Commuting-When is it worth it?
June 21, 2010 8:09 AM   Subscribe

I’m considering applying for a job that would significantly lengthen my commute and want to know how to weigh the pros and cons and get some feedback about whether it is worth it.

The situation: I currently have a job, and am generally pretty happy there. I’m thinking of applying for another job that has a significantly longer commute.

Major pros of my current job include: I have OUTSTANDING coworkers and work for a very good agency. My job duties are closely related to “my field”, this is very interesting and rewarding work. The pay is fine, but nothing spectacular. My commute is nearly non-existent.

Major cons of my current job include: I’m a contracted employee, contracts get renewed annually. Every year, there is a very real possibility it won’t get renewed (I don’t worry about this much, I’m young and single and have a decent “rainy day” fund) Even though my employer is excellent to work for, we’re all contractors and the funding source is very involved and very difficult to work with. Job duties can change very quickly and without notice if the funding source says so. Right now, things are very ok, but over the past few years, the job has definitely gone through phases that were terrible and there is nothing to prevent the terribleness from returning. There is limited growth potential within the organization.

The potential new job: It is actually in “my field” instead of just closely related, and I think I would absolutely love it. I’m quite qualified, so I think I have a decent chance of at least getting an interview. It pays more, but not so much more that the money is a major motivating factor. The employer is rumored to be good to work for in general, but it is probably 100 times larger than my current employer, so at a department level, I have no idea. There is significant growth potential with the employer and they are very stable. This is a position that would look good on my resume, better than where I am currently.

The major con is that it is a 1 hour commute on a two lane highway. This is in Wisconsin, so we have winter, but probably not much traffic. If this position was local, I would absolutely apply for it in a heartbeat, but I have never had a significant commute before and don’t know how much this impacts life and how to weigh these pros and cons. I know it is fine to just apply without knowing for sure that I want the position, but it requires letters of recommendation, so I want to know for sure I want this position before I ask people to write these for me. Assume moving closer to the job is not an option for the next few years at least. I don’t have significant home responsibilities, just a dog. Tell me about commuting. Is it worth it for the right job? How do you know whether it is worth it?
posted by mjcon to Work & Money (27 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Until recently I was commuting an hour to get to my own job, although last November I finally moved to an address that is closer to where I work. Commuting is not such a terrible thing, at least as long as the local traffic conditions are acceptable (you wouldn't want to have to contend with daily traffic jams). Put a nice sound system in your car and enjoy the ride. Driving can be very relaxing (but not so relaxing that you actually fall asleep, of course). I believe that the increased job security justifies the additional travel time. Since your current job will almost certainly end, sooner or later, you might as well end it on your own terms, when you have a better job lined up, rather than at a time of their choosing when things may not work out as well for you.
posted by grizzled at 8:18 AM on June 21, 2010

Here in the DC area hour commutes are pretty much standard. That's what I do every day, and it does wear on you, but the new job sounds like it may be worth it. I'd apply, interview, and factor that in once you have a better idea about the culture and environment of the new job.

Also, I did the contractor thing for a long time, and it was not suitable for me at all. Peace of mind and stable job was worth it for me.
posted by JoanArkham at 8:19 AM on June 21, 2010

I was going to say here in the DC area a 1 hour commute would be considered a blessing by many people. If it's a nice relaxing one hour drive and not stop and go traffic the whole way, you may find you enjoy the hour. It's a great time to catch up on podcasts, listen to music, or just think without interruption.

I would imagine employers in Wisconsin can deal with the occasional work from home day when there is 2 feet of snow on the ground.
posted by COD at 8:26 AM on June 21, 2010

Depends on what the commute's like and how well you can put up with it, really. I don't know Wisconsin, but I assume winter weather will make a long commute even less pleasant than it would be otherwise.

I've had jobs with short and long commutes by public transit and by car. I avoid long car commutes if there's any way I can manage it -- it's hours of your life every day just lost. There's only so much a good music playlist or radio or audiobooks can do to fill that time (and you'd better not find anything too absorbing, what with the whole needing-to-not-run-into-things thing.)

And then there's the dog -- another two hours a day the dog has to wait for a walk or attention, or else you've got to hire someone else to look after your pet.

