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The average car owner drives 13,476 miles each year. AAA reports that the average cost of fuel in 2019 was 11.6 cents per mile. That averages out to just over $1500 annually in the cost of fuel alone. When you add the cost of registration, insurance, maintenance, and a car payment, it’s easy to see how you can very effectively save money using public transportation.
In July 2019, I got a job located in downtown Austin, TX, just 4 miles from where I live. Though I’d spent the previous 5 months unemployed and building skills to get a job, I couldn’t have planned the location so well. I planned to drive my 2004 Toyota Corolla and park downtown. As part of my preparation before my first work week, I spent a few hours researching parking options.
Parking on the street was a dollar an hour, so I figured that would be $9 for a normal workday. I work remotely 2 days each week — my company is cool — so I’d be paying $27 each week in parking. $108 each month. Over $1,000 each year. That didn’t sound so bad at the time. (The price of street parking in Austin has since doubled, so it would now cost over $2,000.)
So for the first week of work, I commuted by car and parked on the street.
There are two major problems with street parking. First, a parking space isn’t guaranteed. I spent a lot of time circling in the morning downtown traffic. No thanks. The second problem: feeding the meter without moving your vehicle can get you fined. This meant that I had to interrupt my work 2 times each day to move my car. It took time and stress to find a new spot. Again, no thanks.
After only 3 days of frustrating street parking, I’d had enough. I researched more options.
My next option for parking was to pay for space in a lot or garage. After my frustration with street parking, the thought of having my very own special parking spot made me happy.
The price for that special parking spot, however, made me unhappy.
The cheapest option I found was $200 per month in a lot that was a half-mile from my office. The next best option was a garage a quarter-mile away from work. This one cost $250 each month. I did some simple math and decided it wasn’t worth paying at least $2,400 a year.
Okay. What’s next? Biking? Honestly, I didn’t consider this option much at all. Though I like biking, I’m not a fan of commuting to work by bike. Someone is gonna give me a hard time for this, but there are logistics like weather and a change of clothes and finding somewhere to shower and remembering towels and not getting my bike stolen. Just stuff I don’t want to think about.
Save Money Using Public Transportation
The last option I considered: take the bus. I balked. I didn’t want to spend time waiting for a bus to show up. What about the weather? I’d have to walk to the bus stop and wait in whatever the Texas skies gave me. What about the time? It’d be much faster to drive…
The thing that convinced me to ride the bus? Money math.
For only $2.50, I get a 24-hour bus pass. Unlimited bus rides for the day! In reality, I almost never take more than the 2 buses that get me to work and back home. Commuting 3 days each week means I’m spending $7.50 weekly, $30 monthly, and around $330 annually (accounting for time off). This is much better than the cost of driving and parking.
Each bus ride takes about 35 minutes each way, which is admittedly almost two times longer than if I drove, not including time spent trying to park. But I just use that time to read and write.
Since I go to the office 3 days each week, that’s about 3.5 hours I have to read. I’ve read a lot in the last 6 months. You can see reviews for a couple of books I’ve knocked out during my commute: Ultralearning by Scott Young and The Dip by Seth Godin.
I get that not everyone has the benefit of good public transportation. I’m fortunate to live less than 4 miles from where I work in downtown. If you don’t have a convenient bus route, I’m not going to tell you that you should start carpooling with strangers using Waze or bike around to save money.
Would you save money by doing those things? Yes. But I get that it’s not for everyone.
I might consider carpooling if I had a much longer commute, but I really dislike the stress of driving or passengering in anything that resembles traffic. I’d be more likely to move closer to my new workplace if I changed jobs.
You can’t put a price tag on mental peace.
Related: The Benefits of Financial Freedom
Public Transportation: Benefits and Drawbacks
Before I get into the pros and cons of public transportation, I have to say that technology has made timing and catching buses pretty easy. I use two free apps.
The first is the CapMetro app which is made for the Austin Public Transit system. I buy my day-pass with this app and I show the digital ticket to the bus driver. Easy.
The other free app is Transit (transitapp.com). Transit is a directions app that uses the public transit system’s information to tell you which bus (or buses) to take, the bus schedules, and directions for getting to and from bus stops. Transit shows a map of your bus in near real-time so you know if you can leisurely walk or need to sprint.
I recommend the Transit app if you use public transportation.
Public transportation offers a lot of financial benefits, environmental benefits, and, if you’re open to it, time benefits.
We’ve already seen how we save money using public transportation, and it’s easy to recognize that having fewer cars on the road leads to less fuel consumption, fewer emissions, and less traffic congestion.
These are all good things.
But the most important thing to me is that taking the bus provides time benefits. Though the bus commute takes twice as long — 35 minutes versus about 18 minutes — there are some non-obvious time savings.
