Updated on 09.17.14

Optimizing the Value of Your Commute

Trent Hamm

Kelly writes in:

For the first time in my life, I have a daily commute to work. I drive about 45 minutes each way to work each day of the week. According to my math, I’m going to be spending about $125 a month just on gas, let alone maintenance, upkeep, and so on. When I look at it that way, my new job isn’t as awesome as I thought it was! What can I do to trim that amount?

Here are ten things I would suggest for anyone who is seeking to optimize their commute and minimize the financial cost of it.

10 Ways to Minimize the Cost of Your Commute

1. Start (or join) a carpool

I wrote an article recently on how to start a carpool, but if you can find one that already exists, join that one instead. It not only reduces the number of days per week that you have to drive, it also allows you to use the more efficient HOV lanes during the commute.

2. Properly inflate your tires each month

Few things damage your gas mileage than poorly inflated tires. Think of a bicycle and how much extra effort you have to exert when your tire is even a little bit flat. The same is true for your car – it might be plenty inflated to make the trip, but if it’s even a bit under the recommended maximum level, your car is working harder to go the same distance, and that eats gas.

3. Find the optimum route

Unless the route to your job is incredibly straightforward, there are several different routes you could potentially take to your job. Spend some time to figure out the optimum route – the one that eats the least amount of gas, in other words. Use Google Maps to help you in this regard. Finding a more efficient route will simply shave transportation costs (and possibly time) off of your daily commute.

4. Identify the low-priced gas stations along your route

Take note of the gas stations available to you along the route and identify the ones that consistently have the best prices (if there is variance – usually, there is). Then, make that station (or stations) your regular stop to fill up your tank.

5. Use a “gas card” for that chain of stations

Once you’ve identified the inexpensive station, sign up for their gas card. Use it just for gas – nothing else – and pay the card off in full each month. The rewards on such cards are often quite nice and can add up to a free tank of gas every few months or so.

6. Examine public transportation options for all or part of your commute

Just because there isn’t a train straight from your home to your place of employment doesn’t mean public transportation isn’t an option. Perhaps you can drive to a nearby station and take a train/bus combination to your place of work. If there is a combination that can strongly reduce (or even eliminate) your commute, you should take it.

7. Use your A/C and heater less

Just use them to get your car to the right temperature then turn them off. You don’t need to leave them running during your entire commute – they just eat fuel. If you find the temperature getting uncomfortable again, just flip the A/C or heat back on.

8. Ask about subsidies at work for commuters

Some places of employment offer benefits for commuters, such as reimbursement for miles driven. Don’t be afraid to ask your human resources contact about it, just to see if it’s available. If it is, it’s cash in hand for you.

9. Leave a bit early to avoid the rush and to avoid the need to speed

In the morning, get in the swing of leaving a little bit earlier. This way, you can avoid speeding (which conserves gas and also helps to ensure you don’t get a ticket) and also potentially avoid the worst part of the rush hour traffic.

10. Look into telecommuting

If your job allows it (and the workplace allows it), consider telecommuting a day or two a week. Those are days where you’re not commuting at all, which means a nice net savings for you.

Beyond these tips (which are things you can do right now), I would suggest car shopping with fuel efficiency in mind when you go car shopping the next time. It’s okay to pay more for a more fuel-efficient car. For example, let’s say your commute is 40 miles each way, which totals up to 2,000 miles a month. Assuming gas is $3 a gallon, if you get a car that gets 20 miles to the gallon, you’ll be spending $300 a month on gas. On the other hand, if you buy a car that gets 40 miles to the gallon, you’ll only be spending $150 a month on gas. That’s a $150 savings each month, more than enough to make up for even a sizeable difference in car payments.

Good luck with your new job!

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  1. Little House says:

    I like all of these suggestions, especially looking into public transportation, even if it’s only a couple of days a week. But I would also add maybe moving closer to your new job if that is feasible. Obviously, if you own a home, this may be out of the question, but if you rent, then it may be something to think about.

