A woman working at home from her laptop with her dog in her lap.

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2020 has been tough for everybody. But, in all that awful, one small bit of awesome took hold: the widespread adoption of remote working. 

I dabbled in remote work before it was cool, but 2020 was the first year I spent fully working from home -- and boy, was it educational. I learned some important lessons, and have some interesting financial takeaways to share.

Some of what I found when I reviewed my spending was more or less expected -- not commuting every day obviously meant fewer trips to the gas station. But other discoveries were a bit more surprising. Here are five things I learned after my first year as a 100% remote worker.

1. Restaurant rewards no longer pay my annual credit card fee

A few years ago, I got a fancy job with long hours within a few blocks of about a bajillion restaurants. Convenience and proximity meant my food costs rose, and each $7 lunch and $15 dinner eventually added up to four figures of annual restaurant spending.

In retrospect, it's not such a surprise that a good chunk of my 2019 credit card rewards came from pricey take-out meals and restaurant visits. In fact, my American Express® Gold Card earned enough points from dining purchases in 2019 to make its $250 annual fee seem like a decent investment. 

When my career shifted and I began remote working, those costs (and rewards) suddenly disappeared. Instead of a pricey -- albeit delicious -- restaurant meal, I started preparing my own lunches. While it's been a money-saver, cheaper at-home meals mean fewer restaurant rewards, so I'll likely need to rethink my credit card strategy. 

2. Commuting expenses are more than just gas

A lot of conversations around remote working discuss the commute. After all, non-remote workers can spend 20 to 60 minutes a day, if not more, just going to and from work. (All those gas rewards credit cards aren't for vacation road trips.) But the financial expenses associated with commuting aren't limited to the cost of gas.

For one thing, the time you spend commuting has financial value in and of itself. That time could be spent on money-saving tasks you'd otherwise pay someone else to do, like cooking and cleaning. Or, you can use that time to just relax -- and yes, relaxing is valuable. People who are overly stressed are typically less productive. 

Commuting also comes with other, more tangible, costs. Your car needs more than just gas to operate. Oil changes, new tires, and general repairs aren't free -- or avoidable. The more you drive, the more costly it can get to maintain your vehicle. Adding miles to your vehicle can also increase your insurance costs, as well as decrease your car's potential resale value.

3. Grocery rewards can add up, but more slowly than from dining out

My 2019 food budget involved enough restaurant rewards to cover a luxury card's annual fee, but 2020's spending couldn't have been more different. With the time -- and energy -- to make my own meals, my restaurant spending dwindled, but my grocery store spending rose by leaps and bounds. 

My American Express® Gold Card offers the same rewards rates on groceries as it does on restaurants. So, I didn't need to change cards. And that direct year-over-year comparison showed I'd still earned a fairly significant amount of purchase rewards. However, as you'd probably suspect, my grocery costs never got as high as my 2019 restaurant expenses.

The cost benefits of cooking at home versus eating out are nothing new. But it's easy to shuffle that knowledge to the back of your mind -- especially when you're looking for convenience at the end of a long day. Remote working helped me put my food budget back into perspective.

4. Good office furniture is important -- but expensive

This particular lesson was a painful one -- literally. Ergonomics are no joke, and the pieced-together home office setup that had worked so well for weekend emails did not hold up to my new reality.

Sadly, good office furnishings are as expensive as they are necessary. If you'd told me even a year ago that I'd contemplate spending over $300 on one single chair, I would have scoffed. I'm not scoffing now.

5. Schedules aren't optional

Some people's remote working fantasies involve fuzzy slippers and no more alarm clocks. And yes, depending on your particular company, your attire and work hours can be fairly fanciful. But there's a dark side to not having a required 9-to-5: You're responsible for your own time management.

A hard lesson I had to learn -- and am still learning -- is that schedules aren't optional. Without the social pressure of an office, I found myself putting off work tasks in favor of, you know, not work. 

Given that my finances are entirely dependent on me actually finishing those tasks, this was not ideal. For me, at least, having (and keeping to) a proper work schedule is a key part of ensuring I actually accomplish, well, anything at all.

When life presents you with challenges, it can help to think of them as learning opportunities. And I sure did learn a lot this year. However, despite all the hardships that came with 2020, it did normalize remote working. And that's a change I'll be happy to see carry into 2021.