Optimizing My Work Commute: Challenging One of My Money Rules

A little under two years ago, my wife and I moved to a new apartment. There were and still are many nice things about this apartment, but proximity to my office is not one of them. Although the actual distance didn’t change too dramatically, we were suddenly situated on one of the most highly-trafficked highways in Massachusetts, which I quickly found added significant time to my commute. For obvious reasons, this was unpleasant.

And so I embarked on a weeks-long quest to find the perfect commute. Well, not perfect, but certainly better than what I started out with. I want to share this experience with you today with the hope that there is a larger lesson to be learned.


My first goal was to minimize my commuting cost. Between gas and tolls, the drive to and from work every day can really add up. The more I could do to avoid these costs, the better.

My second goal was to minimize my time spent commuting. The more time I spent in the car, the less time I had to be productive at work and the less time I had at home with my family. Neither of these trade-offs were desirable to me.

Initial assumptions

My very first step was to talk to my boss about shifting my work hours. I had typically been working from about 8:30 to 6, which lined up pretty perfectly with the heart of Massachusetts traffic. Luckily, my boss was extremely receptive to me shifting my schedule up 1.5 hrs, which forced me to wake up earlier but let me miss most of the traffic. I still keep that earlier schedule today and it’s incredibly worth it.

My other big initial assumption was one I had been working with since my early working days. The most direct route from my home to my office was on I-90, otherwise known as the Mass Pike. The Pike runs straight across the state and is an extremely efficient route to my office, but it has tolls. $2 each way for me, or $4 per day. I had run the simple calculation for 50 work weeks and come to the conclusion that I was saving $1000 by taking a less direct but toll-less route.

This seemed to hold true for my old place, but at my new apartment the toll-less routes were far less direct. I began getting frustrated at the amount of driving time they required and decided to challenge my long-held assumption that the tolls weren’t worth paying.

The experiment

To test things out, I came up with four potential routes between my apartment and my office. Before the first day of my experiment, I filled up my gas tank. The next day on my way to work, I logged my time departing, my time arriving, the miles traveled and just before I got to my office I stopped and filled up my gas tank to check how many gallons I had used. I did the same thing on my way home.

Each day I tried out a different route and recorded the results. I did this for a few weeks to try and account for as much random variability as possible. In the end, the conclusions were pretty clear.


For the morning commute, one of the three toll-less routes was clearly the best option. It was only a few minutes longer than taking the Pike and my gas mileage was great. As long as I left early enough I was saving almost the entire $4 per day without losing almost anything in terms of time. In this case, my initial assumption about avoiding tolls held true.

The evening commute was a different story. I found that even when I left early, there were still many more cars on the road. This problem was compounded on the smaller roads with fewer lanes. No matter which route I chose, the evening commute was more expensive than the morning one. But I found that the total cost of the Pike, including the tolls, ended up being about the same as the other routes. And the kicker was that the Pike was MUCH quicker and got me home much earlier. So in this case, my assumption was proven to be false.

The lesson

We all have a lot of money “rules” in our head that we live by every single day. In this case, my rule was that I needed to avoid the high cost of tolls. Before this experiment, I hadn’t really spent much time actually evaluating whether that rule was worth living by. It was just my rule and I went with it.

We all need rules like this. Without them, our lives would be filled with constant decision-making and we would spend much of our time paralyzed by uncertainty. But it’s important to periodically take some time to reflect on our personal rules and challenge their validity. In my case, I found that my rule worked half of the time and didn’t work the other half. Because I actually took the time to challenge my own thinking, I was able to come up with a strategy that truly aligned with my goals.

And of course this extends beyond financial decisions. As parents we have many rules about the way things are “supposed to happen”. These expectations can often lead to frustration and disappointment when they’re not met, but they don’t have to. If we can step back and objectively evaluate our thought processes, we’re likely to see that there are often alternatives with outcomes that are just as good or better than what we had hoped for.

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27 Comments... Read them below or add one of your own
  • Laurie @thefrugalfarmer May 20, 2013

    Love what you’ve done here, Matt!! Rick works an earlier shift too, and it’s wonderful skipping rush hour, not only for money savings, but for peace of mind. 🙂

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney May 20, 2013

      I love it. Less time waiting in traffic, more time for the things I want to do. I’m glad Rick was able to work out something similar.

  • Andrew May 20, 2013

    I have a long commute too. Usually about an hour or slightly more. I drop my wife off on my way to work, but she will be leaving her job when we have the baby. At that point, I’m also going to try to shift my hours earlier. I’ve left earlier in the past and traffic runs a lot smoother. I’m lucky in that I do not pass any tolls.

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney May 20, 2013

      I would definitely recommend a shift if you can swing it. Especially with a baby, they go to sleep so early that you really miss them when you get back late. Good luck!

  • Pauline May 20, 2013

    Nice that your boss lets you work early, when I had a job I tried to ask and it made sense since most of my customers were in an earlier time zone. the answer was it would make my coworkers jealous that I leave earlier so it was a no. Even though it would have increased their business, go figure.

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney May 20, 2013

      Wow. I’ve never worked in a real corporate office, so stories like this never cease to amaze me. Usually it’s everything else that’s getting sacrificed for the bottom line though, so this one is just bizarre. I’m glad you’re out of there!

