Evaluating The Costs of a Longer Commute: When It’s Better to Just Suck It Up

As many of you know, I live in Southern California; cars are king here. Most of us who live in Los Angeles can’t even spell “public transportation.”

That’s why it was big news when I found out my employer was moving 21 miles down the road, effective last December. That move more than doubled my previously care-free 17-mile commute and I wasn’t too happy about that.

The public transportation system here is so fragmented and disjointed it is essentially useless for most of us Angelenos.

Los Angeles is a big city; it spans a distance of 44 miles at its longest point. Unfortunately our only subway line is all of 17 miles long and goes absolutely nowhere useful, unless you plan on making a day of it at Universal Studios theme park. Of course, even then I’d have to drive 35 minutes to catch the Red Line and keep my fingers crossed that there’s an available parking space at the station. Well, that and pray “Jurassic Park – The Ride” is not closed for maintenance. Otherwise, what would be the point, right?

A family member from Barcelona, Spain, had dropped in to Los Angeles one day last September. She called us wanting to know what bus line she should take to get to our house.

“Bus? There’s no bus, Nona,” was the Honeybee’s matter-of-fact reply.

Of course, Nona really could have taken a bus to get here, but she made it perfectly clear that she was only in town for about eight hours – coincidentally about the same amount of time it takes to travel via the bus system from Hollywood to my house.

I reluctantly suggested to Nona it would probably be better if she visited Universal Studios instead.

“Actually, that was my first choice,” she said, “but the Jurassic Park ride is closed for maintenance.”

I’ve digressed. My apologies.

The point I was trying to make, though, is this: after my employer moved, I either had to accept my longer commute by car or move closer to work.

I was fearing the longer commute and the impact it would have on my quality of life. My old commute was a relatively leisurely drive of just over 30 minutes and, best of all, it kept me off the freeways. My new commute was not only going to require a longer drive, but almost all of it was going to be on the crowded freeways of Southern California. How long and how stressful could only be known after a month or two of doing it.

I pledged to take some detailed data before making a preliminary evaluation on whether or not to dump my new longer commute in favor of: 1) a lower paying job closer to my home, or; 2) moving to a smaller home closer to my current job.

December came and I began my new drive, and after a couple weeks I have to say I was pleasantly surprised. Not only was the new drive pretty much a breeze, thanks largely to my utilization of paid toll lanes, it was only about ten minutes longer one-way than my original commute! As an added bonus, I was allowed to telecommute one day per week, reducing the number of days I actually drove to work.

So time-wise the impact was more than acceptable, but what about the financial impacts?

For two months I dutifully tracked the time it took me to get to work and back, as well as my gas mileage. Here is a summary of the results:

CommuterCosts

As you can see from my trusty Excel spreadsheet, I’ve dissected both my old and new commutes six ways to Sunday.

The New Bottom Line

Let’s start off by cutting right to the chase. At the bottom of the spreadsheet (in green) you can see that depending on the price of gasoline, my longer commute will be costing me somewhere in the neighborhood of $1200 extra per year. It also costs me a little over an hour more in my car each week – that’s about 50 hours per year.

To come up with the financial figure I included not only the cost of fuel and daily tolls, but also calculated the impact of my commute on simple maintenance activities like oil changes and tire replacement.

Some Observations…

  • The impact of the longer commute on my fuel consumption was offset somewhat by the fact that my fuel efficiency increased by over 20%, from 33 to 40 miles per gallon. This is attributable to the fact that my new commute is almost entirely on relatively non-congested freeways, with very little stop-and-go city driving. As a result, despite driving 124 extra miles, I only use about two extra gallons of gas per week. For the record I drive a 1997 Honda Civic with a manual transmission.
  • The $16 I spend each week for express lane tolls result in better gas mileage and less wear-and-tear on my car. It is a near-certainty that these tolls pay for themselves in that regard – although I am unwilling to formally investigate this assertion. Sorry.
  • The financial impact of my longer commute on oil changes and tires is negligible.
  • As the price of gasoline rises, the “penalty” for my longer commute actually decreases. You can see this in the two cases I used, the first case with fuel at $3 per gallon and the second with fuel at $5 per gallon. This applies only to a certain point. At $10 per gallon, my new longer commute is “only” 69% more expensive. At $50 per gallon, my new longer commute would only be 45% more expensive. At $100 per gallon my new longer commute would cost only 40% more – assuming I could scrape up enough money to fill my tank.
  • If I decided to move closer to my job, not only would I have to settle for a smaller house and a larger mortgage payment, I estimate my new property taxes would increase by roughly $7500 per year. That more than offsets the additional expenses of the longer commute.

