(NerdWallet) – People who drive to work day in and day out have likely grown weary of hearing about the growth (and then partial reversal) of working from home. The rising costs of their commute no doubt add insult to injury.
The share of people working from home increased dramatically in 2020 and remains higher now than before the pandemic. But the overwhelming majority of U.S. employees — 77% of them — still commute. That’s 124 million workers on the road in 2022, according to recently released American Community Survey data from the U.S. Census Bureau. This is at a time when vehicle ownership costs are up considerably.
In-person workers are less likely to be high earners. Jobs in lower-earning service and manufacturing industries can’t be done remotely like those in many tech and professional fields. Lower relative wages make increased commuting costs tough to handle (along with sharing the road again with higher-earning workers getting called back to their perk-rich offices).
Commuter numbers rise by 7.5 million in 2022
The number of commuters — those driving themselves or carpooling — has begun recovering from the pandemic decline but hasn’t reached pre-pandemic levels, according to American Community Survey data. In fact, though the total number of workers in 2022 exceeded the number of workers in 2019, the number of commuters still remains lower.
That said, more than 124 million Americans commuted in 2022, accounting for 77% of workers. Though some remote workers are being called back to the office, it’s widely believed that working from home will remain more common now than it was before 2020. Even so, commuters will long outnumber telecommuters.
Commuter vehicles reach 116 million as ownership costs rise
In 2022, Americans used 116 million vehicles in their commuting, up from 110 million the year prior, according to the U.S. Census Bureau data. And during that time, the costs associated with those vehicles were growing considerably.
The costs of owning a vehicle grew at a double-digit rate every month from April 2021 to November 2022, according to this NerdWallet Vehicle Ownership Costs Index. That growth has slowed in 2023, but fuel prices continue to hold it aloft. Ownership inflation was 11% in September. And since 2019, the costs — including gas, repairs and maintenance, parking, insurance and licensing costs — have risen 35%.
Commuter cost-saving strategies
If you’re among the millions of commuters on U.S. roadways, you’ve likely seen these trends in real time, as morning traffic during COVID ebbed to nonexistent, and slowly rebuilt to nearly pre-pandemic congestion. While we don’t have the census data for 2023, if you’re driving in rush hour, you can likely guess what those numbers will show.
Commuting costs money and valuable time. Obviously, if your employer is agreeable to a hybrid arrangement of some work-from-home days and some in the office, you can cut a portion of all of these costs. But that isn’t always possible, and the cruel irony is it’s often the lower-paying jobs that require a commute.
Chipping away at your commuter expenses can feel a little like doing dishes or laundry — there will always be more. But there are a few relatively low-effort ways to ensure you’re not paying more than you need to be.
1. Shop around for car insurance
Auto insurance rates have skyrocketed over the past few years, but only about one-fourth of Americans shop for auto insurance on a regular basis, according to a March 2023 NerdWallet survey. Reevaluate your policy from time to time: Ask your current insurer about discounts you might be missing, and compare rates between insurers to ensure you’re not overpaying. Also, right-size your coverage to fit your needs. While you don’t want too little coverage, which risks a significant loss in the event of an accident, you likely don’t need a pricey policy if your car is paid off and on its last legs.
2. Fill up on gas discounts and rewards
Electric vehicle use is on the rise, but the overwhelming majority of drivers are fueling up at the pump. Because gas accounts for about half of vehicle ownership costs, according to NerdWallet’s analysis, consider using an app to ensure you’re frequenting the stations with the lowest prices. If you’re loyal to one gas station or grocery store/gas station combo, look into their loyalty programs. Exxon Mobil, for example, offers points for purchasing gas and in-store items, and the points can be redeemed for gas savings. Kroger, a national grocery chain, offers one fuel point per dollar spent in their stores, and every 100 fuel points earn a 10-cent discount per gallon of gas.
3. Use credit card reward categories
Rewards credit cards can provide cash back or points for your gasoline. Some offer bonus categories on a quarterly basis, where you can get as much as 5% cash back for fuel purchases. Others allow you, the cardholder, to choose the reward category so you can customize your own gas rewards card.
Splitting the costs of the drive can have a dramatic impact. If you’re unsure what to charge, divide the amount you spend on gas per workweek by the number of passengers, and add a bit. After all, gas is just one of the costs of your commute. Sharing your vehicle with a friend or coworker is a tough sell for some folks, particularly those of us who use our drive time to catch up on podcasts or singing lessons. But 9% of U.S. workers carpooled in 2022, according to census data, so perhaps it’s a matter of finding the right passenger — one who can harmonize.