This article is by editor Linda Vergon.

This year, my husband decided to commute to work again – on his bicycle. He’s not alone. The number of people commuting by bike has increased every year since 2009, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Back then, it was just over 687,000 Americans that biked to work. By 2014, the figure had climbed to more than 832,000.

What’s surprising is that the number of active commuters has never even reached 1 percent of the commuting public given how difficult it’s been to make a living during the same period.

Female bicycle commuter

Surprising numbers

In our case, Terry’s commute is 35 miles round trip. So using the IRS standard mileage rate for business miles driven (down to $.54 cents in 2016), taking the car to work for 240 days of the year would cost $4,536. Add to that the parking fees of $26 a day. That’s another $4,320 annually if we opt for the $360 monthly rate. It’s hard to swallow $8,856 for annual transportation costs when the League of American Bicyclists estimates that commuting by bike costs a mere $308. Really.

How to find deals

Even though you can save a tremendous amount riding to work, it still costs quite a bit to get set up. Especially if you’re just starting out and have to buy a bike or even get new gear, these expenses can really whittle down potential savings if you’re not careful.

To fund your biking commute for less, adopt an aggressive approach to buying what you need. Here’s how:

  • Visit every bike store you can. There are thousands of bike stores across the nation. When you go on a trip, even if you just go to a nearby county, keep your eyes open for new shops. Stop in, talk to the salespeople, ask about prices and if there are any deals.
  • Scour Craigslist and eBay. Every day, new listings come up for bikes, frames, gear clusters, saddles, brakes, pedals, panniers – literally every accessory you might need for biking or commuting. As you shop at local bike stores, you develop a sense of the retail price of each of these items and can spot a deal more easily.
  • Read reviews online. It really helps to read the online reviews when you’ve decided on a particular item. Other commuters are really generous about their experience with a product, so you get a better idea of what to buy and what didn’t work for others. You might also find the best place to buy something, too.
  • Sign up for online stores’ newsletters. Some online retailers give their customers advance notice of upcoming sales. If you’re looking for a specific item, you can score some pretty good deals this way.
  • Drive a hard bargain. If you’ve done all this shopping and searching, you’re less likely to be overcharged – but you might also be able to push a little bit to pay even less.

How to tame the expense

For example, Terry wouldn’t have found his current bike, Flame, if he hadn’t asked a local bike shop clerk if they had any bikes in his size for less. It turned out that a new bike had recently been returned. Apparently, the original owner decided it wasn’t the right size for him and traded it back in.

It was just a frame. Brand new, it would have cost about $1,200. The store started out offering the frame and fork for $600 knowing it would be hard to sell a now-used frame in a size that wouldn’t fit most people. Luckily, Terry is tall, but he still worked to get the price down to what he could afford, $375, since he also had to buy the rest of the components to build the bike.

Frames

You can save anywhere from $300 to $1,000 on a bike frame. But if you don’t know a lot about bikes, if you’re not a bike mechanic and wouldn’t know how to rebuild a bike, it’s important to talk to the salespeople about what you’re hoping to do.

Take different bikes out for a test drive and see what’s comfortable and what you like. Start to understand the brands and various components of the bike – and make note of the brand name, model, and retail price you’d have to pay brand new. But go to a lot of bike stores, not just the one down the street.

Then search for those brands and components on Craigslist or eBay, too, just to see what you can find. Do this over a period of months to get a broad base of knowledge about the bike frame you want so you can spot a deal when it comes up. Keep visiting different bike shops and talk to people, asking them to contact you if any deals come up.

Buyer beware

  • Be careful about online purchases. Make sure you can actually go see any frame you’re interested to buy. The frame needs to be capable of having the latest equipment on it, so it needs to be newer (not older than 10 years old) because otherwise the new components won’t work on it. You want to make sure to get a recognized brand. Custom-made frames sometimes use off-standard sizes and which means you’d need specialized components just for those frames.
  • Look out for used carbon fiber frames. Carbon fiber frames hide their damage better than most aluminum and steel frames. And a damaged carbon fiber frame – or a fake frame – could literally come apart on your ride someday.

    Fake carbon fiber frames are difficult to spot unless you really know a lot about how they are manufactured. Authentic carbon fiber bikes typically have serial numbers that you can trace with the manufacturer. Get to know where to find the serial number and check it online with the manufacturer. Don’t buy it if it’s not listed with the manufacturer! If you’re in doubt, take a qualified bike mechanic with you.

