In hard times, sometimes unreasonable tradeoffs seem reasonable. Laura is a Georgia woman who works in a law firm and spends more than a third of her take home pay commuting 120 miles a day. She does this despite the cost on both her bank account and psyche--driving amidst trucks and frog-strangler storms makes her anxious--but considers herself lucky to have a job.
She had planned a very different retirement for herself, but the economy got in the way. Laura and her husband started preparing for their retirement in the late 1990’s, buying a bit of land in a subdivision “in the middle of the woods” on a rural Georgian island. “We bought when it was booming but now it’s not,” she says. They assumed they’d sell their condo and move into the house they built on the island. But just when they finished the retirement home, the bottom fell out of the real estate market. They couldn’t sell their condo, but they could rent it. So they moved to the new home. Laura couldn’t find a job nearby, so she accepted one in Savannah, which is how her 120 mile commute across four counties began. For the first time in their history, the couple bought a second car.
Now Laura buys three tanks of gas a week for her 2008 Subaru, which costs her $780 a month. Adding in her car payment and insurance brings the total to $1440 a month, or $17, 280 per year. In addition, she spends $600 a year on basic maintenance, and racks up 22,000 miles a year in depreciation. Rounding off, Laura spends roughly $18,000 a year getting to a job with a salary of $60,000. Does she think it’s reasonable to spend 36 percent of her after-tax income on merely getting to work? “I feel like I don’t have a choice,” she says, “Maybe I could get a job closer but there’s nothing really nearby. Savannah’s really the only place to work. And I need to work until we pay off the condo.” She’s considered asking her boss if she can telecommute. “I had it in my head I’d ask when gas hit $4,” she says, “but then it fell by ten cents. Now I’ll ask when it hits $5.”
While she frets about the cost of the commute, it’s really the experience of driving on the interstate that bothers her. Near the ports, she worries about the big trucks whooshing past her. During the rain she worries about hydroplaning. She also worries about running out of gas in a rural area or getting stuck in traffic near the city. As she tells it, the whole drive is a platform for anxieties: While she drives, she worries about what she has to do when she gets home.
Laura doesn’t assume she’ll feel any more secure in the future. The diminishing returns of this commute are part of the general slog she imagines until she can finally retire. “It’s going to take me much longer to get there.”