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The True Cost of Commuting

 It was a beautiful evening in my neighborhood, and I was enjoying one of my giant homebrews on a deck chair I had placed in the middle of the street, as part of a nearby block’s Annual Street Party.

I was talking to a couple I had just met, and the topic turned to the beauty of the neighborhood. “Wow, I didn’t even realize this area was here”, the guy said, “It’s beautiful and old and the trees are giant and all of the families hang out together outside as if it were still 1950!”. “Yeah”, said his wife, “We should really move here!”.

Then the discussion turned to the comparatively affordable housing, and the other benefits of living in my particular town.  By the end of it, these people were verbally working out the details of a potential move within just a few months.

Except their plan was absurd.

Because these two full-time professional workers currently happen to live and work in “Broomfield”, a city that is about 19 miles and 40 minutes of  high-traffic driving away from here. They brushed off the potential commute, saying “Oh, 40 minutes, that’s not too bad.”

Yes, actually it IS too bad! … But this misconception about what is a reasonable commute is probably the biggest thing that is keeping most people in the US and Canada poor.

Let’s take a typical day’s drive for this self-destructive couple. Adding 38 miles of round-trip driving at the IRS’s estimate of total driving cost of $0.51 per mile, there’s $19 per day of direct driving and car ownership costs. It is possible to drive for less, but these people happen to have fairly new cars, bought on credit, so they are wasting the full amount.

Next is the actual human time wasted. At 80 minutes per day, the self-imposed driving would be adding the equivalent of almost an entire work day to each work week – so they would now effectively be working 6 days per week.

After 10 years, multiplied across two cars since they have different work schedules, this decision would cost them about $125,000 in wealth (if they had for example chosen to put the $19/day into extra payments on their mortgage), and 1.3 working years worth of time, EACH, spent risking their lives daily behind the wheel*.

That’s EVERY ten years. And that’s with a commute that most Americans claim is “not too bad”.

You’ll note that most 30-year-old couples today, about 10 years into adulthood, don’t even have $125,000 in net worth. And they probably drive around quite a bit in expensive financed cars, mostly as part of a self-imposed commute. These facts are directly related!

The alternative I would have recommended to this couple, if they had asked my opinion, would be to make sure their house is within biking distance of both jobs, immediately sell both borrowed cars and replace them with a single ten-year-old manual transmission hatchback, and finally, let the good times roll. Setting aside $10k to keep the new car on the road, they will certainly enjoy their $115,000 of extra cash after ten short years, and if they combine this trick with a few of the other MMM classics, they’ll be able to move to historic old-town Longmont as EARLY RETIREES within ten years, instead of being broke wage slaves still commuting out of here every morning when the year 2021 rolls around.

Now, I will admit that it is possible to bring your cost per mile down somewhat. That’s one of my own specialties, which is why I still keep a car of my own around for affordable family roadtrips. If you buy the right car for $5,000, you might be able to squeeze 100,000 miles out of it with no major repairs. In this case the car depreciation is 5 cents per mile.

Gas, at $3.50 per 35 miles (assuming 35MPG), is 10 cents/mile
Tires, at $300 per 50,000 miles are 0.6 cents
Oil, at $25 per 5,000 miles is 0.5 cents
Miscellaneous things like wipers and occasional maintenance visits: $200 per 20,000 miles = 1 cent

So the ultimate cheap driving in a paid-off economy car still costs at least 17 cents per mile. Most people cannot drive this cheaply. And this is ignoring the cost of insurance since I’ll assume you’d have a car even if you didn’t commute to work. Most people aren’t willing to go completely car-free (although if you are, good for you!).

Besides the option of picking a home close to wherever your work happens to be, there may also be the option of picking a job that is close to your home in the town of your dreams. Get a new job! (There are apparently plenty of them here in my own city, many being worked by people who commute in from other places, even while an equal number of people commute OUT of my town to work somewhere else).

But despite the availability of both of these options, the idea of living close to work still seems to be completely alien to most people I’ve met. While I would personally consider it far more important than even the salary or the work performed, most people put commute distance below house price, perceived school quality, and neighborhood preference. With such a low threshold placed on commuting, most people don’t even put a reasonable effort into creating a nice local lifestyle for themselves. As you saw with the couple in my example above. They were willing to go from their existing negligible commute, to an Insane Asylum 80 minute round trip, just because they liked the scenic and neighborly vibe of my neighborhood.

“Schools” are often used as an excuse as well, but until you’ve reviewed every close-to-work school personally and interviewed the principal, you might be making quite a bad trade-off for your kids. What’s better – higher standardized test scores and more rich kids, or real-world diversity and an extra two hours to spend with Mom and Dad every day reading books? And how about an extra $300 grand or so towards the college fund, that you didn’t burn up in cars and gas during her school career?

