How Cheaper Gasoline Ultimately Costs You More

You know, there used to be a guy named Ripley who made a fortune explaining why things aren’t always what they seem. For example, a banana tree is not a really a tree at all, but a massive herb that can grow as tall as a four story building.

If you think that’s something, koala bears aren’t really bears at all — they’re marsupials.

And next time you visit New York City, keep in mind that an egg cream contains neither eggs nor cream, but simply chocolate flavored syrup mixed with soda water and milk.

Lead Pencils and the Drive for Cheap Gasoline Prices

I bet you didn’t know things aren’t always what they seem when it comes to buying gasoline either.

With the cost of living higher than ever, it seems like more and more people are suddenly doing their best to try and stretch a dollar — especially here in Southern California.

Yesterday the Honeybee came home from shopping at Costco and informed me that there were so many cars lined up to take advantage of their low-priced gasoline that the queue stretched around the corner. There were so many cars in line — including a neighbor of ours — that she guessed the wait had to be at least 20 minutes.

Obviously, the discount being offered by Costco was big enough to entice people to wait that long to fill up their tanks. On that particular day, the price for regular gasoline at our local station barely a mile down the road was $3.91.

Care to guess how much the folks in line at Costco were paying? Three dollars and seventy-nine cents. Yep. A whole 12 cents per gallon less.

Is waiting in line for 20 minutes truly worth the hassle of saving a measly 12 cents per gallon? If you ask me, it’s pure lunacy. After all, for a ten-gallon fill-up, that’s a very modest savings of $1.20. Heck, for $2.40, even a 20-gallon fill-up isn’t that impressive.

Then again, the reality is, just as a lead pencil contains no lead, the frugal fuel shoppers who waited in that long line at Costco to save 12 cents per gallon probably didn’t save any money at all!

Penny Wise, Pound Foolish

A shooting star is not a star — it’s a meteoroid — and more often than not shopping for low gas prices isn’t a smart idea. This is especially true if you have to drive more than a short block or two out of your way to take advantage of a lower price. That’s because the savings at the pump are are almost always eaten up driving around to get the bargain.

Then there is the seemingly niggling issue of idling cars. When it comes to fuel consumption, the California Energy Commission notes that two minutes of idling is equivalent to driving one mile. So a car idling for twenty minutes ends up burning the same amount of fuel required to drive 10 miles.

With all that in mind, let’s examine just how much money my frugal neighbor really saved.

It turns out that Costco is a 12-mile round trip from our houses. Since our local gas station is but a 2-mile round-trip, my neighbor had to drive an extra ten miles out of his way. Add to that the extra fuel he burned by keeping his vehicle idling in line for twenty minutes and he used enough fuel to drive 20 more miles than if he would have simply paid $3.91 at the corner gas station.

Now, if I assume the average fuel mileage of my neighbor’s car is 20 miles per gallon, he burned an extra gallon of gasoline — not to mention at least a half hour of his life — just so he could save 12 cents per gallon.

Based on my very reasonable assumptions, you can see that, at best, my neighbor spent $3.79 to save roughly $2.40. In other words, he would have been much better off financially ($1.39 to be exact) buying the more expensive gas.

The truth is, an English Horn is actually an oboe that originated in Poland, and folks that strive to save a nickel or three for a gallon of gas usually end up paying more money than those who don’t try at all.

Believe it, or not.

***

(This is an updated version of an article that originally posted on May 14, 2011)

Photo Credit: Cliff1066â„¢

42 comments to How Cheaper Gasoline Ultimately Costs You More

  • It’s incredible what people do to save pennies. The half hour of time is the most costly thing in your equation. I am way too busy to spend half an hour to save just a buck.
    Anyway, people would have been much better off buying a small fuel efficient car and save on gas in the long run. The price hike relief of the last 2 years was just a mirage and fuel price will just keep going up from now on. (my prediction)

  • Great points. In high school I had a friend who would drive 20 minutes down the highway to get the cheaper gas – by about a dime. Since we were young and stupid of course we weren’t driving conservatively either. There is no way he saved money.

