The Surprising Costs of Your Commute
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The Surprising Costs Of Your Commute

I usually leave the house each morning at 6:50. I hop in the car and drive to the train station, usually getting there around 7:05. I spend eight minutes waiting on the platform, using that time to catch up on news or download a podcast for my train ride. My train arrives at 7:13, and I get off at 8:02. From the train station, I walk 1.2 miles to the office, usually arriving by 8:30. My total commute time? An hour and forty minutes, one way.

According to the United States Census Bureau, I’m an “extreme commuter.” About 3.5 million Americans are also extreme commuters, averaging more than ninety minutes each way. One in six spend more than forty-five minutes commuting each way, while the average American spends about twenty-four minutes.

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For most people, commuting is the worst part of their day. In 2006, Princeton professors Daniel Kahneman (Winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics) and Alan Krueger published a paper titled “Developments in the Measurement of Subjective Well-Being.” In the study they surveyed 900 Texan women on common activities, including working, intimate relations, housework, and commuting in both the morning and evening. Of nineteen surveyed activities, the morning commute was rated the least enjoyable.

Additional research has backed Kahneman and Krueger’s conclusions. Findings have shown that a long commute has negative effects on an individual’s physical health, mental health, and social life. Considering these adverse effects, is your commute worth it?

Physical Health Concerns

Generally speaking, the more time we spend commuting, the less time we spend exercising or fixing our own meals, leading to a higher chance of obesity. Thomas J. Christian of Georgia State University found that we are less likely to spend money grocery shopping, opting instead to spend that money eating out and grabbing fast-food. Christian’s research also discovered that longer commute times make people more likely to opt for lower-intensity exercise and sleep less than their lightly-traveled peers. (See: What Is A Healthy Body Weight For Males And Females?)

A survey issued by the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index found that one in three extreme commuters are more likely to experience recurrent neck and back problems. UCLA and Cal State-Long Beach found vehicles miles to be the highest-correlated variable with obesity.

Long commutes make us more likely to spend more money eating out, forego exercise, sleep less, experience body aches, and gain weight. And that’s just the physical effects.

Mental Health Problems

Long commute times also lead to increased mental stress and diminished workplace productivity. The Gallup survey found that 40% of workers who commute more than ninety minutes each way experienced worry for much of the previous day. For workers with a negligible commute, deemed to be under ten minutes, this number fell to 28%. In addition to spending more time worrying, the study found that extreme commuters were less likely to experience enjoyment than their peers with negligible commutes.

Christian also studied workplace behavior, attempting to understand whether commuting or the total length of the workday had a significant effect on workers. In comparing a worker who had a one hour commute and a ten-hour workday and a worker with a negligible commute and a twelve-hour workday, he found that the latter had healthier habits. Though both workers spent the same total amount of time getting to work and actually working, the two hours spent commuting prove to be the difference. Having a negligible commute leads to healthier habits and allows workers to devote more time to their daily tasks.

From a manager’s perspective, it could be reasoned that a worker with a negligible commute is more attractive than one with an hour-long commute. Maintaining a workout regimen and healthy diet have a positive correlation with workplace productivity, and given Christian’s example, better allow workers to spend more productive time at work than their commuting counterparts.

Bruno Frey and Alois Stutzer, two economists at the University of Zurich, found that for an extra hour of commuting time, a worker would need a 40% salary increase to justify the time they spend commuting. Analyzing this from a manager’s point-of-view, not only are commuting workers more sleep-deprived and stressed, they are also more expensive due to the massive increase needed to make their commute worthwhile.

Uh-oh. It’s not looking good for me.

Social Life Disappearing

Between the time you spend commuting to work, the time you spend at work, and the time you spend commuting from work, the majority of the day is gone. Even after assuming that extreme commuters get less sleep than the average American, there is a short amount of free time to be enjoyed. Robert Putnam, a Harvard University professor and author of Bowling Alone, identifies long commuting times as one of the foremost indicators of social isolation.

For Putnam, the social isolation golden ratio is as follows: For every ten minutes one spends commuting, he or she can expect ten percent fewer “social connections.” According to Putnam, over the past twenty-five years, Americans have also experienced a 58% attendance drop in club meetings, a 43% decrease in family dinners, and a 35% decline in having friends over.

Applying this to my case, the ninety minutes I spend commuting would theoretically lead to a 90% decrease in my social connections. Right off the bat, this makes sense. My social life currently consists of occasionally going out to dinner, attempting to go to bed at a reasonable hour, and watching The Sopranos when I’m unable to fall asleep. As Putnam points out, “Watching commercial entertainment TV is the only leisure activity where doing more of it is associated with lower social capital.”

It’s really not looking good for me.

Perhaps the most troubling statistic is provided by Umea University in Sweden. Researchers found that marriages in which one partner commutes at least forty-five minutes are 40% more likely to end in divorce. So not only does longer commute times drive you towards social suicide, it also places significant strain on marriages.

Weighing the Costs and Benefits

Let’s take a quick look at the most popular reason people choose to live far from where they work: buying a home.

Real estate agents often say “Drive until you qualify.” Though purchasing a home for a growing family comes with significant costs such as a down-payment, mortgage, and property tax, there are plenty of tangible benefits that come from buying your own place. It’s understandable how someone can justify their commute by pointing to the big backyard their kids play in, or the extra bedroom for their parents, or the nursery for their newborn. These reasons will continue to remain valid, and can be a bigger source of personal joy than the additional income saved by renting a cheaper apartment.

Transportation becomes a more significant cost the further away from work you live. Driving is expensive and comes with plenty of variable costs, including gas, car insurance, and vehicle maintenance.

Economists often point to cost of time as the one factor people fail to consider. Is it worth it moving to the house with the backyard your kids play in if you can’t spend as much time playing with them? How much is the time you spend commuting worth in terms of time you can’t spend with your family and friends? Is it worth not spending that extra hour exercising, sleeping, or socializing?

Ultimately, the question of whether it’s better to live closer to work or farther to work comes down to the intangible benefits of each. By living closer to work, you know that your physical health, mental health, and social life will have a better chance of thriving. Living further away from work could let you buy your dream house or find a great school district for your kids. It’s up to you to decide which provides you more happiness.

Readers, how far is too far of a commute? Given all the detriments of a long commute, does this mean prime property closer to work will simply increase further in value? Will longer commutes allow for more flexible work hours or the creation of location-independent businesses? 

Photo Credit: Muni Diaires

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The content contained in this blog post is intended for general informational purposes only and is not meant to constitute legal, tax, accounting or investment advice. You should consult a qualified legal or tax professional regarding your specific situation. Keep in mind that investing involves risk. The value of your investment will fluctuate over time and you may gain or lose money.

Any reference to the advisory services refers to Personal Capital Advisors Corporation, a subsidiary of Personal Capital. Personal Capital Advisors Corporation is an investment adviser registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). Registration does not imply a certain level of skill or training nor does it imply endorsement by the SEC.

Arun Sundaresan is a Portfolio Management Intern at Personal Capital. Arun has previously worked at Citigroup in London, and spent time at Personal Capital last summer. He is currently studying Finance at Washington University in St. Louis.
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