This guest post from Duran Valdez is part of the “reader stories” feature at Get Rich Slowly. Some stories contain general advice; others are examples of how a GRS reader achieved financial success — or failure. These stories feature folks from all levels of financial maturity and with all sorts of incomes.
For the past two years, I've been riding a bicycle to work. Mostly because I'm cheap. My commute is a 12-mile round trip along residential streets with a nice downhill stretch that leads me into the parking lot of the school where I work. I've made this trip in 100-degree weather, in fog, and in rain. I've managed to survive pot holes, stray dogs, and the social stigma attached to wearing clothing that looks like it came straight out of an X-Men comic book.
I recently tried to break down the costs and spending of riding for the past year. How much would I have spent on my car if I'd driven instead? How much did the bike cost? What about the commuting equipment? Unfortunately, some of the benefits you can't quantify (you know: health, enjoyment), but I did what I could.
First, during the last year, I've ridden roughly 300 miles a month for strictly utilitarian purposes (I'm not counting my fun rides), which puts me at about 3600 miles for the year. I didn't actually sell my car; I just drove it when I had to haul a load.
Buying a bike
I've primarily ridden a Fuji Cross Comp that I picked up in nearly new condition from someone with buyer's remorse. The bicycle cost me $700, but unlike most modern road bikes, it's designed to handle racks, panniers, fenders, and tires wide enough to handle rough city streets. Other commuters could probably get away with older steel touring bicycles that you can buy for as low as $150-200 used.
Realistically, there's a lot of gear needed to make a bicycle into a form of practical transportation. Here's a rundown of what I consider to be essentials:
- Rear Rack: $30
- Trunk Bag with folding panniers: $70 — This bag clipped on and off my rear rack, and was big enough to hold my laptop, spare clothes, and locks.
- Wind jacket: $5 from a swap meet. Not bad.
- Tool kit/pump/tubes, etc: Roughly $50.
- Gloves: $15
- Wrist ID Bracelet: $12 — Makes me feel a little safer.
- Helmet: $20 from Target.
- Front and rear lights for evening rides: $80
- Fenders: $30
- Clothing: $0 — A couple of bright workout clothes have worked fine for me.
I expect most of this spending will be one time. Still, $312 is a price that makes my eyes water.
What about maintenance? Well, I've had to replace my bike chain once. Also, I had to buy some chain lube to stretch out its life span. Total cost for both? $30. My tires are holding up, but it's likely that I'll only get another 1000 miles before they're worn down to the threads, and I'll have to buy another set for $50. This year maintenance might have been minimal, but when you figure in things like bottom brackets and brake pads wearing out, a more realistic cost of average annual maintenance is likely to be $100.
Additional costs and benefits
I've lost ten pounds (and feel no need to buy a gym membership) in the last year. I show up to work feeling refreshed and energetic and, weather permitting, I get a daily dose of fresh air and sun. I enjoy cycling so much at this point that I avoid driving whenever possible. Two months ago, I challenged myself to get through a month on a single tank of gas–and I managed to finish the month with the tank still half full. And this is while living in Southern California, where even elementary school kids know what color their F-150 will be.
Of course, I've fallen in love with bicycles, which can be quite a pricey hobby. The elegant Velo Orange Randonneur bike I plan on building is going to cost me almost $1500. There's also a time component as well — every work day I spend an extra half an hour commuting to work because I've chosen not to drive.
Costs compared to driving
All right, so figuring in the cost of the bike, average maintenance, and equipment, I've had to spend about $1112 to get through the year. If I'd gone cheap on the bike, this figure could be cut almost in half.
According to the AAA, the national average cost per mile is 58.5 cents. So after putting a little fourth-grade math to work, I figure my driving costs for the year would have been $2106. This means I saved roughly $994, even with such high starting costs. Next year, my savings should be a little more than $2000. Not bad!
And of course, if I really want to make myself salivate, I could always estimate how much next year's savings would do for me if I invested it in an index fund for 20 years…
As gas prices and obesity rates continue to rise, I can't help but wonder why more Americans don't choose two wheels over four. Financially, it seems to make a lot more sense, and when you factor in how cycling can prevent the onset of deadly (and expensive to treat) health conditions like diabetes, it seems like a no-brainer.
Still, America is the first country to mass produce cars, and it's not likely to give up its obsession with cars just yet. However, if gas ever (when?) hits $7 or $8 a gallon, things might change quicker than I imagined.