Now Let’s Play What If…

So, getting back to the original question posed over at Free Money Finance, would I take a $10,000 per year pay cut to trade my new 42-minute commute for a 10-minute commute? That is tempting, but no. The reason is, thanks to the toll express lanes, I find my new commute to actually be more pleasant than my old drive. Not only is it a mere 9 extra minutes each way, on average, but 95 percent of my new drive is spent flying down the highway between 60 and 80 miles per hour. (I’m just trying to keep up with the flow of traffic, Officer.)

So Just How Much IS A Good Commute Worth?

As far as I’m concerned, when it comes to determining the value of a commute, the ultimate forcing function is time – not money. After all, isn’t time more valuable than money? We can always use our time to make money, but we can never use money to buy more time.

The fact that I am currently shelling out an extra $1200 per year just to cover a longer, but more pleasant, commute doesn’t really bother me too much. But I guarantee you that I would gladly cut my salary by $10,000 per year – and probably as much as $25,000 per year – in exchange for an easy 10-minute ride if:

1. My commute was in stop-and-go bumper-to-bumper traffic for even 30 minutes per day each way, or

2. If my current commute was another 10 or 15 minutes longer, regardless of traffic congestion.

Lucky for me my new longer commute does not adhere to either of those criteria.

And that’s why I’ve decided to just suck it up and drive.

22 comments to Evaluating The Costs of a Longer Commute: When It’s Better to Just Suck It Up

  • Ugh, sorry to hear that. My commute is about 12 miles so I’m pretty lucky I guess compared to many people.

    Understanding the “costs” of working is important because it shows you the true income replacement number if you were to work from home or do something else to attempt to replace your main income.
    .-= 20smoney´s last blog ..A Beginner’s Guide to Buying Gold Coins As An Investment =-.

  • Len,

    I’m glad to hear your new commute is working out.

    I spent the last 25 years commuting from 20-30 miles each way. Most of these commutes weren’t so bad at around 30 minutes each way. But, during the 90s I worked at a job with a 30 mile commute that took almost an hour and a half each morning. (Average 20 MPH) I would just wait until 7:00 PM to come home and it would only take 30 minutes. I quit that job after 20 months because it wasn’t worth the hassle.

    Now, I am really fortunate to have found a job in my home town and I have a 3.1 mile commute. I would have definitely taken a $10K pay cut to get rid of the commute. It’s not only the time, stress and money, it’s the feeling of being near home all day. I can pick up my daughter from school or have lunch with my wife or my brothers. It’s really nice.
    .-= Bret @ Hope to Prosper´s last blog ..Secrets to Becoming Successful =-.

  • Just a guess, but it’s doubtful most people actually put pen to paper and breakdown hard costs the way you did. That’s certainly worth the effort, because I think most people assume the cost of a longer commute is much greater than what you’ve come up with. That could be a case of assuming high numbers in support of an emotional feeling that we really don’t want to make the longer commute.

    As you point out, the real issue is measuring the cost against the alternatives. In your case, the cost of moving closer to work is huge. For others it could be a question of finding a replacement job that would justify quiting to work closer to home.

    Of course, you’re also living in a area that doesn’t get regular traffic snarling snowstorms, so the decision is a bit easier. Still, I love the analysis. When you crunch the numbers, it isn’t the three headed monster it often appears to be at first glance.
    .-= Kevin@OutOfYourRut´s last blog ..Blue Collar Jobs Can’t be Moved Offshore =-.

  • I used to drive 1 hour to and from work every day on a major highway. I did not like it. I am a country girl and love driving, but not on busy highways. I now work at home for my company and absolutely love it. :)

  • Great comparison. Now, with a smoother commute (less stop & go), you have the time and opportunity to let your mind explore new financial opportunities, books on CD, or to de-stress from workplace activities by listening to your favorite tunes.
    .-= Steven and Debra´s last blog ..Are YOU a Hoarder? Are You Sure? (Part IV of a Four Part Series) =-.

    • @20s: Hopefully it is 12 “easy” miles. There have been times I have been in traffic so bad that it has taken me to an hour and a half to go 12 miles.

