I have a small tented notecard on my bedside table, next to my alarm clock. It looks sort of like a name card for a fancy dinner. On it I’ve printed two numbers with a slash between them: $2.60 / $19.98.
These numbers are the reason that I shouldn’t sleep in.
See, if I wake up early, I can take the bus. It picks me up a block from my house and drops me off seconds from where I work. I get thirty minutes of uninterrupted reading time and my car sits preserved in my driveway. For this privilege, the bus normally charges $2.00 each way, but with discount ride passes and a pre-tax commuter program at work I can get each ride down to roughly $1.30, or $2.60 per day. The only catch is that, this being the suburbs, only one bus per day actually takes me where I need to go, and it comes by at the eye-peeling hour of 6:30 AM. Because of that, on hundreds of occasions I’ve pawed at my snooze button well past 7:00 AM and driven to work instead. I lamented my loss of reading time, but I never really worried about money lost to driving, and for a very important reason: I never really knew how much it cost me to drive anywhere.
This is an important point. There are many costs in our financial lives that are fairly opaque: electricity bills, investment fees, car costs. We know very roughly what they cost, and that we’d like those costs to shrink, but figuring out all their working parts is difficult. With cars we have the gas, the insurance, the depreciation, the random maintenance items, and the cost of the actual car itself. Even knowing these numbers doesn’t answer one simple question: how much does a single trip cost us? Lacking a perfect, transparent number, as busy people we basically ignore it altogether and act irrationally. I already have the car, might as well use it. Or in my case: I’m tired. Forget the bus, I’m driving today.
Fortunately, the IRS has thought about this a bit, and they have a standard per mile rate for car costs so that businesses can deduct driving done for work. The most current lists the cost of driving at 55.5 cents per mile. Using this figure, my thirty-six mile total commute costs me $19.98.
Before the corrections come rolling in: I realize that an idle car still costs money in insurance and depreciation (and sometimes car payments). And that a rate of 55.5 cents per mile likely applies to .01% of the population. Someone with a paid off, 35 MPG coupe is going to pay much less than $.55 per mile and someone driving a heavily financed, 12 MPG truck could pay much more. But with these opaque costs, the important thing is not to have perfect numbers but to have numbers, period. Once we have an idea of the costs of things we humans, flawed though we are, begin to act rationally.
I love sleep (love it) but not enough to spend $17.38 on an hour of it. When the alarm clock jolts me awake and I get the urge to hit snooze, I picture that amount of money floating near my bed, just out of reach. And then I get out of bed.