Your Long Commute May Cost You More Than Time and Money

It may cost your life. We often think of that commute to work as a waste of time sitting in the car and spending a fortune on gas, but there is a hidden cost. There was a recent piece on Forbes about how unhealthy our commutes really are and what some of the consequences are.

It’s a Lifestyle Choice

I think David Rizzo, author of Survive the Drive! How to Beat Freeway Traffic in Southern California says it best:

We put our health second. To have a big house, we’re willing to put up with smog and a big drive. We sacrifice our longevity for short-term gains.

For many people, this is very true. They want to have that perfect house in the perfect subdivision, a pool, nice neighbors, good school, and they will drive 30, 40, 50 miles or more one way just to get to work every day. While it is nice to have the better things in life it comes at a cost. The obvious ones are time and money, but there are also many health concerns in play as well.

While I agree that it is a lifestyle choice to a great extent, there are plenty of situations that are not by choice. A job loss or job change can put someone into a position where they have to drive much further than they had to previously. There are also situations where a couple may have jobs on opposite sides of town or in different cities altogether where no matter where you live, someone would have to commute.

Air Pollution

While the Forbes article focuses on Southern California and its well-known air pollution problem, it doesn’t stop there. Most major metropolitan areas are going to have high levels of pollution on the busy freeways and if you’re driving on them, you can’t escape it.

Ultra-fine particulate matter has been linked with premature death, cardiovascular disease and respiratory illness, according to the California Air Resources Board.

Particle pollution kills people, whether they’re breathing it in over a short period or day in and day out for a year. It’s not like being hit by a car, but it shortens the lives of people by months to years.

Many people escape the city because they want to breathe cleaner air and get out of the pollution of the city, yet they could find themselves sitting in an even higher concentration of for a few hours every day just driving to and from work.

The Likelihood of Being Involved in an Accident

Most people at some point in their life will be involved in some sort of motor vehicle accident. It could be a minor fender bender, or it could be fatal. National Geographic released some statistics in 2006 about the probability of death from specific causes and the chance of dying in a motor vehicle accident is 1 in 84. The only three causes that beat these odds are a stroke, cancer and heart disease. So, if you are subjecting yourself to extended periods of time on the road compared to the average person, you are increasing your odds in being involved in an accident, which could prove fatal.

Is It Worth It?

After putting more miles on your vehicle, spending a lot of excess money on gas, lost productive time, the increased chance of being in an accident and possibility that you’re killing yourself via pollutants, is it worth it? Going back to what David Rizzo said, it is a choice for many, and an almost unavoidable necessity for others. Some may put more value on the things that make the long commute a requirement, while others may find ways to reduce the need to commute.

I’ll be the first to admit that I have a longer commute than I’d like. For us, it isn’t about a fancy house or a good school district, it is just a fact of the matter. My wife’s office is about 30 miles away from mine. We could have picked a location that was centrally located to both, each driving about 15 miles, but no matter how you slice it, since they are in opposite directions we’d essentially be covering the same distance between the two of us no matter where we lived. So, we opted to live close to her work location so that she only has to drive a couple minutes and spends less time on the road.

I don’t enjoy it and the time I lose while being on the road stinks, the stress of traffic and idiots on the road trying to kill me is turning my hair gray, but unfortunately at this stage of the game we don’t have many options. The good thing is that we’re very, very rural so the pollution impact is minimal. All I need now is a car that drives itself on a private road with no other drivers and I’ll be all set.

Is Your Commute Killing You?

Author: Jeremy Vohwinkle

My name is Jeremy Vohwinkle, and I’ve spent a number of years working in the finance industry providing financial advice to regular investors and those participating in employer-sponsored retirement plans.

47 comments
Tired but happy
Tired but happy

My company moved 5 years ago from 10 miles from my home to over 100 miles away from my home. I opted to do the drive. Although we have an agreement where I am at the office 3 days a week, and work from home the other days.  The reason this works for me is the one issue I haven't seen discussed by anyone yet... satisfaction with your job.

Could I be making more money? Sure!

But I've learned over the years, that happiness with your work, your co-workers & your employers is sometimes equally important. I'm certainly not suggesting it's easy, a solution for everyone and it sure isn't what I would ever term as "fun" - but there are times when it's do-able, and even on a permanent basis.

 

I honestly didn't see myself doing this for 5+ years, but a lot of it is in my own mind set... if I make it as pleasant as possible, than I can keep doing it for another 5 years I think.