  • My recommendation: Download a free app on your smartphone that will search all the nearby gas stations (based on your GPS location) and report their prices to you.

    You’ll see which nearby gas station has that desirable combination of BOTH cheap AND convenient (e.g. no excess driving or idling required).

    This is also a good strategy if you’re driving down the highway and want to know whether to buy gas now, or buy gas 20 miles down the road.

    Caution: Don’t check your phone while driving! Distracted driving is deadly!

  • Lots of interesting and amusing facts, however, I didn’t realize idling ate up that much gas. We had a horrible winter and would sometimes warm up our car for 10-20 minutes in the morning. (and yeah, it did take that long when it was -10 out) My husband would say it was worth the $1 to not freeze his butt off on the way to work though. You CA people don’t have to worry about such things.

    • If it’s just a matter of warming the interior of the car and making the commute more comfortable, something like a heated car cushion might help your husband get on the road faster. I doubt the power used by the heated cushion would be more expensive than idling the car for 20 minutes.

  • I know this fellow that will drive 30 miles to get a load of “free” mulch from the city green waste yard. I helpfully pointed out that he could buy much better cedar mulch for $25 a load at the landscape place closer to home, and save on the gas. It didn’t register, so I’m done with offering unsolicited advice (for now).

    • Sue in NC

      Well on a bad day my 1998 Ford Ranger gets about 20 mpg, but lets lowball it and say it gets 15 mpg, he may have a bigger truck, etc. (also makes the math easier!). The last time I filled it up it cost $3.15/gal. So that ends up costing $6.30 per load. We don’t know how big a load we are talking about in either case, but even if I had to get two loads to equal the cedar one I’d still be right around half price. I can’t factor in the time, we don’t know what his time is worth. I’d get the mulch on my off time, gardening is one of my hobbies so I’d do it anyway, and almost all my beds, even the ones around the house, are devoted to vegetables, so I do get something out of that. As to whether cedar is better is strictly a matter of opinion, personally I love the smell, but not the look. Sadly, our county does not give out free mulch, we are rural and there isn’t even trash collection, let alone garden waste, all private or DIY, but I’d be right there with your neighbor.

  • I believe it! I’ve never understood those long lines at the Costco gas stations. A few pennies for waiting for such a long time doesn’t equal any savings at all. I’d much rather go to the nearest gas stations, choose the lowest price of the two (because there’s almost always two gas stations at an intersection) and just try to drive less over all.

    All the facts are very interesting as well. ;)

  • I am such a line jockey, I don’t like to wait for anything.

    And yes 20 minutes of my time is worth way more than this, (except when I’m blogging, then it is worth pennies….)

  • WB

    He drove that distance just to get gas?

  • I believe the term for it is “transportation costs” or “friction cost”! Always consider that! The cost of coupon clipping will be “the time spent clipping coupons” for example.

  • I’ve gotten into debates with certain individual(s) about such situations. One must always consider time when trying to save money. Spending 20 minutes to save a few pennies in asinine. Picking up pennies right in front of me…that’s different.

    Overall, as we get older, we can’t make more time….but money could always come in, right?

  • The useless driving that some folks do is the real culprit. Future cars will run on money not gas. Click on Doable Finance above and read the article.

  • @40: The time issue is the biggest point to me too. I mean, to wait in line a half hour just to save a few bucks (at best)… how little do these folks value their time?
    @SPF: Ha! I, too, know people who will drive 10 miles out of their way to get a free ice cream cone worth 99 cents. They’d be much off just staying local and paying.
    @Afford: That’s cool — I need to check that out.
    @FirstGen: I knew idling wasn’t an insignificant thing, but I didn’t realize idling ate that much gas either! Now I’m consciously counting my idle time while sitting at long red lights. LOL
    @101: Let me know if he wants some free ice cream cone coupons. ;-)
    @LittleHouse: Isn’t it amazing? There is always a line at our Costco. Always. It’s usually only three or four cars deep, but even then the savings are less than a dime a gallon. I just don’t get it.
    @Dr. Dean: I hear ya on the blogging! LOL :-) And I hate lines too.
    @WB: Not sure if he was in the vicinity to do other things, but then that would have killed my article. Even so, I absolutely guarantee you there are many people who will drive that far just for gas — or free ice cream cones.
    @Mr. CC: Yeah, but even so, I know your coupon clipping example ticks off a lot of die hard coupon clipper addicts though!
    @Squirrelers: True. (I never pick up pennies. I’m afraid I’ll throw out my back. It’s not worth the risk.)
    @Doable: I think that money-o-meter would be better served on some people’s checkbooks! LOL

