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Have You Seen the Price of Gas?
Thoughts on an expense that is not inevitable
My local Exxon just raised the price of regular gasoline to $3.85. I might possibly live near the most expensive gas station in Northern Virginia. Even Tysons Corner, home to two luxury malls and a Bentley/Aston Martin car dealership, has cheaper gas!
The other day, I sat down and calculated what it actually costs to drive a mile, at that price. My car gets somewhere between 25 and 35 miles per gallon. Local driving—the kind I don’t really think about, and which adds up quick—costs more per gallon since it’s less fuel efficient. And a local mile costs about fifteen cents.
That means a round-trip to my local Trader Joe’s costs about a dollar. A round-trip to my local Wegmans costs about two dollars. A drive to my favorite thrift store in Maryland costs over $8.
Now it’s interesting. If I’m buying a can of tomato sauce, or canned beans, or some basic thing, I’ll look very closely at the price. I’m a pretty frugal shopper. At home, I’ll keep a lightly used paper towel around to wipe down the counter later. I’m conscious of all sorts of little ways to save money or make a product last longer.
Yet it really has never occurred to me to ask or wonder how much it costs me to, say, drive to the cheaper store further away.
My wife and I own two cars, both less than eight years old. We obviously have enough income that the price of gas is not a make-or-break expense, and in any case the car itself is a much bigger expense, even if you own it and have no car loan. (Also, working from home/not having a driving commute sure helps.) Yet at these kinds of prices, gas is not an insignificant expense.
It’s interesting to me that as much as I think about not relying on cars, about walkable neighborhoods, etc., it’s still a bit of a psychological lift for me to actually grasp that I’m literally spending two dollars just by driving to Wegmans. At a high enough price, everyone gets it—I remember, at my childhood home off a state highway in New Jersey, that night traffic basically dried up in the trough of the Great Recession. But I think gas is one of the harder everyday expenses to see clearly, because driving is such a regular, almost automatic thing to do. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.
However, odd as it is to really think about it that way, it helps make the expense real, and provides a motivation to drive less—and not just less, but more frugally. Connecting trips more smartly, not running out to the store for some little thing I don’t really need, etc. I like to see a challenge like this as an opportunity to be a little more responsible.
For people stuck driving to work, it’s tough. For the most part they shouldn’t have to (unless they chose a long driving commute in exchange for living somewhere far off that transit cannot serve practically.) Car dependence is a massive, regressive expense. But for me, most of the driving I do is a choice, and I can make different choices.
Tomorrow is the beginning of Lent, and in some ways, this is the real spirit of “giving something up” for Lent. As kids, we give up chocolate or video games or something, more as a cradle Catholic custom than anything else. But as an adult, I’ve come to better understand and appreciate what it really means to give something up. It’s a low-stakes way of building a little bit of resilience, of making yourself a little unhappy in a shallow way to try to cultivate real contentment.
Can you guess where this is going?
Now as someone who photographs, explores, and writes about places, driving is pretty much part of my job. And I enjoy it. That kind of driving is often quite fun, actually. (Or this kind of driving.) But all the unnecessary miles I log because I didn’t make a full shopping list or because I went out of my way for some specific product I didn’t even need, aren’t so fun.
For Lent, then, I won’t be complaining about gas prices. Instead, I’ll be trying to give that kind of driving up.
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