JackInTulsiTown
JackInTulsiTown

For my part of the country, there is no adequate public transit, the jobs in my field are scarce since the economic crisis, and the house is in a location due to current job; and schools that accept special needs children with appropriate programs (also rare in my area).  I am considering a position that will increase my round trips from 20 miles at 15 minutes each way to 125 miles at 60 minutes each way.  It isn't a lot more money; but it will allow me to get the experience I need to advance in my field and get the creditials I need to get a better job closer to home.  Moving would be stupid because we would take a huge loss due to the flat housing situation and my wife would still have to commute. This isn't a lifestyle choice, its a necessity.  I'd spend just as much time and money going back to school to get another degree to get a possibility of a closer job with no guarantees.  I could stay were I am at, but then if and when the business is sold, I'd be out without the credentials to get another job.  In the tech sector, you're only as good as your last assignment or company; but to get good assignments or companies you have to be willing to travel or commute.  Not every company lets you tellecommute and far less than most outside of the industry know about.  Simply put, many folks in my area, in my age range, and in my field either work for small companies that are hear today gone tomorrow but close to home or large companies with good careers; but must commute long distances.

Ed
Ed

You were all very helpful. I am going from an 18 mile commute one way to a 55 mile one...an increase of $30,000 annually...

thinking of going for it...

CrazyNYC
CrazyNYC

I work 100 miles from my office and the money isn't that great. I need another job, but how can I afford it when no one seems to be hiring!?

Steve
Steve

I commute 65 miles each way. It takes me 2 hours and 40 minutes on the road every day. BUT... my colleage lives in the east end of town and works in the west. They take a bus and their commute is longer. My driving is mostly country driving and I enjoy the country life when i get home. The cost really has to be worth it though because I fill up every other day and it costs me $30 when I fill... then there are tires every two years, brakes, tune ups, oil changes etc.

It is not for everyone.

Tim
Tim

I currently commute 30 miles (45 minutes) through a rural area. I live in the closest "city" and even if my girlfriend didn't live in a bigger city 45 minutes in the other direction, I still would not move closer to work because I get way too bored out in the country. I'm desperately trying to find work in her city but no luck in this economy. We're both pretty burnt out from the commutes. Anyone else in this backwards situation where they work in a rural area but want to live in a suburban or urban area?

Igor Ripyourfaceoffsky
Igor Ripyourfaceoffsky

I can relate to the stress in driving. But that is nothing compared to the stress in trying to make a living in addition to that. My commute is nearly 2 hours while some of the other electricians and helpers that work for our company are about the same give or take 20 minutes. Most of us are going to walk off the job so soon as the one we're currently working on is completed. (the next one is even farther away) We don't get any vehicle allowances or compensation nor can we write off these commutes on taxes. After two years of wage freezes, and a 10% company wide wage cut, and another wage freeze that went into effect this year, this crap is no longer sustainable. Some guys are making less than $11.00/hr and are mad as hell. The company is banking on them to quit so they can skate around unemployment. To make matters worse, there are no jobs to be had closer to home. So it appears that if they are denied unemployment, they will sue for it or some of management's heads will roll because they should have laid them off a long time ago. Think about it, when some of the guys there are not able to afford bringing a lunch to work because they spend their lunch money at gas station, you can only imagine the anger escalating at our jobsite. The same goes for the plumbers and HVAC guys who work there. It's getting to the point where I'm about ready to ask for a layoff or pack heat because I'm concerned somebody is going to snap and go postal.

appfunds
appfunds

I used to commute and I can tell you that the best thing is to do something productive.
When you are a driver, the best idea for me are audiobooks.

If you aren`t you should take a nap or read a book.

Don`t waste your time.

Writer's Coin
Writer's Coin

I was having a conversation with a coworker about what it would take for either one of us to take a job out in the burbs of Chicago. There was a lot of hemming and hawing and another coworker jumped in with "$100,000."

And with that the conversation was over. There was no debate.

Sara
Sara

People said I was nuts to take my current job, since the pay's far from extravagant. However, the commute's about three minutes. I'm feeling smarter every day... Thanks for bringing this article back to the top. For many people, it really is time to run the numbers and see how many hours of their day are spend earning the money needed to drive to work and back.

Chad @ Sentient Money
Chad @ Sentient Money

Everyone judges others on their commute, because most people aren't in your situation. The majority commute just so they can have a bigger house. The funny thing is these are the people taking the biggest losses in this real estate market and the biggest losses to quality of life.

Deborah
Deborah

It can be worth it to commute. It can also be completely against financial security.

My husband and I work 70 miles apart. I have a 60 mile commute, he has less than 10. Due to the direction I drive, I have almost no traffic - and it's all interstate. I have no desire to move closer to my job. For one thing, my stepson lives with his mom - 30 milesin the OTHER direction. For another, I make more than twice as much as if I had a job closer to home - and my husband's chances of getting a move-worthy job are almost non-existant.

