The Curse (And Cost) of Commuting

I want to focus our attention on a subject now that I feel like gets talked about both all the time, and not enough. The cost of commuting. Not only the commuting cost in dollars, but in time spent.  According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average American daily commute to work is 25.4 minutes. I know what you’re thinking, “that’s not bad!” or “Yeah, that sounds about right!” and it is that mindset that keeps the average closer to 30 minutes than it is to 10.

I remember when I got my first job out of college, my wife and I were moving to Portland, Oregon. A place we had never been before and an area we didn’t know too much about. We visited a few weeks before we were planning on moving to find housing. At the beginning of our trip, we stopped by the office to ask employees of the company, my future co-workers, where we should live. It seemed like every person we talked to told us a different version of the same thing. “You should live in XYZ, it’s great, and it’s only a 20-minute commute.” “We live in ABC and love it. It only takes 25 minutes to get to work, too!”

I began to think that there were no housing options within 10 minutes of the office. Why else would everyone I talked to choose to live 25-30 minutes away? Luckily, that was not the case, and we found a quiet little apartment that was 3 miles away. Close enough that I could easily ride my bike.

Speaking of riding bikes… Cycling has been one of my favorite pastimes for as long as I can remember. While my friends asked their parents for rides to friend’s houses, I would hop on my bike and ride there. This led to many late-night sprints trying to make it home before curfew. It even led to a broken wrist on a curfew-sprint gone awry. But that’s not the point; the point is I love riding my bike, and I truly believe the world would be a much better place if we all rode bikes instead of drove. Not to mention that transportation expenses would drop to next to nothing! I’ve made it a point so far in my career to live within biking distance, and I will continue to do so.

Young-Dime-Dad-on-Bike
Been riding for as long as I can remember.

I think we as a society find ourselves in what I’m going to call an “average mindset trap.” We think that because something is average, that means it’s normal. Worse than that though, we think that because something is average means it’s unavoidable. We tend to think, “The average commute time is 25 minutes; mine is just over 30, so it’s not so bad.” IT IS SO BAD! Another common “average mindset trap” we fall into is in thinking, “They say that 65 is the retirement age, so I guess I’ll work until then.”

Again, just because something is “average” doesn’t make it okay. Just because something is normal doesn’t mean we need to behave the same way. It’s normal to take the escalator when the stairs are 2 feet away. It’s normal to grab fast food on your way home instead of preparing a cheaper, healthier alternative at home. It’s normal to drive an expensive car to an expensive gym to ride a stationary bike when you have a real bike collecting dust in the garage.

Likewise, it’s normal to commute in that same expensive car rather than getting a workout while on your way to work by riding your bike. The worst part about commuting, however, isn’t the lost opportunity to burn calories, it’s that the true cost is spread out over such an extended period of time. Because of this, we don’t feel how truly expensive it is to drive to and from work every day.

The IRS figures that it costs 54.5 cents per mile in 2018 to drive a car. This figure includes the car cost, gas, maintenance, cost of insurance, etc. This is the figure we’ll use for the next few simple calculations. According to the US Department of Transportation, the average commuter drives 15 miles one way to get to work. Using the IRS total driving cost at 30 miles a day, that means that the average American spends $82 a week just getting to and from work. Here’s a breakdown:

Commuting Cost

Cost of Commuting
Cost per Day $16.35
Cost per Week $81.75
Cost per Month $355.61
Cost per Year $4,267.35*

 

That $4200 in commuting expenses you’d have at the end of the year is real money you could put toward a family vacation, updates to your house, or just a good, old-fashioned investment account. With that amount of money, assuming you invest all of it every year and receive a 7% return, after 20 short years you would have $175,000!

Right about now you might be thinking, 20 years is a long time to ride a bike! If I do this, I’m going to look silly as a 45-year-old riding a bike. Let me stop you right there and ask you this: Does this 45-year-old look silly riding a bike? That’s what I thought.

We’re now going to circle back to what we talked about at the beginning of this article. Time. Commuting costs a lot of people a lot of time. To make the next set of calculations simple, let’s value your time at $20/hour. This is a little lower than the current average hourly wage for American full-time employees.

If your time is worth $20 an hour and you commute 50.4 minutes a day, that’s an additional $16.80 worth of commuting time that you’ll kiss goodbye every day. That now brings our daily total to $41.16.

Here’s a quick look at what that looks like over the course of a year:

Commuting Cost (Time Included)

Cost of Commuting – Time Included
Cost per Day $41.16
Cost per Week $205.80
Cost per Month $895.23
Cost per Year $10,742.46*

Just for fun, if you invest that at a 7% return, after 20 years you’d have $440,404.74!

That’s not just real money; it’s life-changing money that people are essentially throwing away every year. When people look to cut their expenses, they first cut down on leisure activities and food costs. It’s a start, but it doesn’t come close to having the effect that housing and commuting have on a household’s bottom line. Housing is a completely different topic for a different article, but just for fun, let’s relate housing and commuting costs shall we?

According to the above figures, it takes about 1 minute and 45 seconds for the average commuter to travel one mile while commuting to work. That means that every year, every mile costs $588.99. That $589 will pay the interest of $11,760 of a mortgage borrowed at 5%. This means that for every mile closer to work you live, you can buy nearly $12,000 more house.

When trying to justify their long commutes, lower housing prices seem to always be at the top of everyone’s list. Hopefully, the houses 5 miles farther away are at least $60,000 less expensive. Otherwise, it’s not worth it.

Final Thoughts

In closing, I’d like to put to rest any doubters or skeptics out there who think it’s not possible to have a bikeable commute or think that I don’t really ride to work every day. I mentioned above that our apartment in Oregon was 3 miles away from the office and that I would ride to work. We recently moved to Utah for another job, and our housing search was literally only within a 5-mile radius of the office. Our house is 2.4 miles away from work, and I continue bicycle commuting every day.

One last note about this whole philosophy. Yes, it saves money. Yes, it allows more time for doing what you love and spending with those you love. And yes, it can be a great daily workout to help you lose those last few pounds. While those are great benefits, they seem like fringe benefits compared to the best benefit of all: it’s just simpler.

We used to have two cars. We each had one in college and just brought them into the marriage. On rare occasions, yes, it can be logistically challenging to have one car. I will happily put up with it because of the stress that is relieved from getting rid of a vehicle. Even though they were both paid off, fuel-efficient cars, not having to deal with the insurance costs, maintenance costs, registration fees, etc. is a huge benefit I didn’t see coming. Those little stresses and commuting expenses add up over time, and I didn’t really notice how annoying they were until they were gone.

*Assuming 261 work days per year.

This article by Caden Rhoton first appeared on dimedad.com and was distributed by the Personal Finance Syndication Network.