Commuting can be a major cost—in terms of finances, time and, for many, happiness. There are obvious hits on the wallet but also quiet ones that many drivers don’t pay attention to.
According to the Census Bureau, the average one-way commute is just over 26 minutes, which puts the round trip at almost one hour. The New York City metropolitan area has some of the longest commutes, at 36 minutes, and the San Francisco Bay Area stands at 32 minutes one way.
Shorter commute times tend to be found in the Midwest and plains states, with round trips in Fargo, North Dakota, and Dubuque, Iowa, clocking in at about half an hour.
If time is the most valuable commodity, there’s that to think about. A commute takes time that you don’t get to spend as you choose and is usually unpaid. But let’s talk about where the rubber meets the road: money.
How Much Does It Cost To Commute?
First, there’s there the per-mile cost of gasoline. Commuting to work is a major portion of all driving in the United States. But a hidden cost of driving is depreciation, a car’s loss in value over time. It’s the largest annual cost of car ownership, according to AAA, accounting for more than a third of the average annual cost. Add increased maintenance and repair costs of cars as they age and are driven more frequently.
AAA pegged maintenance and repair costs at almost 9 cents per mile and fuel costs at 11.6 cents per mile, meaning that beyond fixed costs of car ownership, a 15-mile one-way commute would cost about $6.18 a day and, at around 250 days of work a year, $1,545 annually, before expenses like auto depreciation, tolls, and insurance.
The easiest way to reduce these costs is to minimize or eliminate a commute to work.
Recommended: Average Commute Budget
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1. Aiming for a ‘Remote First’ Culture
The easiest way to maximize working from home is to find a job at a company where it’s standard. While not in play at many companies, the “remote first” model is gaining adherents, especially in technology.
If your work makes it possible to work from home sometimes, you may want to try to make it a regular occurrence. That way you can more easily optimize your time spent in the office and save tasks best for home for the day you regularly work from home.
If you work from home regularly, it also means you can get better at it, from setting up a home office that truly works to figuring out how working at home can make you more productive than working in the office, not merely save you the time and money of a long commute—although that’s important, too.
Of course, the easiest way to save money commuting to work is not to do it at all. This not only spares the cost of gas, maintenance, subway tickets, or bus fare, but it also saves precious time.
The work-from-home trend had been growing in the run-up to 2020, but the pandemic amplified it massively. WFH will likely remain an option for a wider swath of workers going forward.
The money that would have been spent on a commute to work can be leveraged to hit other savings goals.
Recommended: Making Working From Home Actually Work
2. Living Closer to the Job
In normal times, over three-quarters of American commuters drive solo in their cars to work every day, roughly 115 million people. And, as noted, cars are expensive to buy, operate, and maintain, all the while depreciating. So one of the most obvious ways to reduce commute time is to make it so your car is less expensive.
There are roughly two ways to do this: Drive less or drive less expensively.
The easiest way to drive less is to live closer to work. While that may save money in gas and maintenance, it could end up being more expensive to live closer to work, especially in a large city. One of the main amenities people seek when deciding where to live is distance from their job. If you work near where a lot of other people work, trying to live near that job is likely to be pricey.
So how to make driving less expensive if you can’t reduce the amount of driving necessary to get work? Get someone else to drive, at least some of the time, or drive cheaply.
3. Giving Carpooling a Spin
About 9% of commuters carpool, according to estimates from the Brookings Institution based on census data. This means a shared ride to and from work, typically with someone who works in the same area or nearby.
Carpooling doesn’t magically get rid of the costs of commuting to work, but it can distribute them among riders or reduce them. Gas costs can be split, and maintenance costs can be reduced as the car is operated less frequently.
Even if you’re the one driving, you can often get access to high-occupancy-vehicle lanes, which means less time on the road and less time stalled in traffic.
4. Getting a Cheaper Car
Let’s say you have no choice about how far you have to drive and how frequently you have to do it. That may be a bummer, but it doesn’t mean you’re out of options for saving money. Some cars are cheaper to operate than others, and there are wide variations between them. Basically, smaller is better.
For new cars, according to AAA, a small sedan is the cheapest to own on an annual basis, coming in at a bit over $7,000, even less than hybrids and electric vehicles, whose yearly costs average $7,740 and $8,300, respectively.
From there it’s pretty predictable: Small SUVs and medium sedans cost an owner around $8,500 a year, while medium SUVs, large sedans, and pickups rack up more than $10,000 in annual costs. (AAA bases the costs on 15,000 miles driven annually.)
There are, of course, other ways to get around besides a car.
5. Taking Public Transportation
About 5% of commuters are straphangers, bus riders, and other transit users. While a mass-transit commute to work is not costless, it can certainly save money on a per-trip basis.
Even if you own a car, using mass transit (or driving to a transit stop) won’t spare you from insurance, the cost of a new car, or depreciation, but the costs of car ownership associated with actual driving—gas, maintenance, etc.—will go down.
The only downside is that the ability to commute to work by public transit is often largely determined by locale. Someone who works in an area with a public transit system that serves the office can choose to live somewhere with efficient access to that system.
This will likely be in or near a large city, where the share of commuters who use public transit is far higher than the 5% national average.
If you work in a city like New York, Chicago, Washington, Boston, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle, or Baltimore, public transit might be an efficient commuting option.
And although public transit may not entirely remove the need for a car, it could make it so a household with two adults only needs a single car, vastly reducing the cost of car ownership.
Finally, some companies offer commuter benefits—pretax income to be spent on costs related to the commute.
6. Doing the Legwork
Often the most affordable way to get to work is without a car—that means by foot, bicycle, or some other non-internal-combustion vehicle. Biking may be impractical or stressful in many parts of the country.
Still, some commuters are up for the challenge. Cycling provides an aerobic workout and triggers the release of endorphins, builds muscle, and increases bone density, and has benefits that carry over to walking, standing, stair climbing, and endurance, Harvard Health points out.
Rolling road warriors may want to invest in a variety of gear, whose price tags are mitigated by a lack of car-related bills. Commuter gear basics and more are recommended on the website of the League of American Bicyclists, which advocates for connected communities, personal health, and environmental health.
7. Tracking Expenses
To reduce costs, commuters have to first get a handle on their spending, whether for gas, maintenance, or mass transit—or even coffees, snacks, and lunches on the job.
SoFi Checking and Savings® allows tracking of all of those costs and more. The checking and savings account gives a digital peek at niches of spending and patterns.
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