I've met so many people who say "you're wasting time"; "You're wasting money"; "Don't you care about anything but money" when they hear that I drive an hour to work and another hour home. But every situation is so different. I tend to get very defensive when anyone judges people because of their commute, because it really can make sense for some people. And - luckily for me - I love NPR. :)

Mike
Mike

You know what else I've always been interested in finding out? The actual dollar value of all the gas wasted by people stomping on their brakes in traffic jams.

appfunds
appfunds

Last week I had to spend about 5 hours in traffic jams. It`s really frustrating.
For me sometimes even more than losing a few bucks in stock market.

Pam Grundy
Pam Grundy

Author James Kunstler has written extensively on this very topic, and his theories, while controversial, are really fascinating. He predicts that the suburbs will be the slums of the future as gasoline becomes less and less affordable. In some new suburban developments heavily affected by the housing bust and foreclosure, three garage mini-mansions are already being taken over by squatter manufacturing meth.

Goran Web
Goran Web

I must say that I love being on the road, it gives me time to make my phone calls. When I'm at the office I dont make the calls, I interact with the office, but being on the road gives me the time to touch base with clients.

On weekends I enjoy getting in the car and just driving it helps clear my head, new scenery, big open spaces.

jr
jr

I used to have a 1hr commute each way, and couldn't take that anymore. It's an individual choice, and my choice was to live in a smaller place, but closer to work.

Experts on Credit
Experts on Credit

I have a 90-minute commute each way to work every day. I do it by necessity because I need to eat. The comments about using your commute time wisely by getting audio books or something to that effect are nice in theory, but it's difficult to be in the throes of a story when you're in stop and go traffic -- and quite frankly, I don't want to be on the road next to someone who's too into a John Grisham plot twist to pay attention to the road.

HF Markets
HF Markets

I here you on this one. I moved from London because of the commute. 4 hours a day in the car, congestion charge and parking, nightmare for anyone....

Been There
Been There

I'm giving up a 5 minute commute to start a one hour commute because I live 60+ miles from an urban center and the only technical job here has dried up and there's nothing left for me to do. Before you say "MOVE," I've already done the math and even after having to spend $4,000 more per year on gas, I'm still saving $1,800 per year on property taxes and other "taxes" that I just don't have out here.
45% of the working age people here commute this every day...it looks like the town is evacuating every morning M-F.

Deron Sizemore
Deron Sizemore

Yeah, for me, it's Bob and Tom in the morning and Sirius Radio on the way home. The comedy stations on Sirius Radio crack me up. :)

MoneyNing
MoneyNing

It is absolutely okay for me since I live 1.2 miles from work. It does make me feel like I live at work though!

Jeremy
Jeremy

Oh man, you have NO idea how frustrated I get with people who fail to merge properly. These are people who drive the same roads every day like I do and know that the lane ends for about a mile before they get up there, yet they continue to try to zoom past a half dozen cars just to squeeze in.

What does that get them? About 100 feet closer to their destination which might save 10 seconds, yet cause traffic to slam on their brakes for another half mile back, not to mention endanger those they are cutting off.

Oh, and I'm also a bob and tom listener. Sometimes that is the only thing that gets me through the morning drive. The ride home on the other hand, that is a whole different story :(

Deron Sizemore
Deron Sizemore

Yes, my commute is killing me. Well, not so much, as I don't really mind the drive. I have a 30 minute drive to work and then a 30 minute drive home from work. In the morning, the 30 minutes gives me time ti listen to Bob and Tom on the radio and then the drive home gives me a little (much needed) time to unwind.

I think you and I have the same feelings about the idiots on the road. I never ceases to amaze me the way people drive. It's like they have a death. If people used just a small portion of common sense while on the road, things would be much better. The people that really get me are the ones that see that the lane closes in 1/2 mile yet they still drive in that lane up until the very last second and then dart over in front of someone. I guess they don't realize that it just slows everything down that much more by doing that.

Sorry to go off on a tangent there I have a little animosity toward the idiots on the road especially when I drive a lot each day and my life is in their hands.

dong
dong

Yeah it's all about tradeoffs. I'm willing to tradeoff square footage for location. Others are set on having more space. I take about one 6 cubit feet of space, I don't see why I need a 2000 square foot home...

Chief Family Officer
Chief Family Officer

I live in SoCal and my husband and I decided early on that we would sacrifice square footage and a yard to minimize our commute. We live less than 20 miles from work but it takes over an hour to get to the office during morning rush hour, longer to get home in the afternoon. To compensate, we work flex hours that allow us to start and end our work day earlier than the norm. I've long since stopped trying to understand my friends' and colleagues' decisions to drive 40 miles or more one way for work each day.

