The High Cost of Commuting

Posted on October 13, 2011. Filed under: Behavioral Modification, Values | Tags: , |

Because of the horrifying amount we’ve recently spent eating out, I’ve been fretting about other expenditures – like the use of our car share program.  I feel as if we’ve been spending too much on it, but more on that later.

A friend of mine pointed to me to this blog post yesterday:

Read it once.  Read it twice.  Read it chicken soup with rice.  Because Mr. Money Mustache has said it all and oh, the commuting memories nightmares his post brought back!  I am so fortunate that I figured out how much I hated commuting (and how totally uncompromising I would be toward it) more than 10 years ago.

Magic Carpet Ride

Join me for a ride in my Way Back Machine, the Commute 2000 (which is a Delorian that requires typing in blue to match its lights)!

We’ve landed in September 1999.  I drive from a Detroit suburb to Ann Arbor (sadly not in a Delorian) roundtrip, five to six days per week.  Google Maps puts my exact route at 57 miles one way, door-to-door: 114 miles per day!  I can hardly believe that I ever drove 114 miles almost every day.  I have recently discovered NPR and it keeps me from killing myself.  I have fits of road rage.  I consider applying for a concealed carry permit.

If I manage to maintain a steady 60 mph the whole way (which almost never happens at rush hour, as there is usually at least one accident somewhere on that long stretch of highway) and account for the few red lights to and from the freeway, I’m genuinely happy when I make a one-way trip in less than two hours.  Yes, I spend nearly four hours per day driving.

According to citing AAA Michigan, gas costs about $1 per gallon in Michigan.  I drive a 1997 Mazda Protege that gets 25 mpg combined and 30 mpg on the highway.  Since most of my miles are highway miles, let’s just say it gets 30 mpg.  My 114 miles/day at 30 mpg is about 4 gallons of gas per day (about $20 per five-day work week).

In addition, I usually work at least one day of overtime on either Saturday or Sunday (and often both).  But since I’m visiting from the future, I’ll be conservative in my estimate and say I work just six days every other week. I work 50 weeks per year (with two weeks off) so that is:

Of 50 total work weeks:

  • 25 weeks of five-day/40-hour work weeks (570 miles) with 20 gallons/week at $1/gallon = $500/year
  • + 25 weeks of six-day/48-50 hour work weeks (684 miles) with 24 gallons at $1/gallon = $600/year

Yes, I spend $1,100/year just in fill-ups.

Today, the gas price at the station where I used to fill up is $3.29/gallon.  That would be:

  • 25 weeks of five-day/40-hour work weeks with 20 gallons x $3.29/gallon = $1,645/year
  • + 25 weeks of six-day/48-50 hour work weeks with 24 gallons x $3.29/gallon = $1,974/year

My exact 2000 commute would cost me a whopping $3,619/year in Michigan in 2011.

But it could be worse.  The gas station nearest our apartment in San Francisco is at $4.19/gallon today for regular (and that’s the cash, not debit/credit card, price).  In San Francisco in 2011, my Commute 2000 would cost $4,609/year!  Choke.

But we’re in my Way Back Machine that is a Delorian.

I still eat fast food!  That $1,100/year in gas does not include the daily fast food “meal” I eat in my car for “dinner.” Let’s put that at $5/day, and it really is almost every day – sometimes it even includes breakfast!  (I am still tempted by McDonald’s hash brown patties and their coffee.)  The only reason I’m not fat is because I’m still in my early 20s.

Of 50 total work weeks:

  • 25 weeks of five-day weeks of $5/day fast food = $625/year
  • + 25 weeks of six-day weeks of $5/day fast food = $750/year

Fast food adds another $1,375/year to my commute.  That’s almost $5,000/year ($4,994 to be exact) on crap food and gas alone.

And that’s not counting the car payment of $2,400/year.  According to, the original MSRP for a 1997 Mazda Protege was about $13,000.  Mine cost almost exactly $15,000.  My car payment is $200/month.

Or the car insurance of $1,200/year ($100/month).

Or the non-work driving, oil changes, car washes and maintenance.  I won’t even bother because it’s so outrageous already.

I hate this!  Take me back to 2011!  

My Commute 2000 cost…

  • $1,100 in gas
  • $1,375 for fast food
  • $2,400 car payment
  • $1,200 car insurance
  • A total of $6,075/year in underestimated commuting costs

But I’ve saved the best part for last: my 1999-2000 income.  I made $9/hour as a tech support rep and I was putting 5% of that away for retirement to qualify for the employer match.

Before taxes (and I hardly paid any because my income was so low) and 401(k), that is:

  • $9/hour x 40 hours/week = $360/week x 50 weeks/year = $18,000
  • We’re assuming I worked one overtime day which was at time and a half, so $9 + $4.50 = $13.50/hour x 8 hours = $108/day x 25 Saturdays = $2,700
  • My total pre-tax income in 2000? $20,700

That left not even $14,625 to live on.  I don’t quite know how I did it.  Almost 30% of my income was spent on commuting (and that’s about what one is supposed to spend on housing).  For shame.

And that’s not even getting into what a husk of a person I was.  I got home and laid on the sofa until I fell asleep (I almost never made it to bed) and then got up and did it again in the morning.

The most expensive lessons are often the most effective.

Perhaps my commute had to be so bad, so egregious, for me to be miserable enough to say “This is not worth it!” and wake up and pay attention.  I had resisted moving to Ann Arbor because, at the time, Ann Arbor rent was about $100/month higher (with roommates) than what I paid in a Detroit suburb to live alone.

I am ashamed it took me a year to realize that I could get 3.5 hours back in every day, vastly improve my quality of life, reduce my car insurance bill by living in a nicer area, and have some help with the utility and grocery bills in the form of roommate shared burden.  I began biking to work, nearly all of it on side streets and even some trails.  I usually cooked my dinner at home with my roommates.  I lived in a prettier, greener place.  I had time for yoga, reading, a social life, activism.

I vowed to never return to that commute hell again.  I am happy to say, 11 years later, that I haven’t.  I’ve always just moved to within a few miles of my job.  If that means we can’t own a home, so be it.  Not commuting is worth that much.

Without this experience, I would not have rejoiced when that reliable old 1997 Mazda Protege, with 120,000 miles on it (it really was a great car!), was stolen in Chicago in 2004.  I took the not quite $3,000 from the insurance company, joined the I-Go car share program, and never looked back.  In Chicago, the farthest I lived from work was 7 miles, still fast on the bike path and a 15 minute Metra ride from my office in inclement weather.  Coincidentally, my husband (before I’d met him) also got rid of his car in 2004 and hasn’t looked back.

I still walk or bike to work every day (or some combo of that plus train or bus, depending on where my life and schedule takes me that day).

About that fretting about the car share expenditures…

I was wrong.  Below are our car share bills for the past six months:

  • April and May: $0
  • June 2011: $81
  • July: $222
  • August: $39
  • September: $49
  • October: $132

That’s $523 for five months (so far).  The program covers gas.

I’m inspired to keep it low but… If, for two people, our annual transit costs amount to $1,000, I’m fine with that.  Our incomes are much higher now (no more $9/hour, thank heavens), our transit costs are much lower, and that’s a huge part of our ability to pay down debt and save.

And I haven’t eaten fast food in years.  Praise be, amen!

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