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!

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Rob
Rob

This is a well balanced look at bike commuting. I save about $5 a day in gas and wear and tear on my car when I bike the 30miles rt to work. It adds up slowly, over time. Investments in bike related things are upfront costs, but do pay for themselves over time the longer you do it. Psychologically, emotionally, and physically, though, I always think it is worth it.

Joan
Joan

Wow! I work at a large public university and I thought our rates were high, but yours are crazy! My lot is $43 per month but we do get free bus passes. I almost always commute by bike when the weather is decent though for all the reasons you mentioned. It is actually far easier than most people think if you live in a city with decent bike infrastructure. Thanks for reminding me of all the reasons I do it!

Jeff Jones
Jeff Jones

Catherine,

All I can say is kudos to you for pushing out of your comfort zone in spite of having negative associations with biking. I believe the personal discoveries are even more important than the financial ones.

Congratulations for sticking it out and seeing where it takes you (sorry, couldn’t resist).

Jeff

Laura
Laura

I have been commuting by bike since October and just calculated whether I had saved any money. My alternative to biking would be an $80 monthly public transportation pass – I have spent $650 on my bike and would have spent $640 on public transportation. But because I still have to take public transportation and pay for it per ride, I am probably even less close to breaking even! The thing is that 1) most of my costs were initial costs that I won’t need to deal with again (fenders, lights, lock, backpack, etc), and 2) I love biking to… Read more »

Jen H
Jen H

I’m only ~4 miles, myself, but the heat in Central FL is just brutal. The roads are even worse. If there was a semi-safe path to work, and a place to shower, I’d love to be able to bike to work.

Jay
Jay

I began working from home about two years ago. Before that, I commuted by bike for 11 years. I love everything about working from home except for missing my commute! Do not discount the benefits of that hour of riding every day (that’s how long my round trip commute was). Now that I work from home, I don’t view it like I’m “getting that hour back” like I would if I drove or took public transit to work; I still need to spend that hour each day on exercise lest my weight get out of control. Turns out that for… Read more »

Jerome
Jerome

Living in the Netherlands, commuting by bike is a given for me whatever the weather. Great to read that other people are starting with it as well.
I have only small comment: In my opinion, wear and tear of the car and petrol are the main part of the calculation. Cars do not like short runs, they use more petrol and the suffer more. Thus biking saves some money but also ensures that your car lasts longer. At least for me that is the main economical reason to bike.

CashRebel
CashRebel

What a great story. Imagine if everyone tried biking just likr you did. It could change the world!

TEB
TEB

I love the idea of biking to work. I live in a rural area nearly 9 miles from work and I drive a well traveled 4 lane. The thought of riding a bike on that road really scares me. I keep thinking about biking hoping I’ll get the courage to do it but the thought of that road keeps me in my car.
Is the savings of the gym membership an actual savings? Did you pay for it before you started biking?

Catherine
Catherine

I did pay for the gym membership in the winter of 2011 (when I stopped biking for the season) in order to get some sort of exercise, and probably would continue to do so if I thought I could never bike in the winter.

Zach
Zach

I’m also a bike commuter in Minneapolis who works at the U (with roughly the same distance to travel), but I do it year-round. I started for the exact same reason – parking rates are just nuts. With a set of snow tires (that’ll run about $120, and they’re good for probably three winters), it’s not hard to do no matter what the weather. I don’t know your route, of course, but the city is pretty good about plowing all of the paths I use (Greenway and Hiawatha trail, mostly). I was able to ride in on the Monday after… Read more »

Michelle at Making Sense of Cents
Michelle at Making Sense of Cents

Biking to work sounds great to me! I wish I could, but it wouldn’t be safe where I life to do that. It’ll be easier once I make the switch to self employment though 🙂

jacqueline
jacqueline

I too live in Florida and it is just so brutally hot and humid most of the year. When it is not so hot, there are still the very unfriendly roads. My husband has been hit by a car 4 times so far! I am just to scared to even chance it. Kudos for the people who do!

Carla
Carla

Your husband is brave! After the 1st time I would have packed it all up. 🙂

Giddings Plaza FI
Giddings Plaza FI

I love that you are foregoing car ownership and biking around! Like you, I biked a lot in college, and just hate it now. So instead, I donated my car a few months ago, and now walk, take the bus, and use carsharing (my city has ZipCar and Car2Go). It’s great to get rid of the responsibilities and massive expense of car owning. http://giddingsplaza.com/2013/03/01/goodbye-saturn-sl1-hello-carsharing/

Barbara
Barbara

I also work at a nearby university. Parking isn’t free, but the bus system is. I elected not to buy a parking pass 2 years ago, and started biking in and bussing on bad weather days. It only took about 6 months before the benefits of biking became clear. 1. I get there sooner! Since my commute is only 3 miles, mostly through back and side streets, biking is actually the fastest option. I can bike door to door in about 20-25 minutes. If I drive, it would be about a 10 minute drive (through all the main road stop… Read more »

Chase
Chase

Ok, I think we all understand now that bike is cheaper than car, and smartphone is cheaper than stupidphone (previous article).

