May 7, 2011

These Costs Don't Show Up At The Pump

None of us who drives is unaware of the rapid increase in gas at the pump. We are also know that oil companies are reporting massive profits, again. Unless you can use a bus, a bike, or your own two feet, there is no way to avoid pouring more money into your gas tank. As I read about oil company windfalls I quietly seethe inside. My retirement lifestyle is better than the vast majority of the world's citizens. But there is a cost to me beyond the dollar amount. Big Oil and OPEC don't see the individual impact of their greed.

From the street level where my reality takes place, $4 a gallon gas affects me directly and noticeably. My radius of living has shrunk. My range of choices and experiences has tightened. Maybe that is a good thing. Maybe it will reinforce a lesson about sustainability and the true cost of lifestyle choices.

But, it chaps my britches when I hesitate before driving to spend time with my grand kids. The visits still happen, but I am more careful in planning them. Since the trip is close to 60 miles round trip my wife and I am less likely to make more than one trip every 7-10 days. My daughter's budget is so tight I don't like to ask her to drive to our house as often as the kids would prefer, either.

Also, now I always try to tie a visit to them into a side trip to see my Dad rather than making a separate trip to visit him. That is good for my gas use but requires a much bigger chunk of time.

There is a nice park, with a lake, picnic benches, and lots of shade trees that Betty and I like. But, being  about 15  miles away I think twice before deciding to just go sit for a few hours, read a book and people-watch.

Running errands involves plotting a route as precisely as a military maneuver. A quick drive to the store for a forgotten item rarely happens. If it can wait then a trip to the library, Home Depot for paint, Costco for prescriptions and an overdue haircut become part of that trip.

I have added a commitment to my prison ministry volunteer efforts. I now work out of their offices, half a day, once a week, helping the staff with paperwork, scheduling, correspondence, and such. That is a 39 mile round trip. Originally I had been asked to help two days a week but at today's prices that is $45 a month extra in gas. We agreed that once a week would have to do. 

If both cars never leave the garage for a full day, I silently celebrate. No miles driven means no gas consumed and no money handed over to others. Even so, the monthly budget for gas runs out before the month does. Public transportation isn't an option where I live and walking outside for at least half the year produces heat stroke in 20 minutes.

I know this sounds like whining. A car is a luxury to many. The cost of gas is something I can afford, though the extra $80 a month has to come from somewhere. The less driving I do the better off the earth is.

I just wish those who game the system for their own advantage would stop to consider the cost down here where most of us live. Each bump in the cost at the pump means one less trip to see family, visit a museum, or enjoy an afternoon by a lake. It means one less meal at a restaurant this month, one fewer movie, or a couple of books not bought. It isn't life and death. But, it has a very direct cost on my ability to enjoy a satisfying retirement.

How has your life been affected by more expensive gas? A lot, a little, not at all? Have you had to cut back or sacrifice in a meaningful way? Share your stories. It won't solve the problem, but we'll feel better knowing we are not in this alone.


  1. My family, who live in Italy, all own cars but never use them. The cars sit in their driveways. My uncle's daughter only lives 12 miles away but because of their high costs of gasoline, she only sees her dying father once per month, if at all.

    I would imagine, if our fuel costs here in America keep rising, we will meet the same fate.

    I'm pretty much following what you are doing. Some RT used to cost me $40 last year, now cost me $75 this year. So, we don't go as often and we combine errands to keep the cost in check.

  2. Hi Morrison,

    Some European cities and suburban areas are much better equipped to handle a situation of gas prices so high that car use becomes a luxury: decent public transportation. If light rail were near me I'd use it. If the buses didn't stop every block turning a 5 mile trip into a 25 minute ordeal I'd use it.

    Such is not the case. No car, no transportation. So, like you, my trips are thought about beforehand and either completed or canceled based on cost.

    Even if prices go down again, the overall tread is clear and unchangeable. We best get used to it.