  2. Johanna says:

    Consider moving – either to be closer to your workplace or so that your commute lies along a direct public transportation route or less congested roads.

    I realize that it’s not an option for everyone, but if it’s an option for you, it could save you a lot of money, time, and stress.

  3. I live in a rural area – where EVERYTHING is a 25-30 mile drive (one-way). Your tips are great –
    we currently practice all of them!

    I’d add two more thoughts to this:

    Combine trips – If possible run errands at stores close to work so that you can reduce the amount of time you spend driving around.

    Use the commute time. Check out books on CD from your library or listen to free podcasts on your car stereo to make the most of your time.

  4. Kristen says:

    Another aspect of commuting that Trent didn’t mention is the value of the time spent while you’re driving to and from. I use that time to listen to books on tape, something that I enjoy and relaxes me before and after work. You could also use books on tape to listen to language tapes, podcasts on any number of subjects, etc.

  5. Christine says:

    I agree with the comments about possibly moving closer to work, but also remember that this new job may not be permanent. I was in a situation where I accepted a promotion that required my commute to go from 5 minutes to 35 minutes. The worst part was the traffic. I had to leave extra early just to be asolutely sure I wouldn’t be late and I sometimes got home extra late due to accidents, etc. However, about six months later I took another promotion that reduced my commute again. So although I had planned to stay at that position indefinitely, it turned out to be only temporary. Who knows what will happen.

    Also, moving to the area to reduce my commute would have increased my rent more than the amout that gas would have cost me, so that wouldn’t have been worth it.

    Anyway, congrats and good luck at the new job! :)

  6. almost there says:

    Good tips but don’t sweat the heater. Though the A/C makes the engine work harder, using more gas, the heater just routes the engine coolant through the heater core when the selected to heat position. The fan draws some current but it is miniscule in the mpg factoring.

  7. Honey says:

    I was in a similar situation because I moved in with my boyfriend and when I found a job it was 45 minutes to an hour from his house.

    Since we are renters, we moved across town so that I could be closer (his commute is about the same in the new place). We downsized at the same time so went from renting a house for $1420/mo to renting a condo for $975/mo and I also save over $100/mo on gas (plus the untold worth of my sanity).

  8. Money Funk says:

    As someone who travels 80 miles a day (or 2+ hrs a day in LA traffic) I understand this one.

    1. Make sure to get your oil changes and scheduled maintanence, at all times. I have 84,000 miles on my little Hyundai Accent with no major problems ever. Just had to replace the brake pads in the front and change a windshield 2 times (truck route cause gravel to hit the window at times).

    2. Check your work for incentives on taking public transportation or carpooling. My work subsidizes half of the amount. I would do it but it doesn’t coincide with my daughter’s child care hours.

    3. Do leave about 1/2 hour before rush hour. Totally helps. I work from 7.30 – 4pm. Lessens the stress.

    4. Telecommute if you can. I know I am slowly striving for it, but I think it will be inpossible in my line of work. ;)

  9. Snowy Heron says:

    I second Kirsten’s suggestion of books on tape/audio books. I live in the DC area and traffic issues are a real problem, plus I live 28 miles away from work on some of the most congested roads in the country. Moving is not much of an option since my husband works about 16 miles from home in the other direction. I’ve been doing this commute since 1996 and the only way I have kept my sanity is by listening to audio books. Our public libraries are aware of the traffic issues and have wide selections of these on cd and tape, and some will even do downloads to MP3 players.

  10. Jeremy says:

    If you’re good at keeping a schedule, try to leave on the 10/15 after the hour or half-hour mark. In my city (Columbus, OH – 32nd largest metro area in the US) this can shave about 5-10 minutes from my drive because there’s less likelihood of hitting all those 20 and 30-minute commuters who are leaving on the hour or half-hour to arrive at their destination on time. Think of this trick as minimizing your time in the queue – the queue of surges in traffic volume on the roads right around those hour/half-hour points of time.

