Updated on 02.22.11

Eight Minutes to Financial Success – Minute #5: Reroute Your Commute

Trent Hamm

This week, The Simple Dollar is running a short series on some of the key moments in my financial turnaround and how you can experience those moments as well. For a full description of this, see the first article in the series.

When I worked at an office about thirty minutes from my home, my usual daily commute took me by an electronics store, a game shop, two bookstores, a coffee shop, and a few other interesting places. Unsurprisingly, I was often tempted to stop for something on my way home, whether it was coffee, a new book, or something else. Even when I didn’t stop, simply going by those places made me think about stopping there and build up my desire to do so a little bit more.

When I started to take a real look at how I was spending my money, I began to notice just how often I was stopping on my way home from work for some sort of treat. It was a very consistent money leak – week in and week out, I was stopping off for things I didn’t really need and, honestly, couldn’t really afford.

My solution was simple. I changed my route home from work. Instead of traveling by all of those shops, I plotted a new route which took me by a hospital, through a residential neighborhood, and onto a stretch of open road before arriving home. The only places to stop along this new route for things to buy were a pair of gas stations. Not only that, the new route turned out to be a mile shorter than my normal route, so I wound up reducing my gasoline usage, wear and tear on my car, and time during a normal commute.

Amazingly, not only did my incidental spending drop rapidly, my desire to spend on many of the most common temptations dropped rapidly, too.

Reroute Your Commute
When many of us figure out a route to work for the first time, we often mentally “set” that route as the one to take every single time. Usually, it’s a route that just incorporates as much roadway as we already know, which often means that it goes by stores that we’ve shopped at before and the like.

It shouldn’t be much of a surprise to learn that such routes are usually not the optimal route, for two reasons.

One, if you’re using a route that goes through the commercial district each day, you’re opening yourself up to the temptation of spending money every day. Even if you don’t stop, you’re still subjecting yourself to tons of roadside advertising just by driving through.

Two, there is almost always a better route that will save you time and distance on your commute, resulting in some financial savings.

How do you make it happen? The process is actually really simple.

Just start up Google Maps and map your route to work. Sometimes, the route will match your normal commute – sometimes it won’t.

Either way, try to identify at least three alternate routes you could take to and from your place of work. Google Maps offers a handy feature of allowing you to “drag” the mouse pointer around and quickly adjust your route.

Seek out a route that avoids commercial areas, preferably one that also shortens your commute a bit or, at the very least, doesn’t add to your commute.

Even if your route seems relatively straightforward and not fraught with temptations, you can still gain some benefit from finding a more optimal route for your commute. If you can shave one mile off of your daily commute each way, you’re saving 500 miles per year. In a 25 mile per gallon car and gas prices at $3.50 per gallon, that’s $70 on gas savings alone. Add on top of that the savings on maintenance, oil changes, and wear and tear, it really adds up.

To me, this was another deceptively simple step. Not only did it start slowly saving me money and time due to the superior route, it also cut a routine connection to coffee shops and other temptations on my way to and from work. I started desiring these things less, too, so I found myself indulging less often even during non-commute times. A little shift makes a big impression.

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  1. Julie says:

    This advice only works if a) you’re driving to work, and b) your work isn’t already in a commercial area. For those of us who take public transit and work downtown, this simply isn’t practical.

    Of course, I happen to love the hustle and bustle of working downtown, and wouldn’t trade it for anything. YMMV, obviously.

  2. Gretchen says:

    So which is it- the shortest route or the one passing less stores?

    Sorry. I’m always picking the fastest. This did not need to be a series, more like a single post.

  3. Dave says:

    What about if the other route is much longer~12 miles normal only other way is 35 miles and that one goes though the shopping areas? I’ve had to go that way for detours.

  4. Tracy says:

    I’m pretty sure most people optimize their drive to/from work for whatever is shortest.

    A more relevant variation on the subject – have something at home that you’re interested and excited about doing, that you can’t wait to get home to. Whether it’s a book, a game, a tv series on dvr, an activity you want to do with your kids, a new recipe to try – it doesn’t matter. If there’s something you can’t wait to get home to, you’re less likely to want to stop for ANYTHING on the way home.

  5. valleycat1 says:

    If you have no credit cards in the wallet & are quizzing yourself as to whether you really need something, wouldn’t this be a moot point?

    I’m with #4 Tracy – find a compelling reason to get on home, or have an imposed deadline (like the day care closes at about the same time you can get there from work.

    Or, maybe, if you realize this is your problem, just making the decision not to stop at stores anymore – assuming this is the best route to/from work. Even at my worst, I didn’t randomly stop at stores I drove past at the end of the work day and go in & buy stuff.

  6. Sheila says:

    With today’s gas prices, I’m taking the shorter route and those same gas prices are enough that I’m not tempted to spend on luxuries.

  7. Gus says:

    The shortest route does not necessarily mean that it will use less gas. For example, a direct route might have many stops (ie: crossing downtown) while a less direct one might have none (ie: peripheral route).

    One would have to calculate which of the shorter/longer route is actually more gas efficient.

  8. It’s good to have different routes ready for those times when your main route is blocked by an accident or something. But guess what, you first alternate is usually everyone else’s so find a third route and you may find that even if it is longer it is several minutes faster due to less traffic, and that is worthwhile to me.

  9. Josh says:

    Do you know what else works? Carpooling, and having the driver tie you up, blindfold you, and throw you in the trunk so you can’t see any stores. You can also split the cost of gas this way.