  3. The things you mention are only part of how high gas prices affect us too! I mailed a package at UPS the other day and a fuel surcharge was added to my bill and this is just one of many businesses which now adds a surcharge.

    Food costs and any products which must be trucked in are rising due to transportation costs as well.

    Where we live public transportation is pretty much non-existent too. Our city has 3 YMCA's and the one furthest away (about a 25 minute drive) offers an advanced tai chi class on Sunday's I'd like to go to but I content myself with just the beginner class at a Y which is much closer.

    I watched a show on HGTV where a young woman in Canada was shopping for a condo. She chose a neighborhood close to transportation to get her to work as she had no car at all. Her neighborhood offered restaurants, entertainment and everything within walking distance. I'd love to live like that! We can't even ride bicycles here because the traffic makes it dangerous.

  4. Joan,

    The fuel surcharge is an excellent point. Businesses, and especially airlines, are using that as a way to recoup their direct costs (and make extra money I bet). And, yes, food prices are rising right along with fuel.

    When housing prices recover enough for us to move I hope we'll get a condo in a development closer to downtown with the amenities and transportation options to match.

  5. Bob,
    Something seems wrong with all this talking about gas prices making people stay home. If gas prices increase from $3.75 to $4.25, that is about 13%. It's a big percent but nothing compared to the investment in your car. If you drive 10 miles and your car gets 20 miles to the gallon then the increase costs you an additional $0.25 cents over what it cost you before. A sixty mile trip costs you $1.50 more. That doesn't seem like enough to stop doing anything that is important. I think the media hype is making us all crazy. Maybe the increase is enough to cut out some unimportant driving but it's not the end of the world as we know it and it's not time to mothball our expensive vehicles and take up hitchhiking. People are not thinking clearly.

  6. We are lucky in Portland to have great public transportation. My kids have never even been very motivated to learn to drive--a monthly pass gets them most anywhere they want to go. Many people here also use bikes. For those who need to drive somewhere, we also have zipcars. You pay a reasonable fee to join, and then if you need a car, you can pick one up at one of the many convenient locations.

    Having lived overseas where the price of gas is much higher, it is easy to see how our communities have been planned around dependence on cars. At some point, that will need to change, but in the meantime, it creates a challenge and a hardhsip for so many people.

    For myself, I have a big car that I can get all my kids into (plus the dog). The trade off for me is that I don't use my car all the time, and there are days when it sits in the driveway all day.

    I am sorry that anyone would have to choose not to see loved ones because of gas prices.

  7. When I lived in Germany, gas was easily %4 a litre. But we could park our cars and get to work, go down town and do almost anything else we needed to by using affodable public transport. The same is true in most northern European countries that I know of. We lived happily with one car. But when we traveld cross europe, we paid those prices often (military discounts only applying in certain countries.

    As far as now, my greates problems are that I like to road trip and am unwilling to give it up, first (although this is an occasional thing). My other biggie is that church is a good twenty minutes a day and with my volunteering, am going there sometimes twice a week. Other than that I live in a place where grocery, exercise, socialization and shopping are all within a couple miles. But that long trip is a killer.

    I cannot sell my houe now even if I wanted to, but when I do it will surely be an apartment or condo where if I cannot walk, I will certainly have short drives

  8. Ralph,

    Overall I agree. It certainly isn't to the point where essential travel has been impacted. But, as I mentioned, not dashing out for an unplanned trip but being a bit more mindful of where and when we drive is a good thing.

    As Joan mentioned, rising fuel prices affect almost everything...the cost of food, transportation, energy generation...all of it. So, the cost to put gas in your car is just one of the direct costs of higher pump prices. It's the hidden or indirect costs that are often overlooked.

  9. Galen,

    Portland is an example of a big city that has done an excellent job of giving people options. So far, Phoenix is not in the same league in that regard. Portland is very attractive to me as a place to live, except for the weather. I couldn't tolerate the gray and rain.

