Commuting Costs Are Insane – Here’s How To Cope


Yeesh, just looking at the above photo gives me anxiety. Though I’m lucky enough to live fairly close to my office now, I went through a time where I spent 1.5 hours a day sitting in traffic to get to a previous job.  I even remember thinking that it wasn’t that bad. After all, other people were commuting upwards of 2 hours a day. I justified the commute costs (both mental and financial) by putting the phrase “at least I have a job” on repeat in my head. In retrospect, it was draining and I was miserable. Especially now that I have the luxury of a 25 minute commute on public transportation, I can’t imagine going back.

My sentiments (both the horror over the commute and the shrug at the inevitability of commuting) aren’t unusual. But Americans are commuting via car as much as ever before and despite the rise in “telecommuting” the average stats haven’t decreased since 2011. A recent article by Reuters shared the Census Bureau stat that “10.8 million Americans travel more than an hour each way to work. And 600,000 endure “megacommutes” of at least 90 minutes and 50 miles each way.”

The article went on to explore some of the financial and emotional repercussions of this kind of commuting culture. The various elements not only set up a pretty miserable set of circumstances for your budget, the emotional cost of commuting has a sizeable impact as well. We all know that commuting is a common pain in our scheduling and our bank account – but the costs that most people factor in when calculating the cost of their daily drive may only be skimming the surface. In reality, the costs for related health problems associated with sitting for long drives, high levels of dissatisfaction, and emotional stress are also at play.

So how does that impact the average commuter? These elements combined create a cost of commuting that has a huge impact on a household’s annual budget and mental health.

Calculating the True Cost of Your Commute

Before we look at ways to decrease your commuting costs, let’s examine how to actually calculate them. Here are the factors you need to include:

  • Maintenance. This includes any tune-ups or emergency repairs that you encounter throughout the year. All those trips back and forth add up to some serious wear on your vehicle, meaning that repairs are inevitable. Though not a weekly expense, it’s still important to consider the regular maintenance that will be required for a healthy vehicle.
  • Insurance. Your age, your driving record, your car’s make/model, and your location will dictate the cost of your monthly insurance. Monthly costs range anywhere from $50-ish to upwards of $200.
  • Gas. Everyone cringes when they fill up their tank but it’s always more fun to be doing so for a road trip rather than a repeated trip to the office. The fluctuation of gas prices and the the varying performance for gas mileage depending on circumstances (driving through a city vs. sitting in traffic vs. driving in traffic) will also make this a variable cost each month. I recently filled up my tank for $65 dollars. Ouch.
  • Parking. Having a dedicated spot is a great perk, but not one that every employee has access to. Garages often charge a daily fee that could take you out to dinner. Parking in downtown San Francisco, where I work, for example, will run an average of $30.00.
  • Tolls. The San Francisco Bay Bridge has a $6.00 toll for crossing from the East Bay to San Francisco. For a commuter driving into the city 5 work days a week, this pans out to roughly $1,500.00 annually. Other cities have similar tolls and fees.
  • Time lost. Though most commute costs are calculated according to the basics (like gas and maintenance) time spent on the road represents a huge cost. It’s not just about answering “how much is your time worth?” but also considering the impact of time spent doing something that saps productivity from other parts of your life. This is time that you can’t recoup.
  • Toll on mental health. Let’s be honest, commuting sucks. The repetition, the traffic, and the monotony is a cocktail for frustration. The result? You might find yourself buying that extra large latte even though you’re trying to save money on coffee. When we are dissatisfied with one aspect of our life, you tend to reward ourselves in other areas as a way of achieving what feels like a more balanced peace of mind. Gas is expensive, but so is this mental justification for extra spending.
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Ways To Cut Commute Costs

With so many elements working against the commute, it’s easy to see why so many are challenged by the daily task. But while we might wish we could simply abandon ship (or car) and cut out our commute altogether, that’s generally not a possibility. Here are some tips to help you tighten your spending on the daily commute:

Set up a carpool
Carpooling is one of the best ways to cut down on commuting costs if your job requires you to be in office on a daily basis. Talk with your coworkers to see if you can join with others who are also driving into the office. There may even be citywide carpools that have been organized – that you may not even be aware of yet. In addition to saving money, you can build relationships and make the drive a little less dull.

Take advantage of public transportation
Another way to save is to experiment with different modes of public transportation. Buses, underground trains, light rails – take your pick depending on the availability in your location.

And don’t give up after one bad experience. Sometimes a different route or time can mean the difference in a pleasant commute on public transportation vs. one that leaves you grumpy and harried.

Consider breaking up a commute w/ biking or walking
This isn’t a possibility for every commuter, but you’d be surprised at the mobility that a bicycle will give you! For instance, you might be able to bike to a bus stop that would otherwise be a little too far away to consider. Or you could park farther from your office (where there might be free or street parking) and walk the difference. Though it still requires time on your end, at the very least it addresses the cost of sitting for hours. Look at the legs of your commute and see if you can cut back on the driving portions as a way to save money.

Restructure your work schedule
Talk to your employer to see if you can rearrange your work schedule in a way that allows you to work from home once a week or telecommute more frequently. Taking out even one day of commuting expenses can make a huge difference for your budget!

Budget your commuting costs
Transportation costs are often a daily affair which can make make them seem like expected (and necessary) expenses. But stay in control of your commuting spending by keeping your receipts after filling up a tank or buying a toll pass. When you account for each purchase you’ll get a more accurate view of your expenses and have all the info necessary to pinpoint places to save and help you go about restructuring your spending.

Build up an emergency fund
From a small dent or fender bender to finding out that you need a new transmission, it’s often those unexpected car problems that hit our finances the hardest. Avoid feeling financial pressure by setting aside a sum each month to build your emergency fund. Then you can dip into that in the event of car problems rather than pull out your credit card to fund the repairs.

Consider moving closer to work
Although this may sound like a drastic (and in some cases, unrealistic) option, it’s worth considering seriously. We always know there are certain constraints on where we live, such as home/rent prices, school systems, etc. But examining the situation more closely may in some cases yield a surprising result. Who knows, you may find that there is an affordable home for sale in an area of town close to your work that you hadn’t previously considered.

While commuting has become one of those “necessary evils” of modern day sprawl, it doesn’t have to eat away at your savings. Taking measures to adjust your spending where possible and comparing the cost/effect of a long commute can help you keep costs (both financial and otherwise) at a minimum.

Image Credit: inaki de luis

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  • Dee

    I lived in a large city in the midwest and commuted 35 minutes each way for three years. I know that’s not too bad by commuting standards, but I totally hated it! I’ve now moved to a much smaller town in the midwest and enjoy living 5-10 minutes from work. Much less painful! I could never be one of those people who has a “mega-commute!”

    • Wow, nice! Having a 5-10 minute commute must be such a relief. I went the opposite direction: I used to have a 5-10 minute commute and now I have a 45 minute commute. I’d like to get it back down someday, though.

  • bookishheather

    Active transportation (biking or walking to work) can also help save money if you’ve got a gym membership too!

    • Good point, Heather! Plus, it’s easier to get your exercise in that way then have to go to the gym later.