Drivetrains

Depending on the type of bike and your preferences, a new drivetrain can cost from $300 to over $1,000. The drivetrain includes the pedals, cranks, chainrings, chain, cassette, and the derailleur. (For example, a basic Shimano drivetrain group set, like Tiagra, runs about $325 brand new.) On Craigslist, you can find a used drivetrain group set for something like $250. Commuters might want to consider a $300 to a $700 set because of heavy use, but in general, you can save from $150 to $500 or about 25 to 50 percent.

Think about use

When it comes to replacing drivetrains and other components of your bike, the saying “your mileage may vary” definitely applies. These are estimates, of course, but a cassette is usually good for about 5,000 to 8,000 miles depending on how well you take care of it. The chainrings are good for about 8,000 to 10,000 miles. Bottom brackets and shifters are about the same, 8,000 to 10,000 miles.

Basically, most of the components should last between three to five years, except for the rear gear cluster which would last anywhere between two to three years depending on how many miles you ride and the conditions.

Saddles

A good saddle may last 20 years, and a Kmart saddle may only last a year or less. It is really a matter of comfort, and you’ll want to try different saddles at a bike store and have them measure you. Here again, you can learn a lot by talking to salespeople and reading reviews online.

When you find a saddle that is comfortable and works for you, start looking online at Craigslist or eBay. Terry bought his Selle Evolution SMP for $75 from someone through Craigslist. It sells for $192 to $274 brand new. I ended up changing my saddle after a few years, too, and we found one for $60 through Craigslist – but new, it sells for $95 to $125 depending on the color.

Consumables

You can buy brake pads, tubes, tires, chains, and cables at local bike shops very easily, but it’s great to find a bargain for them because you’re replacing them a lot. This is where signing up for emails with online retailers pays off. Try to stock up on tubes and tires when you get word of a sale from a major bicycle parts supplier.

For instance, Terry bought four tires from Western Bike Works at $37 apiece. Normally, they run $75 apiece. But he also monitors other stores because sometimes a store runs a sale right after another store’s sale ends.

We just visited a new local bike shop and learned that they sell tubes for $7 apiece, which is a dollar less than any other store we’ve seen. Jensen USA, based out of Los Angeles, stocks hard-to-find bicycle parts too.

On the rest of the stuff, if you want to upgrade something, look on Craigslist or eBay to find replacements. Typically, you wind up paying about 25 to 50 percent less than what it would cost new at a store.

Clothing and accessories

We always buy our bike clothing new – but we look for sales. Like our Showers Pass Elite 2.1 rain jackets sell for $249 each, but we pounced on a sale and bought them for $137 each.

Lights, panniers, backpacks, mirrors, and tools can also be found on sale or on Craigslist or eBay. Always read reviews about these items to find the best product at the best price.

Selling old parts

Somewhere down the road, you may decide you want to try a different saddle or drivetrain. Obviously, try to find your best deal first. Then once you replace the item and decide to keep it, sell the old, used item to get whatever you can and defray your costs.

Be very clear about condition

It’s important to give people the best information about the condition of the parts you’re selling so they can make a good decision about what they’re buying too. That’s what we want when we purchase someone’s used item, and so we do the same whenever we sell something online.

Sometimes people find that a new item doesn’t work for them for some reason, and they’ve already gotten something they like better and just want to get rid of the first item as quickly as possible or get something for it at least. That was the case with both of our saddles.

What you might spend to save

A good bike for commuting could run you about $1,500, and you might want to figure another $600 to buy the clothing and accessories you’ll need. The bike should last about five years with regular maintenance, and the clothing gear should last about 3 years. Assuming you’ll ride about 4,000 miles a year, you might expect to spend $1,393 every year. Here’s how it breaks down:

  • Bike depreciation (5-year life span) — $300
  • Tune-up — $100
  • Tires (2 at $70) — $140
  • Tubes (4 at $7) — $28
  • Brake pad replacements — $20
  • Chain — $20
  • Bar tape — $25
  • Miscellaneous — $200
  • Lights — $200
  • Backpack or panniers — $150
  • Clothing depreciation (3-year life span) — $200

Terry’s had his bike since 2001, so our outlay so far this year to get him ready to commute was closer to $500 for a waterproof backpack, two new rims, heavy-duty gloves, and a rain cover for his helmet. We’re not taking depreciation into account on his bike anymore, but we expect to pay for regular maintenance and consumables – probably another $500. So even just considering the $4,320 in parking charges, we stand to make a nice $3,000 deposit into our online saving account at least this year. Yea!

Have you considered commuting to work on your bike? What do you think you could save? Would you do this to get out of debt or boost your savings?

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