And they each have pros and cons.

Let’s have some new articles.

Chase
Chase

Whoops, got my phones backwards…

Beth
Beth

If you still have your car, you might be saving even more. If you drive infrequently, it will take longer in between regular car maintenance, like oil changes. If you only need to do one or two oil changes a year, you’ll save yourself quite a bit money AND time from not having to drop off your car, maybe sit in the waiting room, etc. And while bikes do occasionally need some maintenance, it’s nowhere near the length of time for a car tuneup (Bonus: You get to hang out in a bike shop, and bike shops are awesome!). Have… Read more »

Catherine
Catherine

Good point about maintenance! I do still own my car, and am going to try the Progressive Snapshot to see if I can save any money that way (in the past two or three weeks I’ve only driven once so hopefully that will be reflected in savings!). Glad to hear that you were able to negotiate a lower rate.

Leah
Leah

You should definitely get a lower rate on your car insurance! I went to grad school in Ann Arbor, so I only drove once a week (to ultimate frisbee at far-away fields and then grocery shopping). My insurance was crazy cheap there, even though Michigan tends to have high auto insurance rates.

SlyO
SlyO

There are so many benefits beyond the money-saving aspects of bicycle commuting. It is a shame more of America doesn’t practice local bike use.

I know in the first year of our marriage, when we relocated to Europe, we quickly embraced the mantra of “When in Rome, does as the Romans do”, and joined the European community in viewing the bicycle as a healthy alternative to helping the wallet stay fuller.

I’m glad those experiences followed us back to the States when we returned to raise a family.

KETRN
KETRN

I’m also in Minneapolis and live 3.5 miles from my workplace. I recently switched to days after working nights for many years and I’m excited about trying to bike to work this year. I can take dedicated bike baths most of the way, but as a female I’m concerned about safety. Also, I’m pretty sure I will not want to be biking when it’s cold or rainy. I only work 3 days a week and my husband often drives me so this wouldn’t be a huge money saver for me, but looking forward to the rides!

Rosa
Rosa

I’ve been bike commuting in Minneapolis since 2000. I live on the south side, and my commute has always been to downtown. I used to work second shift. Personally, I feel pretty safe on the busy streets – Park, Portland, Washington – at night, but I stay off the paths after dark unless I’m with someone. I have noticed the last few years as bike traffic has picked up it’s been pretty easy during rush hour to get in a group of 2-3 riders, and sometimes when I’m out riding with my husband in the evening another rider falls in… Read more »

Nathan
Nathan

It’s sad to hear that Florida’s infrastructure isnt bike friendly. Like Denmark and The Netherlands, with most of the terrain being flat, it would probably be a great place to bike (except for the heat in summer).

Hannah
Hannah

I actually think you’re saving WAY more than you calculated. AAA estimates $0.60/mile for a mid-sized car, including gas, maintenance, depreciation, insurance etc. Let’s assume that you have to carry some of those costs whether you drive the car or not, so cut the price to $0.30 per mile. 14 months x 9 miles per day = $5700! That’s BEFORE the parking costs you calculated. Commuting by car is EXPENSIVE, people!

David S
David S

I think your math is off. Assuming 365 days (it could be leap year) a year and 12 months in a year. (365/12*14=426 days) 426*9=3834 miles. 3834*0.3=$1150.20, so not quite as expensive. Still I’d rather have the 1150 in my bank account instead of spending it on transportation.

Karin
Karin

Congratulations, and thanks for sharing your story! I’ve been an avid cycle commuter for eleven years, since moving to a city where both the weather and the infrastructure support cycling. I have definitely saved money, but for me the best features are not needing a car (I hate driving) and the time saved over (say) catching buses. No more standing around at bus stops. Keep up the good work …

J. Ryan
J. Ryan

Also, if you’re lucky enough your employer might also offer incentives like Commuter Check – http://www.commutercheck.com. I get $20 bucks a month to use for bike supplies, maintenance, etc. It’s really just icing on the cake for all the other benefits biking provides.