  • Holly Johnson May 20, 2013

    I really like the fact that your boss let you have flexible hours. That is one of the things that I hated about my old job. It was 9-5 and there was no way I could work 7-3 or anything like that!

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney May 20, 2013

      So now that you’re out on your own, what hours do you find yourself working? I feel like I would start at 5 or 6 and either finish early or take a break in the middle of the day.

  • John S @ Frugal Rules May 20, 2013

    That’s awesome your boss was accommodating to changing up your schedule so you could be more efficient with your commute. At my old job we had to jump through numerous hoops to get our schedule changed and is part of the reason why I left.

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney May 20, 2013

      Time flexibility is one of the big perks of my current job, which is great. My boss just really doesn’t get bothered by odd hours as long as the work gets done. I’m very lucky.

  • Matt @ momanddadmoney May 20, 2013

    Eating out seems to be a pretty common one where people don’t realize how their routine is really affecting their finances. Good luck with the changes!

  • Shannon Ryan May 20, 2013

    Great analogy, Matt. We do get so caught up in rules, that we never stop to actually make sure they are correct! I love that you tested your assumptions and actually found which ways save you time AND money. I love the new digs too, glad everything transferred okay!

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney May 21, 2013

      Thanks Shannon. There was a little rough patch in the transition but in the end everything was fine.

      I think that actually testing our assumptions is so important. It’s really the only way to figure out if what we’re doing actually makes any sense.

  • NIce, It’s always good to question assumptions on what you’ve taken for granted. For me the big change lately has been biking to work. I didn’t realize how much I would love it, and the $8 in gas we don’t spend when I take the bike. =)

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney May 21, 2013

      I think it’s awesome that you’re doing that. Just so many benefits to it. I’m glad you’re liking it!

  • squirrelers May 20, 2013

    Sometimes we do have to re-evaluate our assumptions, by taking a step back. It’s good to have time set aside to do such thinking, as odd as it might seem. I find that if I just plow ahead in life and stay busy every minute, I miss out on such opportunities to think of different ways to do things.

    By the way, commuting on really busy roads is no fun, I’ve done it. To the point of having a 1.5 hour commute, though that’s no longer the case now.

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney May 21, 2013

      I definitely agree with setting aside time for thinking. For me though, I don’t find it to be productive when I actively pursue it. If I naturally have pauses during the day though, using them to let your mind work as opposed to just zoning out can lead to huge bursts of creativity.

  • Grayson @ Debt Roundup May 21, 2013

    Nice work Matt. This is stuff that more people should be doing. It is really costing you less to do A over B? If you set up the experiment properly, then you can easily find out what works best and what saves you money and time.

  • Budget & the Beach May 21, 2013

    I love this because it goes to show you that you have to constantly challenge yourself and be flexible with new ways of saving and spending. I was just thinking about this because I’m trying to give up a habit which is healthy, but costing me around $30 per month. Doesn’t seem like much until you add it up with other things, especially when it really isn’t necessary to sustain good health. It’s changing the habits which are the trickiest!

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney May 22, 2013

      Changing the habits can be really difficult. Pauline had a great suggestion somewhere about replacing a bad habit with something more positive. That way you have something to do rather than just trying to quit. I liked that concept a lot.

  • cashRebel May 21, 2013

    Flexible hours are the bomb! Have you tried biking to work? Is there any possibility of public transit? I take a train to a bus every day. It’s a long commute, but it’s soooo much better than facing the soul-crushing traffic every day.

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney May 22, 2013

      I haven’t tried biking. It’s about 20 miles each way, so I’ve always felt like that would be a little much. Serious question: what do bikers do about sweat when they get to work? I feel like that could be a real problem.

      I would love to take public transportation so I could actually accomplish something on the way, but it would take about 2 hours for me each way, so not worth it. Driving is my only reasonable way of getting there at this point. Thanks for the suggestions though.

  • Joel Thompson May 24, 2013

    A few months ago our company rolled out a new set of core values, one of which is Rethink Routine. Your post resonated with me in this vein. Fortunately I have only about a 15 minute commute, which is give or take a minute or two depending on how many red lights I get. But – at one point I basically did what you did and tried different routes to see what was most efficient. (This was after one of the roads I take was changed from one-way to two-way traffic, cutting the driving lanes north from two to one.) I found no other route was better and even so a best case scenario would only save me a couple of minutes at that … so I stuck with the old route. But I share your goals for maximum efficiency!

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney May 26, 2013

      I like that: “Rethink Routine”. Even if you find that your current approach is actually the best one, which it sounds like you did, it’s beneficial to have tested it out. Routines are great but they can be harmful if left unchecked. Thanks Joel.

  • Adam Kamerer January 5, 2014

    I’ve been auditing some of my own “rules” recently. Some of them have held up to the scrutiny, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find that some of the things I’ve been a stickler about weren’t really helping us out and could be discarded. It’s funny how we convince ourselves a certain course of action is the best one, without really doing the work to discover if it really benefits us. Great post, Matt!

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney January 6, 2014

      Right on! It’s very easy to keep on doing something just because it’s what we’ve done in the past. It can be uncomfortable to challenge some of those things, but it can also be incredibly rewarding.

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