  • Megscole64

    What if he was already at Costco? Is he wasting time or money then? If he had errands to run and Costco was close then he didn’t waste anything. Of course I don’t care how cheap it is I rarely get in the line at Costco if it is more than two cars deep.

    • True; he may have already been in the vicinity. Still, if he was at Costco he used about a half gallon of gas idling in line, which wiped out most of his savings anyway. So in that case he essentially wasted about 30 minutes of his time — but that’s worth something too! :-)

  • JS

    Gas is usually about 25 cents cheaper per gallon where I live than where I work, so I watch my gauge and only fill up near home. However, I would never try to take the long drive home on an almost-empty tank- not only is it bad for the car, but 25 cents per gallon isn’t worth the risk of being stuck on the side of the road.

  • adalaba

    I might add here, by shopping for the lower gas price, people cause incentive for competition which may in turn cause gas prices to decline.

  • Nightvid Cole

    When you factor in the extra maintenance and vehicular depreciation rather than just gas, it is even sillier to drive extra to find “cheaper” gas…

  • People talk about the time value of money….I’m all about the money value of time. What’s that really costing me? Great piece. Glad you brought this out of the archives.

  • SassyMamaw

    My father-in-law taught me this lesson many years ago. I use the same logic to console myself if I buy gasoline and then see it cheaper an hour later! lol

  • I can’t stand that people think driving miles out of their way for a couple pennies actually saves them money on gas. I try to explain it but they just look at me with a dumb look on their face then I give up.

  • I thought you were going in a different direction! Cheap gas make us think we can afford to waste it more. It almost encourages us to take trips or drive more. Expensive gas prices makes you think more about how you use the car. It may make you conserve, car pool or consolidate your trips. I can buy my Costco gas at off hours and not wait. I conserve even when rates are low.

  • Carl

    As @Megscole64 already pointed out that the person was already at Costco (planning a trip around going there and getting their weekly shopping done and a fillup. However, there is quite a bit you can do to mitigate the other disadvantages mentioned that make it a little more worth your time.

    The first, as many mentioned, is the time factor. While certainly if you fill every moment of your day with some activity to make money, you will probably be losing out by being in the car, but that is true of every moment spent doing anything else. I personally always have a book on me so that if I am stuck some place for even a small amount of time, I can do a little reading. With iPhones and all the other gizmos out there, having to spend 20 minutes in a line isn’t as unproductive as people think.

    Second is the idling factor. While I guess it might be a little different in mostly warm California, and you want the AC on, an easy way to mitigate idling time is to just turn the car off. On modern cars it is estimated that the amount of gas spent to start the vehicle equates to 8 seconds of idle time. Even sitting at a stop light may be more efficiently done by turning off the car. Some newer cars with an eco bent even have detectors which will automatically shut the car off if you are stopped for a time and then start again when you touch the gas peddle. Unless the line is moving constantly, this is an easy way to mitigate that cost.

    Finally, is the wear and tear issue another person brought up. Unless you are going exceedingly out of the way to get your gas, this is negligible. And again, this is mitigated by simple planning to coincide your trips.

    While I am sure there are some people who do travel for miles for the sole purpose of sitting in line at a gas station, idling their engines while they wait to get to the pump, twiddling their fingers and damning the long lines, not everyone in that line is going to be as wasteful as them. As anyone who reads a PF blog knows: a little planning ahead can save you a lot. Here to that sage advice applies and for those willing to wait smartly, they are rewarded for their patience.

