Michael on August 22nd, 2008
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Like it or not, your commute is one of the most important parts of your day. A really bad one in the morning can set your whole day off in the wrong direction the same way an otherwise good, productive day at the office can still be sabotaged (and ruin your evening) by an accident in the left-hand lane that causes your commute time to double. While now my commute is typically less than half a mile (except when I’m on the road), I’ve had my share of different commuting methods during my career:

  • Train
  • Subway
  • Car
  • Foot
  • Bike
  • Boat
  • Airplane

You: You commuted by airplane?

Indeed. For nearly two years I lived in Chicago and worked in New Jersey.

You: How do you have any credibility to talk about saving strategies? Doing that seems moronic.

From a lifestyle standpoint or a monetary one?

You: Honestly? Kind of both.

I can’t totally argue with the lifestyle impact, but I had to live in Chicago because my wife was still a student there and then my company agreed to pay the expenses of getting me back and forth to NJ.

You: Gotcha.

Although most people don’t have 800+ mile trips to work, many of our commutes do provide us choices. Our decisions impact how quickly we get to work, how much it costs to get there, how tired we are when we arrive, and, quite often, our mood. In yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, Neal Templin discusses his decision (as well as that of thousands of NJ residents) to take the PATH train (a subway) instead of a ferry across the Hudson River into New York City.

Although the name of his column is “Cheapskate,” I’m not sure this decision alone renders him a cheapskate. After all, he might (although I doubt it) spend frivorously on his lunches, which would make his commuting decision relatively unimportant.

Rather than cheap, I’d prefer to think of Mr. Templin as simply prioritizing his spending.

You: How do you know he just doesn’t like boats? Maybe he had a bad sea-sickness experience?

It’s a river, not an ocean.

The ferry costs $5 to ride one-way, whereas the PATH charges $1.75. Needless to say, choosing one over the other makes a big financial difference at the end of the year. If you’re looking to be frugal, the PATH is the choice to make.

You: Is that what you would do?

Yes, I’d probably take the train most days. But certainly not everyday. On some of the really nice weather days I’d ride the ferry, both for the change of pace and as an occasional reward. But that’s only because I love being outside and the thought of being on a boat after a day in Manhattan would seem quite liberating.

But, to be clear, I have no problem with those who choose to ride the more expensive ferry everyday either.

You: Why not?

It’s a choice. It’s the same reason Your Problem Isn’t Starbucks. In the grand scheme of things, a $5 ferry ride is a minor expense. Sure, it’s a recurring minor expense which is why it deserves much more analysis and thought than buying salt at the supermarket, but this isn’t a house or car purchase decision either. No one finances their ferry fare.

If it gives you much greater satisfaction to ride the ferry, than do so. Just recognize that it’s a choice. That money (the difference in fare) is coming from somewhere. On the other hand, if you don’t so much mind riding the PATH (or taking a comparatively less expensive but realistic commuting option in your life), then go that way.

Ultimately, if you choose to spend only on the things you value highly, it’s amazing what you can afford – even if it might be something that folks who ride the ferry everyday – wouldn’t (or couldn’t) — spend money on.

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What kind of commuting decisions do you make, implicitly, everyday. What are the financial implications? Happy with your choices? Your decision?

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