  11. KC says:

    #1 should be “live as close to work as is reasonable or affordable.” When we recently re-located I looked for a house within 3 miles of my husband’s office. There was a great deal of variety and many choices in about any price range (literally everything from $100k – $2.5M). We found a perfect house for us about 2.5 mi from his office. So now it doesn’t matter so much that he has a fuel efficient or new car for reliability. With such a short commute we have more leeway in those areas.

  12. Jon says:

    I agree with what almost there said – don’t worry about running heat, it’s actually helping to keep your engine temperature down, which helps it to run more efficiently.

    In line with what has been said about employee subsidies – ask about a transportation flex spending account. I work for state government and we have a plan where pre-tax deductions that I specify (and can change if need be) are taken from my check, then the plan administrator buys the public transportation pass I use out of that and mails it to me. They used to let me buy it and reimburse me based on my receipts. If you have the choice, take the reimbursement method. I’ve had a pass show up one day before I needed it at times, and if you forget your pass and have to buy a single fare, you can still get reimbursed from those pre-tax contributions.

    I used to commute 45 miles each way to work, which took about 2 hours on 2 different trains. While the extra hours in my work day weren’t fun, I was often able to make very good use of this mostly uninterrupted time for reading, working on my laptop, organizing my itunes library, responding to emails, going over things I’d brought from work, etc. It was a highly productive time. I now live closer and am only on the train about 20 minutes, but I still find it’s a perfect window to check daily email and send some replies.

  13. Todd says:

    When I read the title of this post I got a very different impression of what it would contain. For a while recently, I also had a 45-minute commute to work and I “optimized the value” of that commute not by looking for ways to reduce the COST, but ways to usefully utilize the TIME, which was a much more valuable resource to me.

    Ways I did this included listening to audio books, especially personal development and non-fiction titles; and purchasing an inexpensive digital voice recorder to be able to record notes and ideas that occurred to me during the drive.

  14. Stephan F- says:

    Beyond audiobooks there are huge numbers of podcasts on everything under the sun. If you are also looking at doing some learning there is iTunesU.
    I am learning about history this way. I am watching them on an iPod touch and it works a little.
    For a driving commute I would prefer a nano so I can skip tracks more easily.

  15. Robert says:

    If you’re a renter and single, I would suggest moving closer to work. If your commute is 30 minutes one-way, why not move closer to work and save yourself time, money and wear-n-tear on the car? I always try to live fairly close to my work. This won’t really work for homeowners, but for young bucks such as myself it’s fantastic.

  16. Russ says:

    I agree with #13 Todd, the title of this post is wrong. It has little to do with optimizing value and is mostly about reducing cost – which are two very different things. Car pooling could be used to get to know your co-workers better and increase your social capital with them, so you get partial credit for that even though you only mentioned the cost savings side of the equation.

    I liked your ideas and they were good ways to reduce the COST of a commute but ways to increase the value of your commute might include listening to books on tape (though I wouldn’t recommend learning a language unless you drive isolated roads because it takes a good deal of your concentration which should be focused on driving), using a hands free headset to make calls, using a voice recorder to record your thoughts and ideas etc.

    I also agree with #11 KC, live close to where you work if possible.

  17. Des says:

    I had the same impression as Todd (#13) and Russ (#16) when reading the title. This post isn’t really about optimizing the value of a commute, but rather about reducing its cost. I am interested to hear other people’s ideas on optimizing the commute, though. Books on tape are popular, but are there any other ideas?

  18. LiveCheap says:

    The big cost here is your time. If you have a family, not only are you giving up 90 minutes a day but likely when you come home you are spent from the driving. I think these are great ideas and if you can and the job looks permanent, moving might help.

