) -- You may be working yourself into the poorhouse.
Holding a full-time job is the only way most can earn a paycheck and make ends meet. The catch is that the very act of working is costing you in ways that go far beyond taxes. For those struggling to get by on lower salaries, the impact of what it costs to go to work every day can put a significant squeeze on household budgets.
Cars are expensive but even if you are lucky enough to have viable access to public transportation, prepare to plunk down $60 to $100 a month for a train or bus pass.
A flaw in the nation's unemployment safety net is that sometimes it can seem more lucrative (at least in the minds of the less-than-motivated) to stay at home collecting unemployment checks than to take a lower-paying job.
Someone who, for example, is laid off from a $60,000-a-year position may find it difficult to justify passing up on biweekly unemployment check stipends that adds up to about half that when offered a paid job at the same low amount. Once that $30,000 starts being nibbled away by the many costs associated with holding a daily job, sitting on a couch, eating government-funded pizza rolls and watching TV judges might start to seem like a better deal.
Here are five expenses eating away at your wages, followed by some advice on keeping you wallet closed -- and full:
1. Tanks for nothing
There are commuting costs to contend with. If you are fortunate enough to have viable access to public transportation, still prepare to plunk down $60 to $100 a month for a train or bus pass in most major cities. If you drive to the office, the costs shoot up from there.
Nationally, most low-to-moderate-income workers -- more than 85% -- drive to work in private vehicles, according to research by the
Center for Housing Policy
, the nonprofit research affiliate of the
According to data compiled by the personal finance website Bundle.com, the average American worker spends more than $6,000 a year in transportation costs. That accounting includes not just fuel costs, but other auto expenses as well (insurance, inspections, etc.). It is not just gas that will affect your personal bottom line. There is also the wear and tear on your car that goes with a commute, not to mention the purchase price of the vehicle.
Depending on where you live, that family budget item -- significantly affected by the length and frequency of work commutes -- can grow much higher. A study last year by the
found that, nationally, transportation costs are a household's second-largest expenditure (housing was No. 1). In research focused on the Boston region between 2006 and 2008, transportation costs consumed 19% of income for the typical household, amounting to $994 per month, or $11,927 annually. Forty-one percent of workers in that region had commutes of a half-hour or longer, and one in 10 commuted at least an hour.
Add to the mix the pricey problem of where to park your car if your job site doesn't provide its own lot. In major cities, be prepared to have daytime parking set you back $300 to $400 a month or more.
2. Day care dilemma
If you have kids, prepare yourself for what may be the biggest budget buster of all -- day care.
More than 11 million children under age 5 spend approximately 35 hours per week in the care of someone other than a parent, according to the
. On average, preschool-age children of working mothers spend 36 hours in child care or nonparental care.
More than half (51%) of families with children under 5 say the economy has affected their child care arrangements in some way, with more than three-fifths (63%) worried at least some of the time about paying their bills, the group found in a recent survey.
"For many families, the cost of quality child care is simply too high," says Linda Smith, the association's executive director.
How high? According to the association, the cost of day care can fluctuate widely among cities, with major metropolitan areas commanding a heftier price. Full-time center care for an infant was found to range from $4,500 to nearly $19,000 last year. Center care for a 4-year-old child ran between $4,460 and $13,158 annually. Before- and after-school care for a school-aged child in a center can cost upward of $10,000.
The cost is forcing some working families to make difficult -- and questionable -- decisions.
"More parents are faced with having to choose unlicensed and unregulated child care settings in order to save money," Smith says. "If parents are faced with deciding whether to pay more for child care or buy other household necessities like groceries, child care is usually the first area where parents make adjustments to reduce costs," Smith said. "In most instances, families are likely to spend more on child care then they do for health care and food combined."
Even those who think of their pets as children will pay the price for being at work. A dog walker will typically cost $15 to $30 per session.
3. Clothes calls
What you wear to work will also tap your budget. Need to dress for success? A high-quality suit is going to cost at least $800, often more depending on the designer and where you buy it.
Dress shoes will cost around $100 a pair (often much more depending on the maker, style and quality). A nice blouse, a leather belt, a handbag, messenger bag, laptop case, raincoat, snow boots and umbrella are just a small sample of the clothing or accessories you may need to pick out for an office wardrobe.
4. Eating away at your savings
Lunch and snacks will also have you reaching for your debit card throughout the day. If you shell out $10 a day for lunch, and another $5 a day for coffee or snacks, you can deduct nearly $4,000 from your take-home pay.
Tired after a long day at work? Rather than an affordable home-cooked meal, you will likely end up blowing $10 or more grabbing fast food on the way home at least two or three times a week.
Socializing after work is an important extracurricular activity for fostering teamwork and morale. But even a lone beer and a single appetizer once a week will subtract another $20 or so from your ever-dwindling paycheck.
5. Charity fatigue
The workplace also makes you a target for charitable pleas. It is hard to deny co-workers when they ask you to support their kids by buying Girl Scout cookies or magazine subscriptions. There are also walk-a-thons, 5k road races and other charity-minded endeavors that will pass the hat for a pledge.
Gus from accounting is retiring? A cake for Carol's birthday? Helen from HR just had a baby? Choosing not to chip in is a cardinal sin in the realm of office politics.
How to cut back
Every work-related expense you can reduce is like getting a raise. Every dollar saved is one that can go to other household expenses, or be redirected to savings or a retirement plan.
Some ways to save money each work day can be fairly simple. Pack a lunch each day instead of running to the local sub shop and try to prepare (and possibly freeze) some meals you can heat up once you get home on those days you are too wiped out to play chef. Using a slow cooker with a timer is another way to have a hot meal ready for you by the time you pull into the driveway.
Instead of paying $100 or more for a shirt at Brooks Brothers, avoid the boutique shops and malls and instead stock up with shirts, ties, blouses and dresses at more affordable retailers such as
. You may surrender a bit of your reputation as a fashionista, but the savings can be worth it and odds are most co-workers won't even notice.
One way to reduce the costs of commuting or day care is to see if your employer is open to you telecommuting one or two days a week. Although this certainly won't offer much help to those who work with the public, some may be able to hunker down at a home office on a regular basis to keep costs down.
Your human resources department can also help you realize savings through pretax payroll deductions for such necessary costs as transit passes. Your company may also be able to arrange for a Dependent Care Reimbursement Account.
These plans, similar to a Health Savings Account or Flexible Savings Account, allow you to make pretax payroll deductions to defray the cost of day care for children under the age of 13 (as well as adult day care for the disabled or infirm). Some can be used to reimburse for eligible daycare expenses for children age 12 and under or for adult day care expenses for a disabled spouse or IRS-qualified tax dependent.
The maximum annual deduction is $5,000 for a married couple.
-- Written by Joe Mont in Boston.
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