The job sounds great, and better stability would probably ease your mind. If you get the job and it's what you hope it is, though, seems reasonable to consider moving if you haven't got pressing reasons you need to stay in your current place.
posted by asperity at 8:26 AM on June 21, 2010

Audio Books. Podcasts. If you're not into either of them, well, don't.
posted by blue_beetle at 8:26 AM on June 21, 2010

Everyone handles a commute differently, obviously. I don't mind driving because it gives me a chance to listen to music or podcasts. My wife HATES driving, but doesn't mind taking the train because she can read or sleep. I like the commute time because it lets me "depressurize" from work before getting home.

Could the distance help in salary negotiations? If so, does that change how you would feel about the commute?
posted by steeb2er at 8:31 AM on June 21, 2010

I work in NYC and commute about 3 hours round trip everyday using public transit. My commute kind of sucks but a 1 hour commute each way with no traffic doesn't sound bad to me at all. The "no traffic" part is especially important. You'd be surprised how fast it can go by if you have interesting things to listen to.
posted by bingwah at 8:34 AM on June 21, 2010

Mjcon, this so depends on how you feel about driving and long commutes. I have had jobs with long commutes that made me miserable When driving from Chicago, where I live, to the suburbs and back (intense traffic, expressway driving); however when commuting in Phoenix (I picked different routes around different mountains each day) and when commuting from a farm I lived on in Mt. Horeb Wisconsin into a job in Madison, I didn't mind at all (disclaimer: both of those "pleasant" commutes equated to less than an hour each way). Figure out how you feel about driving, how much you think you will like the new job, and consider "books on tape" (or download from Bottom line is go ahead and apply for the job, you don't have to make up your mind before you get the job offer and at that time you can look at the total package. In terms of your letters of recommendation, if you ask people to write you a "to whom it may concern" letter of recommendation, you can keep these letters in your files to use again for other jobs you may apply for, therefore not having to bother anyone for multiple recommendations. Good Luck!
posted by Lylo at 8:37 AM on June 21, 2010

To me, it would totally depend what kind of commute we're talking about here. If it's going to be stop/go traffic for the whole time (or majority of it), then that can really really wear on you - especially in the winter when the time will be twice as long. If it's a pretty straight shoot and very little chance for traffic jams - then that can be a relaxing ride and a great way to unwind on the way home from work. Pull up a good album or two on the iPod, or catch a full hour of All Things Considered on NPR, and you won't find yourself thinking about work by the time you're home.

Also since we're talking about Wisconsin, please consider the weather and chances that the road will become iced over or not plowed. I used to have an hour commute in the Detroit area, and there were a couple of days a year where the drive was absolute hell because of the wind and snow. If telecommuting is an option, please exercise it on bad weather days, because if WI is anything like MI - everyone forgets how to drive in the snow for November & December.

FWIW, I'm now in the DC area and have a 35-40 minute commute (but not on the beltway, thank god). It's traffic free about half the way (the first half), and then slows down dramatically (damn you I-66!). This sucks on the way in, but makes the ride home a bit more enjoyable (frustrating with the jams, but then its open road the rest of the way home).
posted by ish__ at 8:40 AM on June 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

Agreed that the commute is what you make it -- if it annoys you, it will annoy you. If you can use the time to depressurize, listen to music or podcasts, or otherwise pass the time, then it may be fine. But maybe you should consider moving closer if you get the job?
posted by BlahLaLa at 8:41 AM on June 21, 2010

Commuting in the winter and during construction season really sucks. If your commute involves heavy traffic with idiotic drivers then it also sucks. While I never mind driving, when I have to deal with the above obstacles on a regular basis, I never get to work in a good mood. Even coming home after a long commute requires a convalescent period.

If you are not tied down with a family then plan a move as soon as you get through the probationary period. Even if you own a house it is easier to rent it if you can't sell it then rent in the other location.

The big thing you need to analyze is which place you would rather live. If your job is your all-consuming career then it is one thing but the average worker spends more time at home with friends and family than with work. If the area of the new job is a hellhole then moving there probably will not be worth it.
posted by JJ86 at 8:41 AM on June 21, 2010

I think these are some questions to ask yourself:
- Will you really miss that extra hour of sleep in the morning? Not just miss it, but will it really impact your mental abilities for the day? (assuming you will not adjust your sleep to go to bed earlier)
- What is your evening routine like? Do you go to the gym and so will this impact that activity? If not, how do you feel about preparing for dinner an hour later?
- What do you do now after work and before bed? Do you have an hour's worth of activity that will be impacted and missed?
- Particularly with the dog - Will the dog be OK without going outside for even a bathroom break for an extra two hours a day (possibly more depending on possible traffic issues). Do you have someone who can help with the dog in emergencies?
- How much do you plan on hanging out with your co-workers after work? Do you do that now? An hour long commute will probably make you think twice about this.
- Will this job allow telecommuting once in a while for that added flexibility?
- Are you completely set against moving closer to work? If yes, than the questions above are even more important to longterm satisfaction. If no, you can probably "just see" and think about moving if necessary.
posted by like_neon at 8:41 AM on June 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

