Barbara O’Neill, Ph.D., CFP®
Extension Specialist in Financial Resource Management
Rutgers Cooperative Extension
Millions of Americans, especially those living near big cities on the east and west coast, can be classified as “extreme commuters.” According to the U.S. Census Bureau, this term applies to anyone whose commute to and from work takes 90 minutes a day or longer. It is an unfortunate fact of life, especially in major metropolitan areas, that many people can’t afford to live in or near the communities where they work. As a result, some elect to commute two, three, or even more hours a day back and forth to work.
As a consequence of their extra long workdays, extreme commuters lose a big chunk of time sitting in their cars or carpools or on trains and busses. They, therefore, have less time for food preparation and exercise and for “maintenance’ tasks such as financial management (e.g., balancing their checkbook). Not surprisingly, a 2004 study found a strong relationship between commuting time and weight gain. Researchers studied commuters in the Atlanta, Georgia area and found a 3% increased chance of becoming overweight or obese for every 30 minutes of commuting time. Studies have also found that many people perform only the most essential financial management tasks (e.g., paying bills on time) and ignore experts’ recommendations to regularly review their credit report, prepare a written spending plan (budget), and calculate their net worth.
So is it possible to maintain good health and manage your finances wisely when you’re spending so much time on the road? The answer is yes, but it takes some advance planning and motivation. Below are some small steps to health and wealth for extreme commuters:
- Build exercise into your day…any way that you can. One way is to leave for work earlier than you currently do. Not only will you beat some of the commuting traffic but, upon arrival at your worksite earlier than you actually need to be there, you have a valuable chunk of time to exercise. Wear a pedometer and try to log 2,500 to 3,000 steps (of the recommended 10,000 steps per day) before you start working.
- Walk during your lunch hour, preferably with co-workers for companionship and motivation. Aim for another 3,000 to 4,000 steps. Especially during the winter months, when extreme commuters leave for work in the dark and come home in the dark, lunch hours provide a great opportunity for walking, either indoors or outdoors. Another possibility is to walk from one end of a pedestrian shopping mall to the other and back, on the way home from work, if you don’t have time to get home to walk before dark. Walk or use indoor exercise equipment after you get home from work to try to log the rest of your 10,000 daily steps.
- Keep bottled water and healthy snacks in your car for those inevitable days when traffic is snarled and you get home later than planned. Since time for food preparation is limited, buy healthy lunch and snack foods such as soup, ready-to-eat carrots, fresh fruit, and portion-controlled convenience foods (buy them on sale).
- Automate your finances any way you can including direct deposit of your paycheck, deposits to mutual funds or stocks with a dividend reinvestment plan (DRIP), deposits to purchase U.S. savings bonds, and savings in tax-deferred employer savings plans (e.g. 401(k), 403(b), or 457, depending where you work).
- Arrange to have as many routine periodic expenses (e.g., car loan payments and insurance premiums) as possible paid automatically by debiting your bank account. This will save both time and postage. Another potentially time-saving strategy, for the computer savvy, is online banking and bill-paying.
- Create customized financial templates to keep track of your finances in Microsoft Excel or similar software or use the templates available for net worth, asset allocation, and spending plan (budget) calculations found in the “Resources” section of the Rutgers Cooperative Extension Money and Investing Web site at njaes.rutgers.edu/money2000. Simply insert your own personal data in these generic template files.