Time vs. Money vs. Experience in Commuting

If my first job out of college, I was a megacommuter. My home (with my parents) and my job were both in the DC area, but about 120 degrees away from one another around the Beltway. I got a ride from my parent to the Metro station (about 15 minutes), went from the end of one line into DC and then most of the way out another (70 minutes), and then walked to my building (5 minutes). I made the most of my Metro ride by reading or snoozing as much as I could. I lasted about six months before giving up and moving closer to work.


I was actually lucky during that time, though. Even though I spent 3 hours a day commuting, I wasn’t spending much money. I didn’t own a car as my parents let me borrow one when I needed to go somewhere non-Metro accessible (rarely). My work reimbursed me for most of my transportation costs. My hours were also pretty relaxed, so I was able to commute on the tail end or after the peak times each way.


In my opinion, commuting is a waste of time and money. I understand that for many jobs it is necessary to be on-site (working in a lab!), so if commuting is a necessary evil I want to minimize the waste and make it as pleasant and productive as possible. When I started grad school, I was happy that my commute went down to 30 minutes each way (15 minutes walking), and even happier when we moved closer to campus and my commute became 20 minutes each way (15 minutes walking) and I was with Kyle the whole time. I swore I would never have anywhere near a 90 minute commute again. Proximity to work would be the highest priority when choosing where to live, surpassed only by safety (at least as long as we’re DINKS).


commuting costs


… And look at me now. I’ve let the desire to minimize spending navigate me back into a megacommute. Going from being funemployed with no commute and no commuting costs to this new job and living situation has really been a shock to my system. I am now spending 70-80 minutes getting to or from work and am spending about $50 per week on the Metro. That daily spending on commuting is on top of the expenses of maintaining a car so that I can drive to the Metro (occasionally), buy groceries, get to my church small group, and visit Kyle. It’s almost like I’m experiencing emotional whiplash. Of course the changes were expected, but that doesn’t make them easier.


It it worth not paying rent? I guess so. If I lived nearer to work I would probably be paying $1,000 per month or so vs. no rent and no utilities payments with my parents. But I am for sure looking forward to my fellowship end date as the end of a commuting prison sentence. Twelve weeks is not much time in the big scheme of things, but it feels long right now.


Although I’m complaining here about spending so much time and money on my commute, I actually have a higher priority than either: experience. My commute is probably both longer and more expensive than it could be if I drove myself and parked at my building considering that I am paying to have an operating car. (Well, I think this is the case. I haven’t actually priced out a parking permit.) But driving myself would mean not being able to be productive at all and dealing with the stress of driving into, in, and out of DC (road rage, unpredictability of traffic). Plus, I am a big supporter of public transportation as a sustainability measure. (I love the idea of self-driving cars in terms of partially gaining back the commute time, but I don’t love the idea of all those individual cars still on the road.) So my choice is to spend a bit more money and time to make the wasted time more productive and pleasant.


I’m sure that some of you prioritize time most highly and therefore will take the fastest commuting method no matter what the cost or experience. I’m a bit less sure that people will prioritize money so highly that time and experience become irrelevant – I think buses would be much more popular if that was the case. I know we had the option in Durham of a completely free commute thanks to our subsidized bus passes, and actually it would not have added much time, either, but Kyle refused to be ruled by the bus schedule.


Whatever your method of choice and your priorities, you can set yourself up to have a better commuting experience. Here are some strategies I’m employing:

  • Relax. Expect to be inconvenienced and delayed; leave early so you don’t feel rushed.
  • Be considerate of others.
  • Choose enjoyable entertainment. I love podcasts and will listen to my most engaging subscriptions while commuting.
  • Make the time productive if you can by setting aside reading, writing, or listening to something that furthers your goals.
  • Buddy up with a friend or loved one. Kyle and I added a lot of quality time to our relationship when we committed to commuting together.


One way that I am considering extending my new philosophy of commuting is to my weekend drives to Durham (about 4 hours each way, sometimes longer). Last weekend was the first time I’ve done the drive by myself in a number of years and I had forgotten how boring it is and how wasteful it feels. I was quite tired on my Friday night drive so that made it a lot worse. Even though it will take longer and be more expensive (out of pocket), I am considering taking MegaBus next time. I am so productive on flights and buses because of the limited distractions and I like giving the responsibility of safely navigating a vehicle over to a professional.


I really hope that I can design my lifestyle after this job to have a short or nonexistent commute!


