Bicycle commuting and frugality
This is a guest post from Catherine. She is 27 and was born and raised in Minneapolis, Minn. where she resides with her cat, Monty. She has a bachelor's degree in psychology and is trying to figure out her career path.
Some reader stories contain general advice; others are examples of how a GRS reader achieved financial success or failure. These stories feature folks with all levels of financial maturity and income.
I began bicycle commuting regularly 14 months ago. Living in Minneapolis, one of the top rated bicycle-friendly cities in the country, it has been mostly a joy (I say “mostly” as I look out the window and cringe to see snow still falling on May 3rd).
I recently crunched some numbers to see how much money (if any) commuting to work by bicycle has saved me. I live 4.5 miles away from my job at a public university. If you work at or attend a university, you may know that parking is highly valued and extremely hard to come by. Staff members do not get free parking. Ever.
So here are two of the most obvious options available to me: Monthly parking contract in a university lot a ways from my office: $65.50 per month or a monthly bus pass through the university: $68 per month
The Journey to Bicycle Fanatic Begins
When I got my job three and a half years ago, I didn't own a car, so I used the bus pass. I had taken the bus all through college, so it wasn't a big change for me. The bus was frustrating for a number of reasons due to my location (which always required at least one transfer, if not more), so I saved up for a car. While saving up in the spring of 2011, I bought a bike from Craigslist mostly on a whim for under $100.
I had not regularly ridden a bike since before high school, and I didn't have particularly fond memories of that anyway. Riding bikes made me think of being sweaty, red-faced, sore and tired from the effort of pedaling. But for some reason, I had purchased this heavy 3-speed from the '70s, and there it sat — unused in my living room — while I waited for that cold and rainy spring to turn into summer.
Once it finally warmed up, I took a test commute. Minneapolis is a wonderful place for cyclists. My route to my workplace was one fourth on-street with no bicycle infrastructure, and the rest of the way on a separated bike path. Once on the path, it was a stunningly beautiful journey. A journey which, I discovered, was best enjoyed from the saddle. Riding along the Mississippi river, past tree-filled parks and through the Mill District, I forgot about getting sweaty and tired and was instantly hooked. I kept my bus pass that summer, continuing to save for a car for the dreaded winter months ahead. It began to bother me that I was paying for the bus even on days that I didn't use it.
When I had enough money to pay for a car in full, I did so in the winter of 2011. That winter was mild and, looking back, I wish I would have biked through it. But I drove, opting for a parking contract.
The Summer I Got Serious
In March 2012, I cancelled my parking contract after finding a parking lot a bit of a hike away from the office, but with a daily rate of $1.75. I planned on biking whenever I could, and on days with bad weather or other adverse circumstances, I would park in the lot. That way, I would only pay for parking when I needed it. I budgeted for parking every workday and then put whatever I didn't spend into savings at the end of the month. (The savings were earmarked for — what else — future bike purchases.)
I continued to ride my clunky 3-speed, but realized I would probably need to upgrade. At that point I had spent around $120 on bike-related expenses. In July, I bought a new bike, fenders, a bag, and an air pump for a bit under $600. I held on to the 3-speed as a backup.
I biked to work regularly through the first week in December. Conditions after that were so bad that I was not able to bike safely for weeks on end. I drove, and the parking rate had been raised to $2 a day.
In April of this year, the daily rate at that lot was discontinued, leading to a $1/hour rate. The cheapest lot I can find now is $4/day, which is cheaper than the $4.50 that the bus would cost. I expect that parking costs will continue to go up.
The Nitty Gritty
So, after all is said and done, have I saved money?
Parking contract for 14 months: $917
Bus pass for 14 months: $952 (plus many, many headaches and lots of wasted time)
Daily rate lot for 14 months: about $630
I recently took my 3-speed into the shop for an overhaul to be used as a rain bike. Once that is done, I will have spent over $1,100 on bike-related expenses. So it looks like I still have a bit to go before I break even if I had used the daily rate lot, which will be difficult considering I would like to invest in some waterproof gear to go with my newly tuned-up rain bike.
I didn't factor in gas because I still haven't figured out a seamless system for budgeting it. I imagine I've saved at least a bit. If you consider that when I commute by bicycle I get an hour of exercise, it eliminates the need for a gym membership. So, considering that a membership at the university gym would cost $224 for 14 months, I get closer to breaking even.
It also saves time because I am exercising while commuting. Time is money! Some things that can't be calculated are all the intangible benefits I have received from biking.
- I have discovered a passion that I didn't know I had.
- I have become involved in volunteering with a bicycle advocacy group and have made interpersonal connections.
- I have done something small to benefit the environment.
- I have enjoyed all the beauty that my city and the surrounding area have to offer.
To me, that will always be worth it. I encourage those interested in bike commuting to just try it. Perhaps your city has a bike-share program like the one in Minneapolis/St. Paul. Or maybe you have an old mountain bike hidden under some cobwebs. Or you could luck out on a cheap Craigslist bike. You may discover that you, too, have a hidden passion for bicycling, and it may also end up saving you some dough!