I don't think anyone's mentioned it, but don't forget the costs associated with that commute. 1 hour drive each way is maybe 50 miles? That's 100 miles a day, 500 miles a week, 2,000 miles a month... petrol costs will add up, and your car will need servicing more frequently as parts wear out.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 8:44 AM on June 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

I have been commuting 1 hour + each way for 5 years, and up until recently, did not mind it. I really liked my job, so the commute was totally worth it. I eat breakfast, put on a little makeup (no mascara or eyeliner), and listen to audio books. If you decide to go ahead with it, I highly recommend a subscription to

Things to consider:
- You won't be able to run home at lunch to meet delivery people. My husband had to run back and forth from his (local) job constantly when we were remodeling our kitchen, since I was too far away.
- Doctors appointments become a pain in the ass. Either find a doctor close to your new job, or plan on taking time off to go to appointments close to your home. I am getting allergy shots twice a week now, and had to modify my hours to make it home in time to get to my doctor's office.
- After work functions can be an issue. We have lots of happy hours, softball games, volleyball, etc. and it's not always convenient to wait at work for the event to begin, then have a long drive home afterwards.
- Your co-workers/manager may not be considerate/aware of your commute. I feel that my day starts at 7:30 am when I leave the house, but sometime I don't get into work until after 8:30, later if there is bad weather or an accident. I also have to leave work by 6 pm if I want to make dinner, do anything around the house, or have a personal life. My coworkers that live close to our office can spend less total time getting to work, so they can spend more time at the office.

Recently, the commute has been driving me nuts and making me consider finding other work. This is mostly because I like what I am doing less. If you know that you're going to enjoy what you're doing, I would say go for it!
posted by elvissa at 9:01 AM on June 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Certainly sounds like a good opportunity, but commuting is hard. Interesting snippet from a recent article on commuting and happiness:

"This is what economists call "the commuting paradox." Most people travel long distances with the idea that they'll accept the burden for something better, be it a house, salary, or school. They presume the trade-off is worth the agony. But studies show that commuters are on average much less satisfied with their lives than noncommuters. A commuter who travels one hour, one way, would have to make 40% more than his current salary to be as fully satisfied with his life as a noncommuter, say economists Bruno S. Frey and Alois Stutzer of the University of Zurich's Institute for Empirical Research in Economics. People usually overestimate the value of the things they'll obtain by commuting -- more money, more material goods, more prestige -- and underestimate the benefit of what they are losing: social connections, hobbies, and health. "Commuting is a stress that doesn't pay off," says Stutzer."

(emphasis mine)
posted by alaijmw at 9:03 AM on June 21, 2010 [7 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks so much for your input so far! Just a few things to clarify

1. This shouldn't impact the dog's life much. I have roommates and neighbors and lots of people around to help if I need it. I adore the dog and probably wouldn't do this if I thought it would negatively impact him.

2. The cost....I think the cost of commuting will probably make the salary difference between the potential new job and my current job a complete wash. I'd be making about $3500 additional a year at the new job, which I imagine would nearly be spent on the commute.

3. Moving. I would really really like to avoid it for at least 3 years because of my roommates. And the town the new job is in is quite small, not somewhere I ever would expect to live, at least at this point in my life. I love the city I live in now. I know time and commuting can change that stuff, but at this point I'd hate to move.
posted by mjcon at 9:05 AM on June 21, 2010

The major con is that it is a 1 hour commute on a two lane highway. This is in Wisconsin, so we have winter, but probably not much traffic.

For a long time, my mother-in-law had a 1-hour commute in rural Wisconsin (Neenah area), and managed to hit a deer on the way home from work about once a year. So I guess your deer-strike risk might go way up, depending on where you are.
posted by COBRA! at 9:25 AM on June 21, 2010

The current US federal rate for driving costs is $0.50 per mile, and you should believe that.

Take that and add on the value of your time, including lost social opportunities.

Also, driving is the riskiest activity that Americans routinely undertake. This is why truck driving is actually one of the most dangerous professions. And apart from the immediate safety issues, you're also talking about adding two more sedentary hours to your day, which will negatively impact your health in the medium and long term.

