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.
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.
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.
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.