What is your commuting method of choice, if you have one? How do you make your commute more productive or enjoyable?


photo by Daniel Foster


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27 Responses to "Time vs. Money vs. Experience in Commuting"

  1. Fiby says:

    While I while to work because it’s only 10 minutes, I use my bike for getting around virtually everywhere, including the Korean grocery store 13 miles away from here. The bike ride itself is an enjoyable experience for me! (but I don’t ride in the rain)

    1. Emily says:

      I would love to walk 10 minutes or so to work. That would possibly be better than having no commute.

  2. What I do during my commute is I either listen to music or read my handouts. It’s more than an hour travel so I’d do one of these. Going back home, I just take a nap.
    Jayson @ Monster Piggy Bank recently posted..Are you worth more Dead than Alive?

    1. Emily says:

      I’m much more likely to nap in the mornings!

  3. Kelly S says:

    It depends on the length of time in the car for me. Shorter distances like the Durham commute I don’t really mind. It gives me the 20 mins of peace and quiet and control of my environment that I don’t have during the day (open office layouts stink!)

    Anything over 4 hrs though, and I hate being in the car that long. I’D rather be on a plane or a bus where I can sleep! I get motion sick when reading, sO unfortunately getting work or pleasure reading done is not an option!

    1. Emily says:

      The Durham commute is quite nice and non-stressful. I wouldn’t want to be getting on I-40 though. I’m a little miffed at how far parking on campus can be from where we actually work, but walking is enjoyable.

      That stinks about not being able to read. I used to always try to sleep on planes (and was very successful), but now that I have self-employment stuff to be doing I try to get work done if it’s a daytime flight.

  4. Books on tape and podcasts make long drives more bearable.

    1. Emily says:

      I agree! Kyle and I like to play Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me and Ask Me Another when we drive together. When I’m alone I often listen to Dave Ramsey because he’s so loud. πŸ™‚

  5. Mrs PoP says:

    I bike and it takes about 40 minutes depending on the wind. Audiobooks are great, or podcasts. I’ve done public transit, walking, or car in the past and pretty much anything that keeps me out of a car makes for a much more pleasant start and end to the day, even if it takes a little longer than driving.
    Mrs PoP recently posted..The Power Of A Well Made Tool

    1. Emily says:

      Biking definitely should have made my list! But is it legal/safe to have earbuds in while biking?

      1. Fiby says:

        Depends on your jurisdiction. In many states, a bicycle is considered a vehicle (though not a motor vehicle) and all rules that apply to vehicles apply to bicycles.

        I believe in my state, it is legal to have one earbud in. I don’t do this though – I have a HTC one which was great speakers, and I blast music on the speakers. I put my phone on a cell phone mount on my handlebars.

        1. Emily says:

          Sounds like a good approach.

  6. Ben Luthi says:

    I think that if you have to commute, you’ve got to maximize that time. Listening to podcasts or books, working on blog posts, or doing other productive things is fine in my book…but only if you have to πŸ™‚
    Ben Luthi recently posted..Meet Digit, the Best Savings Tool Ever

    1. Emily says:

      Unfortunately my current position doesn’t allow teleworking, but if it did I would take advantage!

  7. I’m a SAHM, but my husband commutes by bus to work. Takes about an hour each way from the suburbs. It sucks, but he gets a lot of reading done. Maybe one day he’ll get transfered to the closer office.

    1. Emily says:

      That is a long time but I’m glad he is able to get something done while he’s on the bus. Does he read for pleasure, work, personal development?

  8. A topic dear to my heart! I actually started commuting in high school — I went to school a one-hour public transit (walk, metro, walk) trip across town from my house, or a 20-25 minute drive. The drive was way better, in my opinion, although I did get math homework done on the metro πŸ™‚ After college, I was in NYC and over the years had everything from a 2-hour (each way) subway commute (thankfully this only had to be done once or twice a week) to a ten-minute walk. 1-hour subway commutes (including walking time) were pretty standard, though. I got to really hate them; it’s not the public transit part that’s a problem for me, but the underground part. The NYC subway is worse (noisier, bumpier) than the Metro in DC, but I don’t even like the underground parts of Metro anymore. This just got worse and worse for me over the years and I don’t ever want to go back to that. Buses are frustrating because they’re so freaking slow, but at least they’re above ground.