    My wife and don't forgo many trips to see the grandkids. For my daughter's family, however, an extra $50 of gas a month is noticeable.

  10. Hi Barb,

    I would very much like to be a one car family. We really don't need two buy my wife sees the second one as "freedom" to go where and when she wants. Even so, I doubt she drives more than 10 miles a day, so it is more an image than reality.

    I did decide to not make 2 extra 39 mile RT volunteer trips per week. That would have impacted our budget (and time available time) more than i felt reasonable.

  11. By the way folks, sorry about the terrible typing, but I have some injury issues-I do know how to spell, truly..

  12. The truth is, our current automobile centric lifestyle is NOT sustainable and the sooner everyone realizes that the better. The days of "See the USA in your Chevrolet" are over. O-V-E-R.

    Eventually the suburbs and exurbs will become the new slums as people will no longer be able to afford their commutes.

    My car sits in a garage all week. My husband and I both use public transportation. Many of my neighbors have gotten rid of their cars already.

  13. Hi Roberta,

    Eventually I believe you will be right, at least if the cars are gas-powered. Personal transportation isn't likely to disappear but I don't believe fossil fuel will be in the picture as long as many hope it will.

    Most of us can't do what you and your husband have been able to do. I say, more power to you (pardon the pun!)

  14. You wrote, "Big Oil and OPEC don't see the individual impact of their greed."

    Do you really think they care?! Through our energy intransigence (non-policy), they now have the upper hand, for sure. We are just pawns in their big stakes games.

    Solutions, anyone?

  15. Hey Steve,

    No, of course they don't care. If we are silly enough to have gone all these years knowing what is ahead of us, then why should they? I would have though the Arab oil embargo of 1973 would have been more than a footnote in a history book.

    Solutions? I'm afraid there are few with the political will to do what should have been done 40 years ago. The bed we have made for ourselves is going to get a lot lumpier.

    By the way, I read some predictions that gas prices might fall by 50 cents this fall. Problem solved, right?

  16. I live in the country. It's a 15 minute drive to get to either grocery store. For the first time in my life. I'm combining trips and using the car, which gets 21 miles to the gal. as opposed to the truck which gets 17-18. I have resigned myself to the almost $4 a gal. only because I can't push the darn thing.

  17. Good morning Sharon,

    Even that 4 MPG difference will add up over the course of a year. And you are right, what else could you do, have a horse pull you?

  18. As others mentioned, in Paris, they pay over $10/gallon. I wouldn't mind that here if we had the excellent public transportation service they have over there, and as long as the tax money goes towards healthcare, retirement, better services for the elderly, etc. In Copenhagen, cars are taxed 100%, and people very rarely buy new ones, and certainly not as frequently as in the U.S. I know Copenhagen has parking structures for bikes, which I think keeps people in great shape. Their weather is terrible in winter, and yet, they still ride bikes. We cannot here due to distances, so what's the solution?

  19. Hi Sonia,

    Better public transportation, shared car use (available in some cities already), infill building instead of sprawl, understanding every dollar we spend on gas goes mainly to people who dislike us intensely....any of those make sense? (that's a rhetorical question)

  20. We live in a planned community with a grocery, restaurants and a short walk to our Max line that connects us with the city. America has founded it's development on the car and even dispensed with sidewalks for a long time. Now we are paying the price for subdivisions and sprawl. It is much harder to give up a luxury than it is to do without it in the first place.

    Like you, we plan our trips out to visit family so we can include errands we can do along the way. But, believe it or not, that is what we have always done. I have no idea where we can do with less!

    This is a very good post Bob. I could see myself in every paragraph!


  21. Hi b,

    I'm glad you mentioned the lack of sidewalks. I'm not sure of that is more of a western thing, or all newer developments all over the country have dispensed with most sidewalks. But, it is dangerous for children and discourages walking by anyone.

    I will say Scottsdale and Phoenix have added a lot of bike lanes which is a good step in the right direction.

    By the way, good luck selling your Portland condo!