To put things back on par, let’s whip up a couple of quick commuting equations. Let’s assume the average person’s marginal driving cost is halfway between the Ultra-Mustachian driver figure of 17 cents per mile, and Uncle Sam’s generous 51 cent allowance. So, 34 cents. Let’s also assume the value of a person’s time is $25 per hour, since this is close to a median wage for a suburban commuter. (If you don’t think you’d use your newfound leisure time that productively, you need to think more like an Early Retiree. I used mine for plenty of learning and domestic insourcing).

For each mile you drive across two times on your round trip to work daily, it multiplies to 500 miles per year, or a $170 annual fee
For each of these miles, you waste about 6 minutes in the round trip, adding to 25 hours per year ($625 of your time).

So each mile you live from work steals $795 per year from you in commuting costs.

$795 per year will pay the interest on $15,900 of house borrowed at a 5% interest rate.

In other words, a logical person should be willing to pay about $15,900 more for a house that is one mile closer to work, and $477,000 more for a house that is 30 miles closer to work. For a double-commuting couple, these numbers are $31,800 and $954,000.

Adapting the numbers for a $7.50 minimum wage earner, each mile of car commuting cuts $1.43 from your workday. If you drive 10 miles to go work a 5-hour shift at the Outback Steakhouse, your effective hourly wage is more like $5 per hour after subtracting car costs and adding drive time.

And these are all numbers for the United States, where cars and gasoline are much, much cheaper than they are in almost any other country. In Canada, you can add 30% to the gas prices and 50% to the car prices. In the UK, still more.

If these numbers sound ridiculous, it’s because they are. It is ridiculous to commute by car to work if you realize how expensive it is to drive, and if you value your time at anything close to what you get paid. I did these calculations long before getting my first job, and because of them I have never been willing to live anywhere that required me to drive myself to work**. It’s just too expensive, and there is always another option when choosing a job and a house if you make it a priority.

And making that easy choice is probably the biggest single boost that will get the average person from poverty to financial independence over a reasonable period of time. I would say that biking more and driving less was the trigger in my own life that started a chain reaction of savings and happy lifestyle changes that led my wife and I to retirement in our early 30s.

Now, all this doesn’t mean you have to set up a tent on your employer’s front lawn to avoid going broke. Public transit, although an afterthought in most of the US, is great if it’s available to you, because you get your brain and your hands back for the purpose of getting some of your day’s work done while enroute.

But if you can walk or bike to work, it will cost you virtually nothing. And it also doesn’t count as using up your personal time because it is adding something that nobody except Olympic athletes is doing enough of anyway – exercise. You can take your time spent riding your bike ride directly out of time you would have otherwise spent in the gym, or waiting in the doctor’s office for prescription medication.

So there’s my answer for this potential new set of neighbors. I’ll see you in ten years!

And now that the truth has at last been revealed about the foolishness of commuting, I’m looking forward to reading about the empty interstates and bicycle-filled streets tomorrow morning.

 

* Note that I wrote this whole rant without bringing up that whole pesky “destroying the entire Earth” issue, since that part is controversial in the United States.. so I figured it’s best just to focus on making you rich :-)

** For the Record, I grew up in the Great Lakes area, on the Canadian side about 1 hour Northwest of Buffalo, NY. Then I spent a few years in an area much colder – Ottawa, Canada, with a climate slightly worse than Minneapolis, MN. Biking year-round in these conditions was completely feasible (and even fun), and I’ll do a post on how to enjoy winter bike commuting later this fall!

*** Also for the record, my wife and I still bike year-round here in Colorado, including for grocery shopping and dropping our Kindergartener off at school – thanks to the magic of bike trailers. Do a search on your local Craigslist and change your biking life.

  • D'Arcy April 12, 2017, 10:01 pm

    What if you are taking the bus? Then it seems the price savings on your home is worth being further from work. As long as you use your time on the bus effectively, this can be a good option.

    Also I own an electric car. I paid 39.5k over 6 years with interest, which is 1.5%. And got 11k back in cash because of a government program. So i invested the 11k as it will likely return more than 1.5%. My electricity cost is around 2.5$ for ~90 miles. These numbers are Canadian. How would you calculate my per mile cost?

    You can now get 14k back with a 2017 Ford Focus. 37.5k in all over 6 years with 0% interest. Invest the 14k and pay less than 3 cents a mile in “gas”. At that point commuting starts being real cheap no?