    My current commute is either a ten-minute, no-traffic drive, or a twenty-minute bike ride during better weather than we are currently experiencing πŸ™‚ I like them both, although I usually drive because I don’t like either biking in work clothes, or changing at work, plus I feel like I always have a zillion bags with me (I bring breakfast, lunch, and snacks every day, in one bag, plus my purse, plus I bring my laptop back and forth nearly every day and often have books or files with me as well) and it’s just so much easier in the car. I use my bike for most other getting around town things, when the weather’s ok.

    It’s not clear to what extent I’ll get to choose this in the future, but I’d really like to be in a city small enough that I can live within a ten minute drive of all the basics (work, church, social activities) and within a twenty-minute drive of shopping (clothes, groceries, Target, etc). Also ideally one that has decent biking infrastructure and is hospitable to walking.
    C@thesingledollar recently posted..Zero Food Waste 2015, Week 5: Ordering Less

    1. Emily says:

      That is really interesting (and unfortunate) that you developed that aversion to being underground. Sort of like an allergy from gradual exposure?

      That’s a really nice current commute! And I like your vision/hope for the future as well. Even if we live in a large city, I’d like to commit to a region/neighborhood in which I can do everything I need to on a regular basis. I haven’t biked on a regular basis since college, but I’d be willing to get into it again in a friendly city.

  9. SP says:

    I’ve commuted by car (~25 – 30 mins) , subway, and walking (20-25 mins). Walking is my favorite. I listen to audiobooks/podcasts. I also have the option of a 5 minute drive, so I’m super spoiled.

    On the subway, I would read (if I had space & a seat) or listen to books to be productive, but I found a lot of the time i would feel burnt out and would simple zone out or surf my phone – not useful! We also paid to own a car, so this was probably the most expensive.

    In the car, it was mostly NPR/news.

    I’m with you on experience being important. If there is an option other than driving that doesnt take too much time, I’d prefer it.

    1. Emily says:

      That’s great that you get to live so close to work, especially in such a large city! I liked NPR so much that I just decided to subscribe to a bunch of their podcasts. πŸ™‚

  10. SP says:

    BTW – a long time ago, we lived about 8 hours apart and would regularly drive to see each other for a weekend – sometimes not even a long weekend (arrive late on Friday, leave Sunday morning). That seems insane now, but you do what you have to do. Humans can adapt to pretty much anything πŸ™‚
    SP recently posted..2015 Plans and Goals

    1. Emily says:

      That does seem insane, but people do insane things for love. πŸ™‚ I don’t think I’ve ever done a drive that long by myself!

  11. I used to have a round trip 1.5 hour commute – that was really difficult and something I really disliked. Now, I travel for work so my total, my weekly commute has increased (lately it’s been cross-country flights) but my daily commute has drastically decreased (anywhere from 5-20 min depending on hotel). I’m still trying to figure out which is the lesser of two evils.

    1. Emily says:

      Not very cheery news! I would expect that the longer weekly commute would be better because you can settle into working during the travel.

  12. SarahN says:

    UGH YES! I hate commuting, and since August I’ve done 1 hr each way (40 minute train, walking each end). Sometimes, I’m away from home 12 hours door to door, and it sucks. I only agreed to this location for a fixed (but unknown) term. The roles have now been advertised, and as promised from the get go, I’m not permanently working in that location!

    That being said, I’ve used the train time to complete reading the bible cover to cover. Now I do a 15-20 minute meditation most mornings. Afternoons, I review Facebook, which isn’t uber productive, but hey! Some mornings and afternoons I also read blog posts, but can’t really comment as I’d like when I’m commuting (browser issues, keypad issues). Funnily enough, like you, I don’t consider a car a solution, partly costs (no where to park it near home for free, with only one car space), but also cause I know that it wouldn’t save time, add stress, and I’d have less exercise too. I really hope I get a role 30 mins walk from home – that’d optimise the cost and health side. Alternatively, there’s a role in a shorter commute, so I’ll ‘settle’ for that too!
    SarahN recently posted..Clothes decluttering

    1. Emily says:

      That’s great that your longer commute didn’t last for too long and that you made the most of the time while you had to. I also sometimes read blogs but don’t comment because of connectivity issues, and I’ve done a Bible study approximately one day per week. It would be awesome to combine commuting and exercise time!

  13. […] and I have transitioned from being a one-car family to being a two-car family once again. I bought my car in 2008 just after I started grad school, and we stopped driving it in 2012 but […]

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