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Stop and Go

John Goodell  |  October 9, 2020

LIKE SO MANY others, I’ll be working from home for the foreseeable future. But I know in my soul that we’re all going back—and I’m mostly okay with that. There are things I miss about the office: colleagues who have become friends, the collaboration, the access to ideas and creativity.

The biggest thing I don’t miss? Traffic. Nothing even comes close.

I live in Austin, Texas, which ranks tenth in America in terms of worst commute. My first thought when I read these rankings is, “How is Austin not No. 1?” My second thought is, “Who could stand living in these other, even worse concrete parking lots?”

Pre-pandemic, Austinites spent 104 hours a year stuck in traffic. That’s more than four days each year spent stopping and starting… over and over again. In total, the average Austinite spends roughly half a year mired in traffic during his or her working life. Because we chose our home by considering multiple factors—real estate costs, my wife’s work location, good schools for our kids—my commute works out to about 4.5 times that amount, and I live in a nearby suburb.

On top of that, my commute meant I was having to fill up on gas twice each week, devouring roughly 20 minutes per week. (Americans spend an average 10 minutes on each trip to the gas station.) That works out to some 17 hours per year spent pumping gas.

Those are wasted hours that I’m not with family or being productive at work. I boost my productivity from zero to something slightly above zero by listening to books on tape or podcasts, but there’s no substitute for being with my family or helping clients. Moreover, when I arrive at my destination, I’m irritated—and often sweaty—from sitting in traffic purgatory.

So I bought a Tesla Model 3 with self-driving. Let me be clear: I own the car, not the stock. I am a devotee of index funds and offer no opinion on the Tesla stock market bubble, I mean, phenomenon. That said, the Model 3 is an incredible machine. There are several vehicles available from Tesla, but the Model 3 is the least expensive. The long-range, 322-mile battery version costs roughly $47,000 today before taxes, plus $8,000 for full self-driving. That’s more than the $5,000 I paid for self-driving 18 months ago. Moreover, the tax credit I received is long gone. But even with these cost increases, I’d still buy one today.

Used Model 3s are now fairly readily available, but that wasn’t the case 18 months ago, so I bought mine new. As someone who is very frugal—my habit of primarily buying gently used shoes has earned me the moniker “tightwad” in our house—this might seem like an uncharacteristically lavish purchase. It was and it wasn’t.

I calculate that the purchase cost will eventually be offset by the amount I save by charging the vehicle instead of buying gas. Admittedly, the economics of owning a Tesla are widely debated and, in any case, had nothing to do with my decision to purchase one.

So why did I buy it? Whenever we return to the office, I’ll return to my much-hated commute. Enabling Tesla’s self-driving feature means the car does almost all of the work. I arrive at home or the office rested, rather than exhausted and irritated. Because we installed a charger in our garage, which cost just under $1,000, I leave each morning with a full charge and never have to waste those 10 minutes filling up at the gas station. Finally, our electricity comes from a solar-only utility, which means we pay a little more, but I enjoy the mental benefit of using zero carbon to commute.

The only lamentable irony: This machine is so incredible and so popular that Tesla is expanding—to Austin. The influx of jobs will be great for our local economy, but it’ll undoubtedly make my commute even worse.

Each reader will have his or her opinion on what a car should cost. That’s as it should be, because personal finance is just that: personal. I don’t know how much longer I have on this planet, but I would happily trade dollars for time—more time helping clients solve their problems and more time playing with my kids while Dad is still cool. (The teen years are almost upon us, so that moment will soon pass.) Yes, it sets back my journey to financial independence a little. But I’m good with that.

John Goodell is a government attorney who has spent much of his career advocating for military and veterans on tax, estate planning and retirement issues. His biggest passion is spending time with his wife and kids. Follow John at HighGroundPlanning.com and on Twitter @HighGroundPlan. His previous articles include My Five TruthsAt Ease and Income Isn’t Wealth. The opinions expressed here aren’t necessarily those of the U.S. government.

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