The job sounds great, good enough that I'm mystified that you dismiss moving for it. Why is that? We moved when we got married so we could maintain reasonable commutes of about 30 minutes, which is very good for the DC area.

On preview and seeing your additional comments, I don't think you should do it if you're unwilling to move. You'll be losing a lot of time freedom, social opportunity and personal safety for no monetary benefit.

I think you really ought to give more consideration to moving. Why is living where you do now and driving an hour 5 times a week to get to work more attractive than living by the new job and driving an hour 1 or 2 times a week to get back to your more populous current location for social activities?
posted by NortonDC at 9:32 AM on June 21, 2010

I hated commuting about that length, but it was on New Jersey, on the New Jersey Turnpike. It really eats up your leisure time and a surprising amount of energy, even if you like audio books.

However, I don't think it can hurt to apply and at least check the place out. It's really not an option until you at least do so, you know? Maybe you'll have an interview, realize that the office is one you'd never want to work in, and it will be a moot point.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:32 AM on June 21, 2010

I didn't have a significant commute for most of my adult life, and when I started a job that had one, at first it was fun - I was driving to work! I had music! I had my coffee! It felt more grown-up in a way than my bike rides or walking or even taking the subway.

Two years later I joined a van pool because I was so desperate to stop driving, and two years after that I moved downtown so I would be in walking distance of the bus to work, so I could get my life back and lower my stress level. However, my commute was stop and go traffic back and forth every day, worse when there were events in town that caused additional traffic every evening.

In terms of moving, I know people who moved closer to work back then and five years later, their 10 minute commute was 40 minutes because EVERYBODY moved closer to work and the area became built up.

But I think it would keep its novelty long enough for you to see whether you like the job or not and the job sounds better than the one you have now. You might as well apply.
posted by micawber at 10:30 AM on June 21, 2010

I grew up in Wisconsin and now live in Minneapolis - I know these two lane highways. Moreover, while part of my home was being remodeled Mr. WWW and I stayed at his mother's house, a good 30 miles away (and a 45 minute commute for me at 4:15am). This went on for three weeks until our house was complete. I could not have been more unhappy.

Additionally, there are studies regarding levels of happiness; Commuting a considerable distance does not make most people happy.

as always, YMMV...
posted by wocka wocka wocka at 10:35 AM on June 21, 2010

1. How predictable is the traffic? Is the commute always going to be an hour, or will it sometimes/often be longer? Unpredictability can really increase the stress of commuting. "Honey, I though I'd be home in time for [whatever], but for [the third time this week/5th time this month] there's a traffic jam and I won't make it in time."

2. If you wanted to drive a little earlier or later than normal one day, would the commute be much longer? In other words, even if you're not usually driving during rush hour, is there significant rush hour traffic that might affect you on occasion?

3. How safe is the road? How congested is it? How are the sightlines? Will you be driving 50 mph on straight, sparely used country roads? Or on an expressway with stop-and-go traffic, constant lane changes, insufficient stopping distances between cars, and a prevailing speed (when not in stop and go traffic) of 70 mph?

4. Are you giving up anything significant during that hour that can't be made up earlier or later? For example (and I know this doesn't apply to you, with just a dog), is your kids' bedtime during the hour you're driving home?
posted by hhc5 at 10:42 AM on June 21, 2010

Best answer: Take your proposed pay rate. Now factor in an additional 10 hours per week, without any additional pay. This will reflect the true amount of time you'll be devoting to the job.

Let's say you were going to earn $1,000/week, that's $25/hour - pretty respectable. But 1000/50 = $20/hour, which is a pretty big drop.

Next, factor in the extra gas cost. I'll use EndsOfInvention's estimate. 500 miles per week at 30 miles per gallon = 16.6 gallons. 16.6 gallons at $3/gallon = $50 a week in gas.

Subtract that $50/week, now you're at an hourly rate of $19/hour.

Doing the math like this lets you compare apples to apples, and gives you hard data compared to the relatively soft data of how much you'll hate the commute.

There are no up sides to an hour long commute. No one ever says "Oh goodie, a really long commute!" But as you can see, many people find it to be emotionally neutral. So emotionally, it's going to range from "bad" to "meh."

