're munching on PB&J. Every now and then, our cafe serves one of my favorites. I'll splurge that day and save the lunch I packed for tomorrow.
The Coffee Run
At first, I was going to include this money saver in the Cafeteria category, but considering that this one is particularly problematic for me, I decided to give it its own heading. $270 per year. That's what I was spending on coffee at work. And, that was only if I bought the cheap stuff in the cafeteria (which goes down like jet fuel - seriously, people, one shouldn't have to chew one's cup of joe.) If I splurge and buy the Wawa, or, God forbid, the Starbucks every now and then, the number skyrockets to between $300 and $400 per year. A car payment's worth of cash for what amounts to, literally, a hill of beans.
First of all, the mom in me says: "Coffee's bad for you! Lay off the stuff and save a buck and your health!." Then, the mom in me says (you know, the actual ME, the over-tired, over-worked caregiver to two little energy tornados): "Seriously? You wouldn't make it till lunch without that cup of black, hot liquid sleep."
My solution? Cut back on the joe, for my health and my wallet; but, be realistic. I try to limit my intake to one caffeinated beverage per day. This alone would cut my $300 tally in half. I also stopped buying said beverage. I now purchase Foldger's Coffee Singles and leave them at my desk. (They are like tea bags, but with coffee instead. Because the bag acts like a coffee filter, its real ground coffee inside - way better than instant.) This cuts the cost of a cup of coffee about in half. Saving me another $75/year. In order to add a little spice to life, I also keep at my desk some instant cocoa and various varieties of tea. Any little treat I can have for a "me" moment during a hectic day using only my trusty mug and the hot water tab on the office water cooler.
Gas Tank Blues
A major expenditure of working is simply getting there. In this greener age, where companies can feign environmental concern while getting kickbacks from government grants, many companies are instituting policies to help reduce their employees' carbon footprint.
Check with your supervisor or HR department about the following options to help Mother Earth, and Papa Wallet.
Flex time: Many companies now encourage a better "work/life balance" and aren't opposed to shaking things up a bit to accomplish it. You may be able to put in your 40hrs in 4 10 hour days instead of 5 8 hour days. This would save gas and mileage costs for 1/5th of your working life. If your boss won't go for the 4 day option, consider asking if you can shift your start and end time. Simply coming in and leaving an hour earlier could save you endless hours of drive time stuck in traffic; reducing your fuel costs, wear and tear on your car and the amount of exhaust fumes your popping out into the air. Not to mention you trade road rage car time into family time at home.
Work At Home: As above, more and more companies are realizing the benefits of having employees work from home offices on a part or full time basis. For your wallet, the same benefits as above apply, plus fewer dry cleaning bills since you can plug away in your pj's. (Provided, of course, that you at least change your top before those pesky web-cam conferences.)
Ride Share: Check with your HR department and see if they have set up a community ride share. Perhaps someone you work with lives in your neighborhood and you can share the burden of the daily commute and the weekly gas pump. If your HR department doesn't have one, consider asking their policy on posting your own ride share bulletin board.
Time is Money
Depending on your financial status, the only thing more valuable to you than your paycheck, might be your time. I realized recently that, although it didn't save me a calculable amount of pesos, getting the most out of my work day could give me more quality time at home. And, after all, time is money.
Instead of wasting my lunchbreak on facebook, or repeatedly checking emails, (I work an odd shift, so I'm often lunching alone) I started using it to pay bills, return phone calls, schedule doctor's appointments and the other myriad items that usually dotted my evenings at home. Once I realized how quickly I could accomplish these tasks at work, without the distractions of tiny children and household hum, I actually started coming in about 15 minutes early every now and then and getting one or two tasks done before I punched in for the day. Tasks that took me 45 minutes at home, took 10 minutes in my office. I was gaining hours to my week, and, I realized, actually saving some money in the long run as I became more organized and paid fewer occasional late fees on bills.
Every office has one. The Party Queen. She plans gatherings for the locals, whether it be onsite baby showers, or after hours birthday celebrations. And, inevitably, she will show up at your desk asking for your monetary or culinary contribution.
This can be a treacherous situation. I never want to shun my co-workers, or make them feel that I don't care, but in a company of several thousand employees, this can get expensive very, very quickly. Here's a few tactics I take.
In this economy, you no longer have to be shy about flat out saying no. People are much more understanding of financial hardship. Although it took me a while to swallow my pride and come out with it, I found the truth to be very effective. "I'd love to support so-and-so, but, honestly, things are really tight right now and I just can't afford it. I'll definitely swing by, but I can't chip in on the gift this time." To avoid any awkwardness about how to proceed, follow up with: "Make sure you leave my name off the gift card since I'm not chipping in. I'll pick up a separate card on my own."
If you still feel awkward, or would like to participate but can't afford the fifteen bucks being requested, try this. Have a stash of small gifts at home- things anyone would like (candles, candy) or keep an eye out on e-bay for half price gift cards. When asked for a group gift contribution, simply reply "Oh shoot! I didn't know you were planning anything for whosey-whatsit. I already bought a gift on my own!" Then go home and wrap up one of your goodies that you bought months ago at that after Christmas clearance sale.
As for parties of the after-work variety, treat them like any other social event. Give yourself a budget and stick to it. If you can't afford a beer, don't buy one... If you have just a few bucks to spend, feign a prior engagement, but say you wouldn't miss it and will stop by for just a few minutes. Then, go, hang out, stick to your plan, and leave before the rounds of shots start their rotation.
A Penny Earned
We all want to do better - for ourselves, for our families, for our futures. So often, however, life simply gets in the way of our best intentions. Cut yourself some slack, stop searching for that miracle that will save you a hundred bucks a day. Keep it simple, keep track of what you spend and find the easy way to sock away a penny, a nickle, even a dollar. Trust me, overtime, that loose change will add up, and the results may just suprise you.
Thoughtful Spot is a mom of 2 wonderful (and expensive) little boys whose husband was recently "employment free" for a time. She found that these small budget strategies and other minor cutbacks could improve her monthly financial status and help her and her family through a tough time.