Why You Should Have A Commuting Budget
Updated: Mar 25
Greetings, from behind the wheel of my trusty Toyota.
American commute times have been steadily increasing over the last two decades. We're at the point now that news shows start at 4:30 a.m. to prepare people for "getting out the door." That's crazy! Instead of taking for granted that commuting is just the price we have to pay in order to have a job, maybe it's time to set some limits on what we are willing tolerate - starting with a commuting budget.
A commuting budget looks at both the amount of time you allocate for going to and from work each week, and what that commute costs you. It might surprise you to see how expensive it is.
First, let's look at the time you spend commuting, and why that is important.
In order to cut CO2 emissions by 50% by 2030, we have to cut way back on driving. That includes the driving we do in our personal cars, and using transit powered by fossil fuels.
Commuting costs you money. There are car expenses: car payments, fuel, repair, insurance, licensing, etc. If you work in the downtown core of a city, you likely have to pay for parking, too.
On top of that, commuting adds to your work day, but you aren't paid for that extra time. Workers who commute 45 minutes each way to an 8-hour job that pays $15/hour, in reality, have a 9.5 hour work day. Their commute reduces their real wage to $12.63 hour.
Long commutes have a negative impact on physical health. Unless you can walk to work, commuting adds more sitting to a day that, for many workers, already involves too much of it. That, and the stresses associated with commuting, contribute to obesity, heart disease and diabetes.
Commuting has a negative impact on emotional health. Driving is stressful, especially in heavy traffic. Transit can be stressful, too - no one enjoys riding on a crowded bus, especially during a pandemic. People with long commutes have higher rates of anxiety and depression. Commuting cuts into time that could be spent with friends and family, enjoying hobbies, and getting exercise - all things that are good for mental health. One study in Sweden showed that if a partner in a marriage commutes 45 minutes or more each way, the couple is 40% more likely to divorce than those who have short commutes.
What is a reasonable amount of time to budget? This is, of course, a personal decision, but in keeping with the concept I shared in my post on the 15-minute city, I think a 15-minute commute is just about the limit. My own commute, in fact, is just 12 minutes door-to-door.
A 15-minute commute means budgeting 2.5 hours a week. But what if your commute is closer to the national average of about 30 minutes one-way, totaling 5 hours a week? You can still stay within budget if you are fortunate enough to be able to work from home three days a week and commute only two. You can also cut your commute time by switching to four 10-hour days instead of five 8-hour days.
But if, like me, you have to show up in person to work, the ideal is to live close to work. For people with good paying jobs, that's not difficult to work out.
But for lower income workers, that is a problem, because often there isn't adequate affordable housing close to where they work. Many find themselves moving further and further away from their jobs to find housing they can afford.
And yet, even if you are in that situation, a commuting budget can help you. Long commutes cut into your income in ways you might not realize. If you drive 30 - 45 minutes to a job that pays more than one closer to home, that might seem like a good idea because you are making more money. But are you?
Here's how to tell. First, make a list of all your commuting costs:
What you spend on gas or transit fares per month.
Car expenses - loan payments, licensing, tabs, insurance, oil changes, parking fees, tires, maintenance and repairs. Add up what you spend in a year and divide it by 12 to get your monthly expense. Come up with an estimate of what percentage of those expenses are directly related to your commute. For example, if 80% of your driving is work related, put 80% of your monthly total on your list.
How much time you spend commuting. Track that time for a month and multiply it by the amount you are paid per hour. That amounts to your lost wages. Time is money.
If you have children in day care and you run late picking them up because of traffic, are you charged a late fee? Add those charges to your commuting expense sheet.
Look at how much money you spend on conveniences because you are too tired, or short on time, to take care of them yourself. This includes: buying coffee in the morning instead of brewing it at home; eating lunch out instead of making it at home and bringing it to work; and throwing out the spoiled food you meant to cook, but never did because you were too tired, and ordered pizza for dinner instead.
Add up these expenses and subtract them from the amount you are paid each month. That is your real income, despite what it says on your paycheck stub. Divide that number by the number of hours you worked in the month and that is your real hourly wage.
Now that you know what your actual income and hourly pay rate is, look for work closer to where you live. See what you can find that is within the commuting time budget you have set for yourself. If you are like me, 15 minutes is the limit. What is available that you can reach in 15 minutes? What do those jobs pay? How will you get there? What commuting costs could you reduce, and by how much?
If you are currently driving 30 - 40 minutes each way to work, cutting your commute to just 15 or 20 minutes means using 50% less gas on your commute. It's less wear and tear on tires and brake pads, so they last longer. If you can walk, bike or take transit, you save even more. If that shorter commute means picking your kids up on time, having time to make coffee at home to start your day, and making more meals at home, that's even more money that stays in your pocket.
If the job you find close to home pays a little less, it is possible that you will still come out ahead by making the switch. Studying your commuting habits, and making a budget, will give you a realistic comparison so you can make an informed decision. You might be surprised by the results.
If you make the switch, at the very least, you will get hours of your life back. And that is priceless.