RateLadder
RateLadder

When I take the train I find that I enjoy my commute more. I enjoy the walk to and from the train stations. It takes longer (extra hour per day), but I save gas and wear and tear.

Webomatica
Webomatica

This is one of those easier said than done things. I use mass transit but truth be told, I can see people buying a house close to work, then losing the job and having to take a new one that requires them to commute. I think though, many work places are not in easy locations to commutte, and the people with ideal work / live commuttes are few and far between. It is sadly not the norm.

I put more of the blame on the urban planners that thought it was a good idea to have tons of houses in suburbia and the nearest grocery store is in a strip mall four miles away.

Jeremy
Jeremy

I understand what you're saying, Wayne. I forget how different it can be in other parts of the country. I was going on my experience up in the midwest where these extremely long commutes are more common.

It all comes down to striking a balance that fits your goals and priorities.

wayne
wayne

Jeremy,
I can appreciate what you're saying, but in TX an hour drive is nowhere near half the state. It can take 45 minutes to drive from north Dallas to south Dallas. And yes, you can find plenty of upscale suburbs within a 15 or 20 minute drive at the most, however they are cost prohibitive. Every person in my dept (except the supervisor) drives a minimum of 30 min to get to work (I actually 'only' drive 40 minutes) because they can't afford the cost of living near work.

As far as missing out on my kids' lives, I don't. My priorities are exactly as you described they should be. Since I can't sacrifice drive time to be with them, and I won't sacrifice dad time with them, I sacrifice me time. Doesn't do much for my sanity, but my kids are well adjusted (so far).

Jeremy
Jeremy

Wayne, you don't have to move 1+ hours away to find a decent neighborhood and quality school district. Even in the worst of cities there are plenty of upscale suburbs within a 15 or 20 minute drive at the most.

So no, you don't want to subject your child to a bad environment, but you also don't need to move halfway across the state to find that place either.

You have to have priorities the other way as well. If you move somewhere that is 1+ hours away from work just to find that ideal school, what good is it if you're never home because you're on the road and can't get home in time? How many missed t-ball games or school plays will that be? What happens if both spouses need to drive that far? That is less quality time with your child which could completely negate any positive influence a better school might have.

wayne
wayne

I can't believe the reference to a nice neighborhood and good school district is made to sound like a poor choice. I grew up in a bad neighborhood, and I would not do that to my kids. I don't want someone breaking my 10 year old's nose. So to say "just" to have a good school district/nice neighborhood for my kids tells me a) you have no kids, or b) you have messed up priorities. You would rather your kid get a subpar education and risk being victimized so you can have a shorter commute?

N'Awlins Kat
N'Awlins Kat

@Steve--my sympathies on the losses to your area with the bridge collapse. A horrible tragedy.

My husband commutes 35 miles each way into New Orleans each day, and the commute now is hellish on a good day. Since we're surrounded by water, there are bridges everywhere here, too. The main bridge he drives each day is the one that collapsed into Lake Pontchartrain two years ago with the hurricane. For the first year, he telecommuted, and it worked quite well (except for the wear on MY nerves from having him underfoot all the time), but because of our drastically shifting population, combined with really stressed out drivers and a bridge span that's closed almost every week for re-inspections (we really worry about its integrity, but the new one won't be complete for a couple more years), his stress level is through the roof. The lake bridge is held together with prayer and baling wire, it seems. I wish there was a way for him to not have to deal with the drive. He's always loved his job, but he's thinking of transferring, almost solely because of the commute. We grew up here, and our elderly parents are here; moving is sooooo not an option, as we're also very involved in the rebuilding of our community. Catch-22.

Emily
Emily

I commute 5 miles to work and my husband the same. We bought our house first, right out of college and then found jobs. I know most of the time it does not work out this way I guess we got lucky. Now living so close to where I work, I dont think I could ever switch to commuting a long distance, its not worth the anxiety for me. I know a big yard is nice for some, but living in a small townhome can be cosy and a nice way to have family togetherness, then again I dont have kids yet!

JM
JM

Oh, actually I just remembered something -

When I was in high school, my girlfriend at the time's parent were both professionals. One worked out of the home, the other commuted to new jersey 2.5 hours each way(!). Well, a couple years after I broke up with her, I sadly heard he died in a car accident. Basically he rear-ended a semi-trailer on the way to work. It was such a shame. But that convinced me that the more you drive, the greater your chance of having an accident is.