      @Bret: I’m glad you’ve got a short, pleasant commute. There is a lot to be said for the freedoms of a short commute; like you mentioned, coming home for lunch or taking the kids to school sounds really appealing. Heck, if I were that close I would probably ride my bike in to work most days!

      @Kevin: I truly thought the financial costs would be greater. I was pleasantly surprised. Like I said though, the best part of all is that the minimal impact to the time component.

      @Paris: I agree. I love driving, but not on busy roads. Ever drive a stick shift in bumper-to-bumper traffic? Not good times!

      @Steven and Debra: Let me first say, I have been enjoying your hoarder series! I’ve read the first three parts – I need to check out Part IV. As for what I do to occupy myself for about 40 minutes each way every day, I bounce all around the radio dial – although I have been considering books “on tape” for a while.

  • Here’s an online tool for running a more simplified version of the commuting vs moving math.

    Shortened URL: http://tinyurl.com/move-or-commute
    .-= Ironman´s last blog ..2.15 Million Federal Employees =-.

  • My commute isn’t horrible distance-wise, but I get annoyed at the traffic some times of day (101 North in the Bay Area!).

    Len, I see you mentioned wear-and-tear in one of your bullets. Did you factor this into your calculations, or did you find it to be negligible? (A 1997 Civic with a 5-speed is probably reasonably cheap… I assume… to maintain) Also, what about parking? Did it go from free to free or is parking harder now as well?
    .-= Paul Kamp´s last blog ..Cutting Up the Card =-.

  • Gosh Len, you’re living in a different world to me. My current commute is 0 minutes, since I work from home, either on my own projects or much more normally for clients! Once a week or so I have to go into the centre of London by underground, and I remember why I do it.

    My favourite commute ever was in a beautiful old city in England where I walked for 10 minutes along a river and over two bridges. Almost priceless.

  • Len – I switched jobs just over a year ago from working at home full time to commuting 3 hours round trip everyday and I loath it. I hate commuting. Thankfully, its not too expensive gas wise, and money wise its worth it. But the toll on my health and work/life balance has been high.

    • @Ironman: Thanks for the tip!
      @Paul: I’ve been on the 101 N at rush hour in the Bay Area many times so I feel your pain! You’re right, my Civic is extremely cheap to maintain! It is also low miles. It currently has only 115,000 miles on it – so it’s got a long way to go. I considered factoring maintenance in, but in the end I left it out because 1) I wasn’t sure how to fairly quantify it, and 2) I could have figured in the cost of periodic scheduled maintenance that I take my car in for every 30,000 miles or so, but that would mean my longer commute results in an extra routine maintenance call only every 5 years – so in the end I considered it negligible. Parking didn’t change – still free (thankfully my employer doesn’t charge for parking – yet!)
      @Monevator: I’m jealous. To work from home every day is true freedom, Investor. Relish it, my friend! We need a good underground here in Los Angeles. If there ever was a candidate for a public works stimulus project in the USA that would really benefit the economy and local citizens for the next 100 years, it would be an expansion of LAs current subway system west to the sea (which is trying to finally get off the ground) and south and eastward to Orange County and the Inland Empire.
      @Money: I’m sorry to hear about your long commute. I just couldn’t do that, MC. I would either move my family closer to my job, or find another employer. I hope you can work something out to the mutual benefit of you, your family and your boss!

  • That is one impressive analysis. I love my spreadsheets, but I definitely think you’ve outdone me here. I’m currently facing some of my own commute vs. move decisions and I love the guidelines you have established in this post. Thanks.

  • Safes

    Long commutes suck. Especially in California. Where do draw the line between a better salary and an extra hour per day of sitting in mind numbing traffic.

    I wish more companies would offer telecommuting!

  • mike92620

    Sorry I’m late to the party.

    $10,000 is an absolute amount, and not a relative amount. I don’t know how much Len makes every year, and what expenses he has.

    If he only makes $20,000 a year, and he has a mortgage, car loans, wife, kids (some who may be in college), then $10,000 is a lot of money.

    If he makes $200,000 a year, and he has limited expenses, then $10,000 isn’t that much.

    A better question I believe would be ask to see whether one would take a “10% pay cut”

  • Nightvid Cole

    Why are you omitting car depreciation from your cost calculation? Unless you have a really old car, it probably costs more than gas!

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