    I would see if you could leave really early. If your normal start is 9AM and you leave at 8:15, what about starting at 8 and maybe only having a 30 minute commute? I know people that leave two hours earlier and then have a gym near work. They cut the commute time down and get a workout in, start early and then leave early before the traffic builds.

    I have been fortunate throughout my career. My average commuting distance over 15 years of working has been 1.5 miles. Commuting is one of the worst uses of your time.

  19. The Heater/AC thing is HUGE!!! In the winter we go through sooo much more gas in our vehicles. There is no real way around that one, in the winter, anyway.
    If anyone has an idea on how to build a safe bonfire in the back seat or something, I am open to suggestion.

  20. Rosa Rugosa says:

    I live 12 miles out of Boston and I work in Boston, and I’ve decided that if you don’t live IN Boston, it takes you at least an hour each way to get in and out of the city. Pretty much everyone agrees with me, so I think I’m on to something here. I agree that it’s about the time more than the money. I take public transportation most of the way (most Boston commuters do) and guilt-free reading time is the one redeeming factor. I always wonder about those folks who just sit there doing nothing. Now THAT would be truly intolerable!

  21. Courtney says:

    This is probably unconventional given the readership of this site, but I’d recommend getting a rewards credit card that offers cash back on gas purchases (ours is 3%). It’s better than one that’s tied to a particular gas station, because you can still shop around for the best price for gas. It adds up.

  22. kristine says:

    I want to chime in on the audio books. I used to love to have a hour a day to “read” a book with my ears. I had my husband ( a well-read professor) make me a list of the 100 classics everyone should read. I started to work my way down the list when I changed gears and went back to school. I miss it. Now I teach, and my commute is 10 min door to door. If not for the long 30 degree hills and snow- I’d ride my bike!

  23. Michele says:

    I also live in a rural area. This won’t be an option for everyone, but I pray on the way. I do arrive less frazzled and more ready to face the day. I keep a rosary in the cup holder. (for those who are Catholic) I realize that it’s not a financial gain, but it does ‘optimize’ the trip for me :)
    I do carry a cooler in the car for those trips when I go shopping to Costco (it’s 76 miles away) and I call all my friends to see if they need me to pick something up! They return the favor so we really consolidate our big shopping trips.
    You might consider the same if you get better deals in the area where you work. It won’t hurt to go grocery shopping in the area where you work if it will save you money and time.

  24. Andy says:

    I am actually thinking of doubling my commute time. Currently I get dropped off at the light rail (20min drive)and take the rail into campus (25mins).

    I thought that the closest bus stop was 3 miles away (I can’t walk that yet), but I recently found a closer bus stop! (About 1 mile from home).

    So now I will walk about 30mins (will get quicker I hope) and take 2 buses to the light rail. I will leave the house about 45 minutes prior to my current time and still get to campus on time.

    I luck out, I have a cheaper student pass and get excercise out of it too. Plus I get to catch up on my audiobooks –big plus for me!

    Sometimes you just need to re-evaluate your priorities.

  25. I would also add consolidating your trips by doing quick errands to and from work.

    Those “quick” trips to the grocery store can add up in a hurry, and increase the wear and tear on your car.

    Doing some of these things on the way to or on the way home from work can lighten your load as well.

  26. deRuiter says:

    Look at signs on gas stations BEFORE stopping. Many stations give a 4 cent to 10 cent discount for cash, so the value of frequent flyer miles or cash back is lessened. The stations which charge “Same price cash or credit” generally charge a higher price. The best value is the lowest price. If you’re desperate and on empty, any station is fine. In general, if you preshop for gas, you will get the best price for cash.

  27. Lily says:

    Consider riding a scooter or motorcycle. You can use the carpool lane, get fresh air, hone your motor skills, and everyone will think you’re kool!

    Besides, it might introduce you to an entire new world of people, make new friends, your mind expands, etc.

    I come from a traditional background (old-country Mexican) – so I had to wait for my parents to die and my children to grow up to take on that hobby. And now that I’m an avid rider, I regret not having done it earlier.