The really sad thing though is that for the area we lived in, they were extremely wealthy (I think they were both psychiatrists or something). They could have probably still been well off if only one worked.

Steve Olson
Steve Olson

Jeremy,
I light of the bridge collapse in MPLS/ST. Paul - which is the metro area I line in, it seems commuting cost a few people their lives.

Since we don't have a spare bridge sitting around anywhere some commutes that were 30 minutes will now increase to 90 minutes. Luckily for me, I don't need that bridge.

I offer one a week of tele commuting to our programming staff and I may expand it to two days in 2008. We'll see.

I've had 3 day a week tele-commuters and the lose touch with the organization. All this commuting seems silly, but tele-commuting has its cost too, social costs. I commute about 30 min each way and I never want any more than that.

plonkee
plonkee

I have a longish commute time at just under an hour but I do it walking - unless its raining its brilliant. By the time I've got home I'm completely switched off from work.

Sara
Sara

I hate commuting. I've been working from home for the last few years. It looks like we may be moving to the DC area in the spring and if so I will most likely need to get a job outside of the home because of the high cost of living there. I am not looking forward to a commute.

Ben
Ben

commuting = stress. I hate getting to work stressed out in the morning and coming home stressed out in the afternoon. Oh, how I wish I could work from home!

dong
dong

Yeah, I'm not a fan of wasting time on commuting. My commute used be 45 minutes and I hated how long it took me to get home (mostly because it was actually only about 4 miles on slow public transportation system). Can't say how much happier I am with a 20 minute commute...

Joseph Sangl
Joseph Sangl

If it takes more than 15 minutes to get to work, I am not purchasing that house or taking that job.

1.5 hours each way in a commute? What a disastrous use of time!!!

Brip Blap
Brip Blap

I worry about this a lot on my blog, so I really enjoyed (if that's the right word for commuting posts...) this take on it. I drive AND take public transportation each day, so I have the worst of both worlds. Public transportation wears you down, but I imagine a 70 mile car commute would drive me out of my mind very, very quickly. It's a problem that's going to continue to grow as people are willing to settle for longer commutes to get bigger houses. I did it to myself - I used to live in Manhattan about 5 minutes' walk to my work, but after starting a family I 'needed' a bigger place...

Jeremy
Jeremy

I wish I could ride a bike to work! But 30 miles down a rural 2-lane road 55mph takes long enough, but the exercise sure would be nice.

And 70 miles might seem insane, but around here the hour or longer commute is more of the norm. My parents both drive about 60 miles each way and I know quite a few people that drive the 1.5-2 hours into Chicago around here.

Faisca
Faisca

I'm going to share this post and those ideas about listening to audiobooks or language CDs with my best friend (though I doubt he'd take the book/language advice, because he's a bum). He drives 1.5 hours to work (and 1.5 hours back), usually more like 2 because of traffic. 70 friggin miles to work.

He's ridiculous. He does it because it's the first job he got out of college and he became complacent. But spends so much on gas it boggles my mind.

Steve Austin
Steve Austin

How to make a long commute more productive (aside from listening to education podcasts, etc.)? Put your butt on a bike seat instead of in a car seat every morning. Depending on your situation, this might even allow you to sell your car, or at least one of them. In a congested, downtown area biking is actually faster than driving (ask those bike couriers about this). Some metropolitan areas have good bike trails.

However, I do struggle with myself regarding the air pollution. Is the cardiovascular health benefit of biking (vis driving) worth the direct exposure to automobile exhaust, not to mention the risk of a bad driver hitting a careless biker?

Randy Peterman
Randy Peterman

I am a contractor. I work in my basement office from 8-5 and sometimes 9-12 PM. The long hours take their toll so I try not to work five days a week like that, but having no commute helps a lot with my health because that gives me upwards of 30 or more minutes a day with my family. They come first and I can tell that my girls know they're loved. And that's good for my heart.

Jeremy
Jeremy

It certainly isn't a complete waste, you're right. I've been trying to learn German, and I tried the audio CDs for a while, but it wasn't sticking, so I ended up trying the Rosetta Stone on computer and find that 100 times easier. Could be just my learning style.

But entertainment and some occasional education in the car twice a day can only go so far. I'd much rather spend those 90-100 minutes every day doing something a bit more productive.

JM
JM

I can see the arguments for particle pollution and increased risk, but I can't understand why you would consider a long commute to be a waste of time.

If I had a 30 mile commute, I would use that time to listen to podcasts, audiobooks, or learn a foreign language with a pimsleur language cd set.

That's not to say I would trade my 6 mile no-traffic commute for a 30 mile one just for that reason, but I certainly wouldn't waste that time just driving.