This is how much your long commute is costing you

How 15 minutes can cost you more than you realize

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Photo by Alexander Popov on Unsplash

Have you ever stopped to think about how much your morning commute costs?

You pay for gas, insurance or a public transit card. But that’s not the only way that you pay for them.

Commutes rank dead last in terms of what people perceive as good for their emotional well-being.

Long commutes have negative health effects, such as high blood pressure, lower back pain, obesity, and even shorter life spans.

But given the choice between a higher salary or a shorter commute, people overwhelmingly choose the job with a higher salary.

It’s not that people can’t do the math: it’s that they can’t see the total impact. 15 minutes extra on your commute doesn’t seem like much.

But here’s the math behind why that’s a bad choice.

People tend to overestimate the impact of salary, while they underestimate the impact of commuting.

The Harvard Business Review conducted a study to examine this effect.

When given the choice between 2 jobs, one making $67,000 with a commute of 50 minutes and one making $64,000 with a commute of 20 minutes, people overwhelmingly chose the job with the longer commute.

A full 84% of our participants chose Job 1, thus expressing a willingness to forfeit one hour each workday to their commute — 250 hours per year — in exchange for just $3,000… We checked to see whether participants could do this math, and they could. Their responses simply reflected an inability to fully appreciate the psychological, emotional, and physical costs of longer travel times.

So if that hypothetical situation wasn’t enough to sway most people into recognizing the cost of longer travel times, let’s look at the actual math of a scenario like this.

Longer commutes mean that you no longer work a 40-hour workweek.

The average worker has a commute of 27 minutes, which has gone up 20% since 1980.

So let’s look at a few time-sinks that result from that.

30 minutes commute one-way, 5 days a week means that’s bumped up to 45 hours.

I assume you don’t roll out of bed with your work clothes, so dressing and maintaining your dress clothes might be 1–2 hours a week (dry cleaning, choosing outfits, etc.)

Parking? Bad traffic/delays? Maybe 20 minutes each day if you’re unlucky, meaning close to 2 hours a week.

With a few more work-based additions, such as happy hours or business travel and suddenly, that 40 hours has become 50.

Suddenly, you’ve added 25% extra to your commute, rather than just a few extra minutes.

But it’s worth it for the extra $3,000, right?

Not exactly.

The average worker spends more than $3,300 a year to go to work. This includes not only the morning commute, but things like meals, dry cleaning, coffee, and even things like daycare.

But this number varies immensely based on the length of the commute. So let’s look at some of the factors that will change with a longer commute.

I’m assuming that all other factors are equal and am just using survey data.

Transportation and gas:

USCB offers a commute calculator to not only the fuel cost of different commutes but how other factors may tie in (such as parking, insurance, depreciation, etc.). I used a couple of different factors based on data near me.

Job 1 (40-mile commute, 20 mpg, $2.50 a gallon):

Fuel: $2400 Annually

Associated costs: $ 11,673.60 a year

Job 2 (10-mile commute, 20 mpg, $2.50 a gallon):

Fuel: $600 a year

Associated costs: $ 2,918.40 a year

Difference in transportation annually: $10,555.20


Job 1, because it is a longer commute, means it’s harder to prepare lunch at home. Also, they find themselves needing to go for a coffee run once they get to work.

Lunch and Coffee: $30 a week

Job 2, because it’s much closer, may eat out once a week but they have time to bring lunch and coffee most days.

Lunch and Coffee: $15 a week

The difference in meals annually: $780


Job 1, because of the long commute, has to pay the extra hour for pickup (i.e. has to pay to pick up at 6 PM instead of 5 PM).

Let’s just generalize and say this is an extra $10 per day.

$10 day * 5 days a week * 52 weeks = $2600 annually.

So let’s take a look at that hypothetical scenario, with some of the associated travel costs attached.

Would you rather take Job 2, which has a 20-minute commute and pays $64,000?

Or would you rather take Job 1? Which has a 50-minute commute and, after some costs are calculated, pays $53,065?

All of a sudden, if you’re looking to get the highest possible salary, doesn’t it seem more worth it to take the shorter commute?

But that’s a scenario where all things are considered equal. What about in the real world?

If you’re still tempted by the longer commute for other reasons, here’s the math-based solution to whether or not it’s worth it:

Are you getting paid for your additional commute?

For example, if Job 2 has a 20-minute commute and you make $100k, that’s around $45/hr.

(40 hours + (40 minutes * 5) = 44 hours * 50 weeks working = 2200 hours)

($100,000 / 2200 = $45/hr)

To consider Job 1, which has an hour-long commute one-way, we need to get paid for our commute time. To make it simple, we need to take home an extra $60 a day or make $115,000 a year for it to be worth the same amount.

(120 minutes — 40 minutes = 80 minutes * $45/hr = $60/hr * 50 weeks working = $15,000)

Let me reiterate: this is just to be on equal footing.

With your additional commute, you are getting paid roughly the same amount or less (with the additional wear and tear of your vehicle). It wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that it would need a 20–25% increase in pay to start making money.

Job 1: $100,000 a year / 2200 working hours = $45/hr

Job 2: $115,000 a year / 2500 working hours (50 hrs a week * 50 weeks) = $46/hr.

I’m not saying to never take the longer commute job. If the job is a better work environment or brings greater satisfaction, those are reasons to consider it.

Instead, I’m saying that the primary motivator for the longer commute should not be money: the math simply shows that a small pay increase usually costs the person more overall.

I write about UX Design, Healthcare, and Productivity regularly. If you would like to learn how to communicate your designs, check out my online course.

Written by

Healthcare-focused UX designer and researcher. Creator of two online courses on design communication and UX research planning:

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