    Use your car when conditions are too dangerous to ride.

    If you go to Europe, you’ll see many more Vespas and motorcycles on the road than in this country.

    We need to push our legislators for better public transportation. Our country is fat and unhealthy in part because we drive everywhere, circling parking lots to get the closest one. In Europe people walk to the subways and several countries have free buses.

    I’m 5-6 and 150 lbs and felt like the fattest person in Europe – except for other American tourists.

    It’s time to start really thinking outside the box. Our economy sucks and we need to make our pennies count.

    Great site!


  28. Matt says:

    @Moby Homemaker: Your fuel economy during the winter isn’t likely due to the heater. Running and engine in extreme cold can have as much as a 20% decrease in fuel consumption, depending on a lot of factors, including your tires getting up to pressure as they warm up while you’re driving, to how fast you start your initial drive while your engine isn’t at peak temperature, to how long you leave your car running to warm up before you start off. It’s not really about the heater. A/C is a different story, but A/C is generally better at >40mph.

  29. Don’t forget to borrow audiobooks (nonfiction or fiction, both are good) from the library for long commutes ;)

    While it won’t save you much monetarily, you gain in knowledge :)

    Sometimes I also listen to a comedian!

  30. Steffie says:

    Don’t just find the optimum route to work. Look for alternate ones as well, your regular route may be closed for repair, an accident etc. If you have the commute timed for just that one route you could get a big dose of stress if you are unsure of the next best way to get to work. I know of people who sit in their cars on the freeway for hours because they do not know how to go any other way. I have several routes, some freeway and some city streets. Sometimes I take the little longer city street route just to break up the monotony of driving the same route everyday. And you may find a different store, coffee shop, book shop, restaurant etc that you didn’t know about before.

  31. littlepitcher says:

    Re:audiobooks and podcasts
    Motivation guru Zig Ziglar calls this “Automobile University”. This time can be used for any audio material which will upgrade your professional and personal skills.
    Please note that this is not the time and place to try out those new self-hypnosis CD’s or podcasts!
    Budding or experienced photographers might also think about plotting several commute routes and stopping for scenic shots.

  32. Erich says:

    Not all 45 minute commutes are the same. If the time is spent mostly in traffic, consider a bicycle. For trips of 10-20 miles a bicycle will be faster than the car. I know several people in the city who have cut 20 minutes off thier commute by walking instead of driving.

    Not only do you save money, you also get a workout at the same time!

  33. J says:

    I agree with the above, except for the A/C and heater one. First off, the heater is pretty much “free” since it’s using heat that would have otherwise gone out the radiator. The only time A/C really hurts you is in slow traffic. A/C is also key to arriving at work not all sweaty and disheveled. Getting your windows tinted can also help keep a more comfortable temperature.

    Also, there’s no need to switch off the A/C entirely. Just dial back the temperature control and the thermostat will handle the switching on and off for you …. just like at home.

  34. Beth says:

    When I had a commute like that, I used to use the gym at work. (Or you could join a gym near work). That way, I could leave work later and not have to worry about traffic, plus I’d get my workout in.

  35. Mule Skinner says:

    The heat costs you nothing. The air conditioning can save your life by keeping you calm and cool in frustrating traffic situations.

    There are lots of ways to improve fuel economy. A good one for winter is to consider the maneuvers (sp?) used to park and unpark your car overnight. If there is significant back-and-forth, plan things so you do that on arrival, i.e. when the engine is warm. In my case, for example, I can go into the driveway forward and back out later; or back in and drive out forward later. Since backing is slow and deliberate and may require more than one try, it is better to back in when the engine is hot, rather than engaging in vehicular putzing when the engine is cold and inefficient.