  • Frugal pediatrician

    Len, I would not wait for 20 minutes in line but many of us costco gas people plan our week around gas. I fill up once a week before going to costco or other errands nearby. Sunday morning is usually quiet. Plus we have the costco Amex and get 3% back. Other gas stations are more frustrating charging sometimes another 50 cents to use your creditcard. But we are admittedly costco-groupies.

    • Len Penzo

      You’re right, Doc. If you’re already at Costco, it’s a slightly different story. Then again, I’m a guy who also values my time, so I would still probably pass up the Costco gasoline if I knew I was going to be stuck in a line and waiting for 20 or 30 minutes.

  • DrewShock

    Len do you know if your neighbor had to go to Costco anyway? Are you sure he left the car idling while waiting? Your assumptions really help your point.

    I look for the least expensive gas on the gasbuddy website using the map option. If I know I’ll be in the area of where the low priced gas will be I’ll stop in. I figured for about a minute of my time I can save 10 to 20 cents a gallon.

    Now if you purposely drive 20 miles out of your way to get cheaper gas, it may not be worth it, that I agree.

    • Len Penzo

      You’re right, Drew. I have no idea whether or not my neighbor was in the vicinity, Drew. Admittedly, my assumptions were necessary to illustrate the broader point of the article (which was had nothing to do with my neighbor). ;-)

  • John

    I often go to costco, and pass it to get to the freeway, so I usually fill up. Its very rare that I wait longer there than anywhere else. I will stick it out to fill the expedition, but I stop the engine periodically, and I use the time to catch up on email, so there is little down side for me. When the prices were crazy, it was a bit different – part of that was “protest shopping” and I was happy to invest my time in that.
    Now I uise an app on my phone to tell where is cheapest in my area, then I look to see where I will be near, and go there – when possible though, I do use Costco – gives me an excuse to get supplies to! :)

  • Hi Len,
    In my industry we deal with the gas station business and it’s crazy that people will drive across town for at little as five cents. That’s the inherent problem with people, they focus on saving pennies which do little to grow wealth, but know nothing of investing which will pay them thousands of times over.

  • It’s amazing how far people will go to save a few pennies. Over the summer I had purchased some groceries on my way to a friend’s house for a BBQ. It was not a store I usually go to and it would be very out of my way to go there from home. When I looked at the receipt I noticed I was overcharged for ketchup (I think it rang up for $2.99 instead of $1.99). My friend told me I should go back and complain, but it probably would have cost me $3 in gas (not to mention my time) to get back a lousy buck.

  • Kat M

    I live within a mile of a Costco, so for me it’s the closest place to get gas. We go every other week to fill our tank. Maybe your neighbor was going there anyway, so the extra gas to get there really wasn’t extra. And maybe he bought his lunch at Costco as we often do. So while we are waiting in line we eat lunch and gab, so his time might not have been wasted. I see people on the phone too, perhaps catching up on quick calls they need to make. We usually go on Monday or Tuesday so it’s usually not crowded and there is no wait. Maybe your neighbor just hit a busy time and wasn’t expecting the crowd. Cheaper gas doesn’t always cost more, it depends on your lifestyle. It probably costs most Costco shoppers more for the paper towels they use in a week that could be replaced with a rag than the gas to get there!

  • Karen Kinnane

    Yesterday, Sunday, along Rt. 46 from the Pennsylvania line to Rt. 287. gas prices ranged from $2.979 to $3.299, with a number of prices hovering around $3.199. That’s a spread of thirty two cents a gallon. Of course I knew which stations always have the cheaper prices so I filled the tank at $2.979 and the van runs perfectly on that gas. Saving were roughly $4.85 and I didn’t drive a single yard out of my way, but by being aware of price trends I kept $4.85 (that’s after tax money, so I’d have had to earn about $7.50 in order to spend the $4.85). Sounds like it was worthwhile to me to be aware of prices and spend the least necessary to get the tank filled. You’ve got to use your head, detouring a mile to save two cents a gallon isn’t worth it.

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