Thomas at Your Daily Finance
Thomas at Your Daily Finance

Biking here in Florida is big. More so for leisure as to commuting to work though. I started using public transport awhile back and loved it. Now working from home I should really get a bike and get out more.

Jake @ Common Cents Wealth
Jake @ Common Cents Wealth

I am also from Minneapolis and know exactly the area you’re talking about. I try to bike to work once a week just to get some excercise and save on gas (parking is free at my work), but it gets tough with our terrible weather. I really enjoy seeing the sights from a bike and it’s very relaxing for me. The great thing about my commute is that about 3 out of the 6 mile commute is on a designated bike trail where I can just cruise.

skeptic
skeptic

nice work switching to bike. I’m surprised your cost/benefit didn’t include the gas and maintenance. The gas should be easy to figure out if you know your gas mileage and a ballpark price of gas.

I think once you factor in the gas and maintenance, you’ll find biking was a clear financial winner.

JMV
JMV

I live in NE Missouri and walk 5 blocks to work everyday all year around. Many people think it’s strange that I don’t drive my car. What a backwards society we live in! I need the exercise and it is so hard on my vehicle to drive those short distances. Being in a rural community I still need a car but only drive about 5,000 per year so I save big on insurance, fuel and maintenance.

Ely
Ely

I love this! People wonder why you don’t drive 5 blocks? My sister’s boss lives ON THE SAME BLOCK as the office and STILL drives. There is no way to make that make sense.

Nick
Nick

Can someone help me out with the cost breakdown that she had? She mentioned purchasing the bike for less than $100, but after making it a rain bike (not sure exactly what this is either so if someone wants to describe that as well, that would be great), she says she has nearly $1,100 on bike related expenses. We live next to a bike shop and I window shop there on walks, but the new bikes can range from $400-$1,200. Would it be more advisable to get a new bike or fix one up over time? What costs am I… Read more »

Laura
Laura

Nick, I’m another bike commuter, so here are my two cents. The absolute cheapest route is to find a decent used bike on Craigslist – ideally one that won’t even require “fixing up,” other than perhaps cleaning it and oiling the chain before your first ride (which you’ll need to do as part of bike maintenance anyway). Biking can be as cheap or expensive as you want it to be. At the bare minimum, you’ll need a helmet, a bike pump, some spare inner tubes and some gear to change your tire if you get a flat en route, and… Read more »

Catherine
Catherine

“Rain bike” simply means a bike I am willing to ride in the rain. My nicer bike, which I bought later for around $600, doesn’t have some of the same features as the old bike, such as an internal hub and chain case (these things keep your components safer from the elements, so they work better for poor weather). I don’t like riding my nice bike in the rain, as I want to avoid rust and other issues that can come from it. One hidden cost I discovered was replacing a saddle. I had a quick release saddle and forgot… Read more »

Rosa
Rosa

Rain/snow bike is a good idea. We’re at almost 3 bikes/person around here these days; my husband and I each have a commuter bike and a beater/backup bike (he rides all winter), plus we have a cargo bike, a trailabike, and now the kid has a regular bike too.

All together they cost less than a second car, and take up about as much storage space. The backup bike means not having to drive or bus on those mornings when one of us walks outside and realizes we’ve got a flat.

Kyle @ Debt Free Diaries
Kyle @ Debt Free Diaries

Perfect timing for this post. I’ve been considering picking up riding my bike to work more often now that it’s summer again as a way to save on gas. Sometimes an upfront investment helps save so much money over time!

Jamie
Jamie

I’m pleased that you wrote this article– I’m a bike commuter to my job at a University as well– but I disagree with the way you’ve chosen to do the math. If you are calculating the amount that you’re paying for accessories and tune-ups on the bike, you’ve got to calculate gas and car repairs and auto insurance on the other side. If we’re just looking at parking costs alone, then you’ve saved $917/$952/$630. If you want to calculate the true amount that you’re saving by bicycling, there are a hell of a lot more driving expenses that will blow… Read more »

Matt
Matt

Came to make the same point as Jamie – you’re counting your bike maintenance/upkeep costs, but you have ignored costs of BUYING the car, as well as insurance and maintenance.

In some situations the cost of the car itself isn’t appropriate to work in – if you must have it for other purposes than commuting, for example – but in this case, the purchase was clearly an option since you didn’t have the car for some time.