    Reply
  • Jaime April 14, 2017, 11:33 am

    I spent 9 long years commuting an hour plus each way to a “good” government job that I hated. I was gone 10 hours a day, so yes, I put in a free extra day a week for work. I lost my daughter at age 17 four years ago. I would give anything to have those 450+ full days of time on the road back with her. The BIGGEST cost of the commute is the lost time with your spouse and kids. Blessings <3

    Reply
  • Jake May 13, 2017, 11:24 am

    Hi I have never commented on here before. I have just been a silent reader so far. But I was curious in your opinion on my current scenario. Right now I am 24 years old. I have been married for almost 2 years. And my wife and I are expecting our first baby at the end of August. I am currently in my local electrician unions 5 year apprenticeship program. Making a very decent wage that is a blessing. But the contractor I am currently working for is having me drive 50 miles to work. 100 mile round trip. I make this commute in a car that I own. So no payments on it. As an apprentice I don’t have much say in where I work. I have to do as I am told for the time being. That is until I complete school and get my license and become a journeyman and have more control of where I work. Shortening my commute is a little hard to change right now.

    Reply
  • Rebekah June 1, 2017, 11:24 am

    Hi MMM,

    I want to thank you for this blog post because it literally changed our lives. I discovered your blog just after we bought a house in the suburbs, giving my husband a 45 min – 90 minute commute EACH WAY depending on traffic. After reading this post we started thinking seriously about moving. 2 years after purchasing that home, we sold and bought another house in the city, 3/4 mile from his office! This has been huge for us. My husband now walks the 15 minutes to work every day, trading his 2 hours in the car for 30 minutes of exercise each day. We see him a lot more and he is calmer and less stressed. Bonus: living in the city means we can also easily walk to the public library, multiple grocery stores, our city swimming pool, and a couple of parks. Thank you so much for empowering us to make this change that is so great for our health and our wallets!

    Reply
  • Brittany June 29, 2017, 2:13 pm

    So here is my big question!
    We want to live closer to my husband’s job. It would put us closer to everything (grocery store, hiking, stuff for the kids, family, etc) but we aren’t in a position to buy. It is very expensive to live in the city vs our current suburb. I have a hard time with the idea of selling our house to be closer but having to rent!

    Thoughts on this are appreciated.

    Reply
  • Afua October 26, 2017, 9:43 am

    great article. I totally agree that life is simpler and less stressful when you live closer to work. I take public transport and it takes about an hour and thirty minutes to get to work (when there’s light traffic) and two hours to get home in the evening. I leave home before six and get home around 8pm.

    its really stressful but for now considering all things, its better to commute to work than rent a place close to my house. I’m in my early twenties haven’t quite decided on where to settle and live rent free with a relative. I do not contribute anything to food or utilities and this goes a long way o helping me since ill be here for less than a year before my contract ends. all things considered, the cost of renting a place close to work, paying utilities and buying thing like bedsheets and cooking utensils and food outweigh the cost of just commuting and living rent free with free food at my relatives. sure I pay in more than just money, the lack of see and stress is getting to me but its something I can live with for eight months more.

    but I’ve vowed in my heart of hearts that for my next job, I will do my best to live as close to work as possible. no amount of money I pay for that can outweigh the peace of mind and relaxation id lose if with long commutes.

    Reply
  • Jared February 20, 2018, 6:58 pm

    Hey!

    I have a slightly different case that I’ve been thinking about recently. I understand commuting is bad with a car, but what about with public transit? I’m currently living in China, and my rented apartment is about a 40 minute commute (by bus then transfer to subway and walk a bit) from my work. I usually use the time productively by either having some white space (time to stop and think and be with my girlfriend as we commute together) or reading a book or something else productive. Cost of public transit here is dirt cheap too, so each 40 minute trip costs me about 20 cents American.

    I would like to move closer to work so I can walk there (biking isn’t a safe option in my city) but my girlfriend and I looked and there was nothing even close to as nice as my apartment now without a huge increase in cost per month, and the area is much louder and more stressful.

    What do you all think? Is it worth the commute?

    Reply
  • Catprog March 4, 2018, 11:51 pm

    And then you have people down here in Australia.

    They say young people are being greedy for wanting to live near their job.

    Reply
  • amzooma March 19, 2018, 3:19 pm

    Good read, and true for most of America, however it’s far more complex in specific urban areas. For example, I love the idea of living close to work, however doing so would trigger a 7.5% NYC tax in addition to 1 months’ of rent for broker fee, and a monthly housing cost that’s double what we currently have for half the space…

    Reply
  • Shane April 18, 2018, 4:32 pm

    This is interesting and topical, particularly in our hometown Auckland, New Zealand. In the last 15 years, Auckland has grown from a small city to a Metropolis. This in theory is great (although I dont like it), growth brings more people and more traffic. Also being a small country that grew very quickly, we have poor transport infrastructure. This means most households have 1 car for each adult.