    And if you manage to escape your credit cards should be frozen back home in a giant block of ice.

  10. Elizabeth says:

    I’m disappointed by this post. Taking a longer drive doesn’t make sense for the environment, especially during the summer when we’ll be facing smog days again.

    I think taking public transit and car pooling are far better strategies to avoid shopping on the way to and from work. Kudos to the commenters for their suggestions.

  11. Elizabeth says:

    Ooops… Meant to add that I realize Trent isn’t recommending longer routes, but most people I know choose their drives by the shortest time and distance, not by whether it goes by their favourite stores. To change their route would be to make it longer.

  12. David says:

    Swift demographical survey – for how many people on this forum do the words “reroute” and “commute” rhyme?

  13. Kerry D. says:

    For me, commute rhymes with mute, like mute the commercials. And I pronounce reroute to rhyme with out, like “oh no, I ran out of coffee.”

    Home is the SF Bay Area.

    I take the shortest way home. Period. I look forward to coming home to my dogs and kids.

  14. Michele says:

    I pronounce like #13…but I’m a born and bred Damn Californian even though I live in Ory-gun.

  15. Trudy says:

    I have only two ways to get to my job – one is a mile longer but takes five less minutes to drive. Neither one passes a single store, gas station, etc. Ah, the rural life…

  16. Andrea says:

    My pronunciations are the same as Kerry D. @ #13. I might sometimes say “route” to rhyme with “mute” on its own, but not as part of “reroute.” I grew up in Michigan and now live in Indiana.

  17. Kate says:

    I agree Trudy:
    I have the option of driving a commute that is five miles shorter but has 25 gazillion stoplights and store and traffic or my wonderful way that has bluebirds and hawks and beautiful scenery. I would choose the 5 miles extra even if it took me longer because it destresses me on the way to and from work.

  18. Ash says:

    Excellent post and very pertinent to me. I used to take the comute past the stores one step furher and actually go out of my way to a shopping mall for a spot of ‘retail therapy’ particulary if i had a stressful or hard day at work.

  19. Interested Reader says:

    Trent isn’t really advocating a longer route, he even says “preferably one that also shortens your commute a bit or, at the very least, doesn’t add to your commute.”

    Also I don’t think this is bad advice for people with compulsive spending issues but it’s not really something that can help a broad range of people and I wish the series were labelled a little better.

  20. MattJ says:

    I work as a contractor inside a military base, and I live about a quarter of a mile from the nearest gate. My commute takes me past no places to buy anything.

    Changing my commute by driving to the next closest gate instead of the nearest one takes me through about 3 miles of shops/restaurants, and adds over 20% to my commute. I only have to take this route when I work on government holidays or weekends, because ‘my’ gate is closed on those days.

  21. Evita says:

    Well… I am not sure if this tip is pertinent to many of us… who doesn’t choose the fastest route to work ?
    My car+bus+train+walk commute takes me to work in 75 minutes (each way, yes this is a lot), and I pass 2 candy shops, 4 mag stores, 3 coffee shops and countless garment stores. If I change the train for the subway, it means 30 minutes more in transit.
    Learning to exercise will-power is better than losing an hour each working day!!

  22. cv says:

    I’m another public transit user, and I really value going through commercial areas on the walking or biking part of my commute. Being able to stop at the bank, grocery store, library, drug store, post office, dry cleaners, and other stores without a special trip is a big bonus of urban living! It definitely improves my life to be able to do those things easily as part of my day, rather than having to spend a couple of hours on a weekend afternoon running errands, as happened when I lived in the suburbs.

  23. Jeanette says:

    As a big-city dweller, who takes public transportation, the way I save money is to pick up stuff to/from “work” or other errands, so that I’m not making unnecessary trips. I always consolidate errands, too expensive not to!. And I always figure in the cost of public transportation. (Is something really free if I have to pay $5 or more to get to a place and get back? No, it isn’t. But if I can combine it with one or two other legit errands, then it makes sense.)

    It saves time, it saves money. But…I go with a list. And and open mind (wallet) because even though I shop the weekly online flyers for places I normally shop (drugstores/CVS, etc. and food shops) for sale items, there are often unadvertised specials.

    I’ve tracked my expenditures. When I pick up an unplanned special item, I subtract that amount from somewhere else in the weekly budget. If I can’t do that to cover the cost, then I don’t buy it.

    You need to be flexible to really save.

    The real issue here is not the “route” home but one’s own penchant to shop and buy. For some, avoiding a place IS the answer to not spending. But nobody makes you go into a place if you’re forced to walk by it every day. That’s your own lack of discipline.

    In the meantime, many people are spending like crazy online once they get home, or even while at work. So it’s not about the places, it’s about one’s choices.

    But, yea, if you spend your lunch hours trolling stores, hang out in shopping malls to pass the time, or surf the web constantly for deals, you’re gonna spend money you may not have.

  24. Eric says:

    Why not look at your route and see what stores are within a reasonable driving distance. Then rather than making another trip to the grocery/gas station/pet/wine stores after getting home you can plan them into your commute?

    Work smarter, not harder.

  25. Cassie says:

    Winning at personal finance is all about knowing what your own weaknesses are. If you find it difficult to refrain from 5Bucks in the morning, this simple idea of a new route maybe just the thing you need to help break that habit. If that’s not a problem for you, then cutting the distance of your commute would offer a more significant savings opportunity.

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