- I don’t have to find and pay for my own parking once I get downtown. Finding a parking spot takes time. And paying for parking requires money which requires time to earn.
- Riding the bus gives me the opportunity to do other things like reading, writing, and checking my phone without causing an accident. I’m reading much more now that I ride the bus.
- Riding the bus has reduced my morning and afternoon commute stress to pretty much zero. No stress means I don’t feel like I have to spend time unwinding as soon as I get to work or get home. Because I don’t feel the need to reduce stress, I spend less time mindlessly surfing the web to relax and, instead, I just start working.
Overall, I really enjoy riding the bus because I feel like it offers far greater value than what I pay in dollars and time.
Taking the bus isn’t all sunshine. For a fair review, there are some things to take into account.
- The weather doesn’t always cooperate.
- Bus schedules occasionally seem like a suggestion to the driver.
- Social interactions on the bus are sometimes less than great.
Austin only gets about 80 days of precipitation each year, which leaves about 285 fair-weather days. Yes, some days I spend a bit of time in the rain while making my way to or from the bus stop. The rain is rarely bad enough to keep me from walking to the bus stop with an umbrella or a rain jacket. When it is bad enough, I just take a Lyft.
When it comes to schedules, I’m sometimes confused and rarely infuriated. Occasionally, for no apparent reason, the bus just doesn’t come. Sometimes the bus comes 5 or 10 minutes late. Or I show up 2 minutes early and I see that my bus somehow came early and I already missed it. When this happens, I end up waiting 15 minutes for the next bus, which really doesn’t bother me that much. I just read.
There have been a few times when social interactions on the bus make for less than comfortable conditions. I’ve seen people get into yelling matches a few times. I’ve seen the bus driver have to refuse a belligerent person entrance to the bus. And, pretty often, there are people who look homeless and seem a bit mentally unbalanced. And, yes, occasionally there are riders who are as vocal as they are incoherent.
This all just seems part of the public transportation experience. And I get that not everyone wants the experience.
But riding the bus doesn’t only save you money. I argue that riding the bus builds character. And probably also your immune system. And you really can’t put a dollar value on such things.
What’s the True Cost of Car Ownership
You can, however, put a dollar value on owning and operating a car.
First, I’m not against owning cars. I have one. I use it occasionally. I get that a lot of people live pretty far from work and family and activities they want to do.
But not all car ownership is equal.
Assuming 15,000 miles driven annually, the annual costs of owning a new vehicle are as follows:
- Small Sedan: $7,114
- Hybrid: $7,736
- Electric: $8,320
- Small SUV: $8,394
- Medium Sedan: $8,643
- Medium SUV: $10,265
- Large Sedan: $10,403
- Pickup: $10,839
For new cars, the average annual true cost of car ownership is between $7,929 (10,000 miles driven annually) and $10,663 (20,000 miles driven annually).
Unless you have enough money to buy a new car outright without putting a dent in your net worth, I’m honestly not sure why you would buy a brand new car. A car loses about 20% of its value as soon as it’s driven off the lot, and it continues to lose an average value of $3,334 every year.
Experian’s State of the Automotive Finance Market report says that the average monthly car payment for a new car is $554 and for used cars, it’s $391. When you start to add up registration, insurance, maintenance, and a monthly payment, things start to look pretty rough.
If you’re okay with having a payment, buying a used car gives you an average of $163 each month to save or invest. That’s almost $2,000 annually. If you go a step farther and buy a car you can pay off immediately at the time of purchase, you give yourself the gift of over $6,600 annually that you can now invest.
Compound interest time: $6,600 compounded annually with 7% returns gives you:
- $97,570 after 10 years
- $289,500 after 20 years
- $667,000 after 30 years
- $1.4 million after 40 years
Even if you end up paying for street or garage parking, driving a car you own in full saves you hundreds of thousands of dollars (or even millions) over your lifetime.
Small monthly contributions add up. Financial tracking tools can help you minimize spending and optimize savings and investments to grow your wealth.
Alternatives to Using Public Transportation
If you’re open to alternative means of getting around, but your area doesn’t have great public transportation, don’t worry. You have a few options.
- Use paid ridesharing apps
- Use free ridesharing apps
- Commute by bike
Using a paid rideshare app is a good option if you either commute very rarely or you live in a city where it’s more cost-effective to take an Uber or a Lyft than it does to own and operate your own vehicle.
If you’re open to carpooling, apps like Waze let you find other drivers or passengers going the same direction. With some of these apps, you may even be able to make a bit of money to cover expenses for express lanes.
Depending on your location, infrastructure, and weather, one of the best ways to commute and explore your area may be on a bike. There are both health and financial benefits of riding your bike.
There’s no one-size-fits-all solution, but this should give you some options to explore if you’re looking to change up your commute and save money.
Related: Spending Habits that Keep You Poor