    So not surprisingly, traffic is chaotic at the best of times. 15 years ago, a 1 hour journey was considered shocking. Today, the office kitchen talk considers 1 hour travel ‘not bad at all’. We are talking 1 hour for under 20 kms of travel, which is very very slow.

    So I shudder to think of what it might be like in another 10 years. Of course, the promise is that we will all be heli-ported by these futuristic personal drones. The only issue with that is, eventually we may be stuck in the sky waiting for the lights to turn green!

    Reply
    • Mr. Money Mustache April 19, 2018, 10:49 am

      Haha.. interesting story, Shane!

      The solution to that type of city growth is the same as it has always been, which is the purpose of this article: don’t use cars for transportation. It’s a losing game, so just don’t play it. Pretend cars are simply NOT an option, then design your life accordingly. It might mean choosing a different job, apartment, city, or even country.

      Reply
  • Stephanie April 22, 2018, 1:58 pm

    This is extremely old, but I just stumbled upon it and I’ll comment for anybody else in a similar position. I don’t have kids now so schools absolutely don’t factor into my housing decisions. But the value of good public schools extend beyond the higher paid teachers and nicer facilities. Wealthier schools offer more AP and IB classes, which are very significant to your teenagers’ college applications (or shaving years off their public school undergrad years). Some high schools in your city offer AP European History and some don’t. Some have orchestras and biology classes that can actually afford fetal pigs to dissect. Some don’t.

    Reply
  • Dakota Reuland May 1, 2018, 11:13 pm

    I liked the whole idea at first – but I think I need to side with the new neighbors and their commute this time. I get what you are saying about the old car and less payments – but what about the cost of fixing the car? Do they become mechanics for a hobby to fix everything wrong instead of going to a shop with warranty? I feel there is more at stake than just the commute in the newer cars (which, by the way, are more fuel efficient, warrantied, and have several other advantages). I also do not like the idea that they need to move within biking distance of work. Though it may be good for their well-being, they are more than likely NOT going to find what they like, and are basing their decisions off of something they would otherwise never think about. Just my two cents though. Otherwise, I like what you say in the rest of the article.

    Reply
  • Laurie May 14, 2018, 4:20 pm

    My husband and I both walk to work, and even better, we get to walk home for lunch together everyday. People say we’re lucky, but I find that a bit insulting. We planned for this. We worked hard for this. It wasn’t luck, it was thinking!
    Thank you, MMM, for being a voice of reason through the discord of consumerism.

    Reply
  • Chris July 11, 2018, 11:13 am

    Yes! I just had an article rejected from another site for noting that taking the train into NYC from Long Island equals about 1,000 hours of lost family time EVERY YEAR. They said it was anti-New-York, and the site wants to tap into that market, specifically.

    My commute is over 10 miles for the first time in my life, but I telework 2 days a week and there’s a flexible office schedule, so I can get in at 6:00AM and avoid most traffic. But I still hate it. I would sooner move 5 states for a promotion than drive 1 hour for one. A NYC recruiter once offered me a position, and I let her know that if it paid less than $300,000 (what I’d need to keep a place for my family in NYC during the week while still keeping our regular home), not to even bother.

    Commuting is dangerous and expensive.

    Reply
  • Seth July 26, 2018, 11:43 am

    Of all the things I talk to people about, Commuting and Heat Adaptation are the two people are most skeptical about. Yet, they’re two of the biggest factors in determining your financial and mental strength.

    Reply
  • Politico August 10, 2018, 12:54 pm

    Solid advice in general, but for those of us that don’t work in IT / Engineering / etc., it can be little harder to change jobs and find decent low commute options. You ultimately just need to find the most efficient option possible and do the math. Sometimes you will find that commuting is not the worst option. I lived in DC for 6 years and, unfortunately, living downtown where the work is is flat out unsafe. A coworker of mine decided to rent a place close to our office one year. He got mugged twice… in one year. This is not something I’m putting my family through. And, yes, the schools are beyond sub-par too.

    For me, the best option was to move to a lower cost area that was about 15-20 miles away from downtown. The area I moved to was safe, had good schools, and was moderately priced overall. I could use the nature around me as my personal gym for free. I commuted by train and received a reimbursement from work for part of the train ticket cost. Most importantly, I was able to read and work during my commute, so i didn’t feel like the commute was a total waste of time. Schools, safety, and nature are a important factors and can easily add tens of thousands in non-direct dollar value to your living situation.

    Reply

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