Eric Pulsifer
Eric Pulsifer

I’m not even thinking about the dollars-and-cents angle, though I’ve ridden my bike to work for years. But I’ve noticed that biking takes about the same amount of time as taking a bus here in Charleston, SC. I found this also holds true in most cities I’ve lived in. Interesting, no? A recommendation: Rain gear. I carry a two-piece set rolled up on the bike carrier; sturdy rain pants and poncho (which protects the laptop in my backpack). Don’t bother with a jacket then; the rain gear holds heat and keeps you toasty once you get about a half mile… Read more »

sabiner
sabiner

I am surprised to see the expenses you have for biking. I am bicycling to work during the summer months (take a bus during the winter due to the snow and ice) and have saved a lot compared to buying a monthly bus pass. My only expenses have been a decent quality second hand bike for $50 and a lock for few of dollars – that’s approximately the cost of a one month bus pass. I have been using this bike for over a year now.

Kris L.
Kris L.

I tried it out for Bike to Work week this year, and I loved it. I live in Sacramento, it’s mostly flat – makes for an easier ride. There are some scary parts to the ride (crossing over freeway entrances), but I feel better when I ride. Luckily, my gym is a few blocks from work so I can get a get more of a workout in, and shower before I need to go to work.

Russell Matthews
Russell Matthews

A great breakdown of the cost analysis. I bike everywhere, everyday. I love it but I do feel it is dangerous in busy cities. Make sure to ride carefully and obey all traffic laws – safety first, always.

Ian
Ian

You are coming out ahead for sure. Once you figure in gas and the other non-monetary benefits you receive, there is no way you are not. Great job!

notb
notb

Unfortunately the “frugality” of commuting by bicycle is not that obvious. Cycling needs fuel and unfortunately food is much more expensive than petrol. Some people can benefit – if they’re not very fit or they tend to eat to much, cycling will be perfect. However, for a fit (or slim) person this will mean an extra demand for calories and the extra cost can’t be ignored. In the cheapest approach (sweets based on milk & nuts) this will mean an extra Snickers (or 2) a day. In my city (Warsaw, Poland) this is more or less equal to the cost… Read more »

csdx
csdx

Actually human bodies are amazingly efficient. I believe the statistic I’ve heard tossed around is that if humans could run off gasoline, a cyclist would be able to get an equivalent of around 500 miles per gallon.

Also buying junk food is a terribly inefficent way to add more calories to your diet. A box of pasta has several thousand calories and is under a buck, that should have you set for a few days.

APC
APC

To find your fuel savings just divide the cost of gas per gallon by your vehicle’s average MPG and multiply the result by the number of miles traveled. So for example my truck gets around 16 MPG which means at the current Kansas City price of $3.55/gal it costs me $0.22 per mile, not including vehicle wear-and-tear and depreciation. Given my office is about 15 miles from my home, at the current gas price it costs me $6.60 per day to drive to work vs $2.38 per day to take the bus with a $50 monthly pass.

Kendra
Kendra

I live in New Orleans and am lucky enough to live only a mile from my work, so I walk a lot during the spring and fall. However, during the summer it’s just too darn hot to walk anywhere, but I’ve discovered that if I hop on my bike in the morning right out of the shower, I stay cool enough on the bike ride to keep from getting too sweaty and gross. Plus, it dries my hair for free. (Silly, but it works for me.) 🙂

Dan
Dan

Hello, I live where it is pretty warm year round, highs of 40 in winter, and I started bike commuting about a month ago, 3.5 miles each way. I think you are being super conservative about your cost savings. I have owned cars paid by myself since I was 16 and can assure you, 50 cents per mile is a reasonable estimate when you add up, 1. Massive cost to purchase even a used car 2. Wear and tear, any repairs or even maintenance are expensive. 3. Insurance although you can decrease this through higher deductibles and dropping full coverage… Read more »

Jeff_Thomson!
Jeff_Thomson!

I am sure not only Minneapolis but each and every place in this world is wonderful for cycling and cyclists 🙂
I can very well relate with your experience, it quite resembles mine but the only difference is that I enjoyed cycling since childhood.It is such a blessing for saving!

GPunto
GPunto

I live in London (UK) where cycle commuting has almost doubled in the last few years. My commute is 8 miles each way from SW to central London. I do not own a car and my comparison is against public transport fares (tube and buses) which is £5 a day (minimum). All cycling related expenses (bike, accessories, clothing, lights, maintenance, spares, etc.) totalled £ 1580. I have cycled to work 271 days so far, thus saving £1355 in tube fares. Basically, if I cycle to work for further 42 days I will get even with my all expenses, and I… Read more »

larsjaeger
larsjaeger

sturdy rain pants and poncho Don’t bother with a jacket then; the rain gear holds heat and keeps you toasty once you get about a half mile i you’ve got to calculate gas and car repairs and auto insurance on the other side

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