Lacking any real dissatisfaction in your current job, I'd take a pass on applying for that other job right now. If your current job takes a turn for the worse, or you get wind that you're about to be laid off, then definitely lunge for that new job.
posted by ErikaB at 11:10 AM on June 21, 2010 [3 favorites]

Not snarky, genuinely wondering: to those who say "don't apply," what's the harm in applying? What's the harm in interviewing? Is it that there is no workplace that would be worth a 2-hour commute even if the team turned out to be really nice and they provided awesome perks? Or is it that you think it's a bad idea for it to get around that you're looking?
posted by JoanArkham at 12:36 PM on June 21, 2010

Crazy idea: commute an hour to your current job for a week.

First, drive to your potential future job site, seeing what the driving conditions are like. Imagine how it might be on a workday morning or evening, factoring that into your made-up route. Maybe try it on the weekend at the time you'd normally leave for work and when you'd return.

Second, chart a path that will take you at least as long to drive in terms of time. See if you can find a similar path, in terms of stoplights vs stop signs, scenic route, time facing the sun (if possible). And then drive this route for a week.

How did you like it? How might it change in the winter? How did you feel waking up an hour earlier, and getting home an hour later? How will it be on a bad day?

Maybe you really like driving, and this is some personal time. Perhaps you can catch up on all those podcasts you've been meaning to listen to, or you find you like books on tape. Maybe you pay attention to the news now. Or it's a grind and you can foresee dreading the drive, and decide it's not worth the effort.

You said the new place is in a small town, is there any chance of a carpool or vanpool to work? If so, that could make the trip bearable.
posted by filthy light thief at 2:01 PM on June 21, 2010

I move around a bit for my job (freelancing). When I worked at a place that was a 45minute-1.5hr drive with loads of stop/start traffic and no shortcuts and no public transport alternative - I have no good memories of that job, even though it was next to a beach and around all this heritage bushland. And I LOVE audiobooks and podcasts.

Now I have a 25minute commute (in peak hour) and my happiness levels have skyrocketed. The extra sleep in and the earlier home time to attend to other things makes a huge difference.

Apart from alaijmw's excellent link, this TED talk about experience versus memory and how that informs your sense of happiness makes a lot of sense to me.
posted by scuza at 4:14 PM on June 21, 2010

Just as a side comment - I assume you're nixing the move because you really like your house, your roommates, your town, the corner bar, etc. I'll leave out the idea of bed-sharing type relationships. The amount of time you get to enjoy these awesome people and location benefits drops off irritatingly quickly once you start commuting, so in some sense you don't get to keep your home-life of today, whether you stay and commute or move away.

Right now, say you get up at 7, and out the door at 7:45, work from 8-5, and home in your comfy pants by 5:30. You've now got 5.5 hours until 11pm if you want to get 8 hours of sleep before 7am. Say you run by the grocery store on your way home (30 mins), spend 45 mins decompressing with video games or the internet, or at the gym, watch your favorite tv show with the roommates (1 hr), meet up with your guys for trivia night at the bar at 8, right to bed afterwards, and that's a fine evening.
Now, subtract 2 hours drive time from that. You're getting home about 6:30, with no groceries and no gym, you've got an hour and a bit to see your housemates before you head out to the pub, and either you cut that short and come home early, or you're dragging at work the next day without quite enough sleep, or maybe you decide you'd rather ditch that entirely and have time to go to the gym and buy real groceries to feed yourself. Even if you're living in a great place, with great people, your experience of them isn't going to be as good as it used to be.
Time becomes much more of a premium, and you find yourself making a lot more trade-offs. The issues I've had with commuting weren't that I couldn't make time for the things I wanted to do, but that I was making that time by shifting out all the less interesting but necessary things. I didn't get much "me" time (introvert!), I wasn't staying very healthy, eating as well, or sleeping quite enough, I wasn't calling my family as often, my roommates were annoyed with me because I wasn't contributing enough to the cleaning, I was on average more irritable, and feeling like I was constantly late.

That said, I think you should 100% absolutely apply for this job!! How many jobs have you applied for? How many interviews have you been on? How many jobs/work environments have you been in? Unless those numbers are quite large already, you'll be increasing your employability by brushing up your resume and interview and negotiation skills. If in the end, they offer you a job and you decide against it, you can say "well, I've weighed a lot of pros and cons, but I think the location does turn out to be an obstacle for me.", with no loss of face. Just the process of following this through and contemplating the commuting and lifestyle choices will teach you something about yourself, particularly the relative importance of money, time, career prospects, job environment, job status, stability, friends, coworkers, etc. There are no wrong answers - so make it your personal choice.
posted by aimedwander at 8:23 AM on June 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

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