Gas: It May Be Cheap, But It’s Not Free!

My American-based friends have been crowing about the amazing gas prices they are enjoying.  I am delighted for all of you, and I hope you are putting that money to good use!  While you’re enjoying the great prices, don’t forget that  transportation costs are still the second or third largest item in a family’s budget.  Remaining aware of your transportation costs and using smart strategies can still result in significant savings.

Just as an example, let’s take the average commute of a DC area service member.  I can not find actual numbers (amazing, isn’t it?) but I’m going to make a conservative estimate of 20 miles each way, or 40 miles round trip.  Now let’s assume that our average commuter is driving an average car that gets 25 miles to the gallon.  Some simple math shows that this person is using 1.6 gallons of gas each day.  That 1.6 gallons is a lot less painful at $2.00 a gallon ($3.20 per day) than at $4.00 a gallon ($6.40 per day), but it is still a significant expensive.  With a five-day work week and four weeks of leave a year, even at $2.00 per gallon this driver is spending $768 a year on fuel just to get back and forth to work.  If you live more than 20 miles from work, or spend a ridiculous amount of time sitting in traffic, these costs obviously jump.

For many people, just driving for work would be a dream because their average week includes driving to the grocery store, the library, the post office, the bank, to and from childcare, the gym, sports, kids’ schools, and even the gas station.  According to the Department of Transportation, the average working-age driver racks up approximately 15,000 miles per year.  That’s $1,200 in fuel, with our 25mpg sample car and $2.00 per gallon prices.

I’m not even getting into the other costs associated with using a car, such as purchase price or lease payments, registration fees, insurance, personal property taxes, and maintenance and repairs.  That’s way too much for one small piece.

If thinking about all this makes you want to decrease your driving, you’re smart.  How can you make that happen?  Some driving is inevitable, and very few of us are lucky enough to live somewhere where going without a car is a reasonable option.  But there are things you can do:

  1. Plan ahead.  Thinking about your week (or day, or month) as a whole may be the single fastest way to cut driving.  Maybe you could wait and go to the ATM when you are already going to the grocery store nearby, but that would mean that you would have to take out enough cash to get you to the next trip.  Does one family member work or routinely travel near a particular errand?  How many trips can you combine?
  2. Eliminate unnecessary errands.  It might take a few minutes to figure out how to deposit a check from your phone, but if it saves you a bank trip several times a year, that is a good investment of your time.  Did you know you can purchase stamps online and have them mailed to your house?
  3. Carpool.  If you have children, you must get out there and meet the parents of other kids who are participating in the same activities as your children.  Even occasionally ride sharing will save money, plus it saves time.
  4. Re-evaluate your ability to walk or ride a bike.  In many places, a lot of errands are within walking distance IF you change your mindset.  For example, in our Maryland neighborhood, the grocery store, library, and post office were all within a 20 minute walk.  No one every walked; they always drove.  There is no reason that most people can not put on a pair of sturdy shoes and walk 20 minutes, except that we are out of the habit of walking.  Trips like this are a bonus because they are also good exercise.  A backpack, market trolley or even wagon can help you with larger loads.

While I hope that everyone is enjoying the lower gas prices, don’t forget that driving still costs money.  A little pre-planning and small steps can decrease your driving distances dramatically, meaning even more found money!

About the Author

Kate Horrell
Kate Horrell is a military financial coach, mom of four teens, and Navy spouse. She has a background in taxes and mortgage banking, and a trove of experience helping other military families with their money. Follow her on twitter @realKateHorrell.
  • Amanda

    My husband works in DC and we live about 30 miles away. Yeah it adds up. Luckily, our work car has pretty good mileage.

  • Cat

    and my dear retired husband drives 35 miles to his current job and we live in CA, where gas is about 50 cents more than the national average, so the drop of about $2 from a couple of years ago has meant about $1800 a year savings. It has been used to pay our gas and electric bills, which has gone up close to 20%, our grocery bills that have gone up about the same, etc. Anything extra goes into the “rainy day fund.” (and, our vehicle is now 10 years old, so that rainy day fund will be emptied to buy another one in 2-3 years.. and, yes, we pay cash or we don’t pay)

  • RichMcKinney

    I live in Norfolk. And I made the choice to pick a house close to work, 8 miles. Then the Navy decided to move the organization. My commute is now 27 Miles. If I take Public Transportation, it went from a 45 min bus ride to a 3 hour ride each way.