    Another wintertime possibility is the block heater. Many cars sold in the northern states come with block heaters already installed. This is intended to keep the engine warm enough overnight so you can start it on cold mornings. A secondary benefit, however, is shortening the warmup time, thus saving fuel and also reducing air pollution. If you put a timer in the extension cord you can have the heater start at, say, 2am rather than leave it on all night. Even leaving it on all night only costs about one kilowatt hour which is in the neighborhood of ten cents generally. That’s only 1/25 of a gallon of gas at current prices. Meanwhile your cold-started car is probably well below 25 mpg for that first two or three miles.

  36. DivaJean says:

    I don’t like to listen to books on tape/podcast, music or any of that stuff on my commute. I prefer to be open to potential conversation on my bus rides to & from work. It has found me an acquaintance who is now helping me into my first craft fair foray…

    I use my time on the bus for crafting. I sew doll clothes, do embroidery, and other small sewing handwork like the occasional quilt patch working. I keep my work small- so that it can fit into a “kit” I made that goes in my backpack wherever I go. Hopefully, the sewing work and such I do will eventually mean actual extra money. But mainly I like the time to myself and conversations it sparks….

  37. Brooke says:

    I agree with the others that this post is mis-titled and focuses more on ways to reduce cost.

    Another audio option is National Public Radio. I am fortunate to be able to take public transportation to work that is paid for by my employer, but my biggest regret is that I cannot listen to NPR for the large majority of my commute. I’ve heard promotions for NPR liken it to the Graduate School of Life, which I heartily agree with.

  38. Two Dozen says:

    Being a professional courier that puts 240 miles a day on my car, I couldn’t resist this post:
    The comments about proper tire inflation, the A/C, etc are helpful. The best way to save fuel is the way you drive: no jack rabbit starts, drive close to the speed limit, try to time all the lights so you catch them all green. Keep an eye out for where the speed traps are, police officers are creatures of habit and a speeding ticket costs in many, many ways.

    You can load a gift card at Wal Mart and save 3 cents a gallon. Grocery stores cut the price of gas after you spend a certain amount. Don’t get married to a certain station, gas is gas.

    Keep track of your MPG. I have a HandBase program on my Palm that keeps a running total of gallons bought, monies spent, etc. Typically your mpg will fall off in the winter and when it is raining.

    Check with your accountant if you can deduct your mileage. If you go this route keep detailed, detailed records.

    The comments about books on tape, podcasts, etc are fine, to a point. After a while they get boring. Why not buy a digital voice recorder and instead of passively taking in information, why not leave a daily digital diary for your future self? The model I have will record a immense number of hours and has four folders: set up as diary, to do, random thoughts and projects. Has alarms, etc. Uploads to the laptop.

    About the 20 mpg car vs the 40 mpg car. My Yaris will get up to 41 mpg. With just me. On cruise control. On a windless day. On long stretchs. And it will hold 5 adults, barely.
    Now MPG is important. But so is a potential larger family. So is reliability. Buying a car is a series of gives and takes. If you think you will have this commute for a long while, well then a small 4 cylinder econobox is right. If you are going to have twins and become a stay at home then a used smaller mini van is right. If Trent hits the lottery then a Viper is right. You need to think about where you are going to be two, five years from now.

    And I hope is NOT $3.00 a gallon gas. I swear, every time a sheik has to raise a dowry, the price of gas goes up.

  39. cs says:

    Hi – I commute a lot daily also – now, I look forward to my commute, by listening to books on CDs. You can get them at he library, also used (even new) on line very reasonably. My commute is now my pleasure. I’ve listened to all kinds of books that I always wanted to read and never had the time to. I find that mysteries tend to keep you more interested and involved, but trust me here, I’ve listened to it all and we trade at work and with friends, as well. It is now my decompresion tie going home and going to work is somehow a little more pleasure. Happy reading! CS

  40. Kris says:

    Why not ride a bike to work? I save over $1500 annually by riding to work. It takes the same amount of time as mass transit and I get my workout in at the same time.

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