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Is a Higher-Paying Job Worth a Longer Commute?

In August, human-resources consultant Tim Sackett was hired to help the employees at an automotive parts manufacturer transition to a new office. The company was relocating from Livonia, Michigan, in the south Detroit suburbs to Auburn Hills in the north Detroit suburbs. For a lucky 25 percent of the workforce, this meant a shorter commute. But for approximately half the office, it mean an additional 45 minutes on the road each way to and from the office.

Sackett’s task was to convince members of the latter group to stay with the company through the move. The employees’ demands were as varied as their reactions — some employees wanted the company to cover their driving costs; others tried to negotiate a raise; and some took the location change in stride and didn’t ask for anything at all. A few even asked to have a company car.

The question of whether a job is worth a long commute seems like something that would be easily quantifiable. But the dilemma is part of the eternal struggle between a person’s time and money, and the mix of responses Sackett experienced earlier this year speaks to how personally we think about that balance. “[Whether a job is worth the long commute] is such an individual decision,” he says. “It seems like there’s a mathematical formula for nearly everything in life these days. But there’s no equation for this.”

Sackett says the lack of a one-size-fits-all solution stems from the myriad factors that determine a person’s tolerance for commuting. For some, 90 minutes of bumper-to-bumper traffic is something that would require a $10,000 raise to justify. For others, no amount of money is worth their sanity (or family time) and the leisure of a short commute. Then there’s the select few who enjoy their commute as a time to ramp up for or wind down from work.

“It’s hard to quantify because people have different capacities for travel,” says Barbara Wally, a salary negotiation coach. “It’s a quality of life trade-off.”

Such a lack of consensus explains why this problem comes up so often on online personal-finance forums.

Four months ago, a member of the popular Reddit forum r/personalfinance asked whether a 27 percent bump in salary — by all accounts, a massive raise — was worth commuting three hours a day. One responder did the math and found that the job more than covered the increase in gas costs, but the vast majority of responses said no, the job isn’t worth spending three hours a day in the car.

Sackett says this kind of answer is common for people living in rural areas. People in large urban areas are generally more amenable to commuting, Sackett says, mostly because they have access to affordable public transportation. “If you grow up in New York City, commuting is just part of life,” he maintains.

“The crazy thing about living in a city,” he continues, “is that sometimes it might take you 45 minutes to go five miles — and yet, you accept that. But if you make someone drive 45 miles and it takes them 45 minutes to get there, then they have an issue. Mainly because there’s no lifestyle in driving to work. You can’t read. You can listen to podcasts, I guess.”

Indeed, a 2014 University of Waterloo study finds that a person’s commute time is inversely related to their happiness — the longer the commute, the more unhappy people are. Another study finds that cutting someone’s commute by an hour creates as much happiness in their life as giving them a $40,000 raise.

In another r/personalfinance entry, a member asked if he should take a new job offering a whopping 76 percent increase in salary — far more than anyone could ever expect to get in an internal promotion. The new job was at a more prestigious company, and the salary would go a long way toward helping the poster pay down his six-figure student loan debt. But the job meant extending his commute by an hour each way, and the poster had a wife and three kids he didn’t want to be a stranger to. Nor did he want to move north to Los Angeles from Orange County.

In that case, however, many responders said the $60,000 increase was worth the added stress of the commute — at least for a couple years, at which point he should either relocate to L.A. or look for something closer to home.

The situation brings up an important component of the salary-commute calculus: Sometimes, a raise is worth the long commute for the simple fact that it’ll yield an even higher salary in the future. “That’s a big consideration generally with trying to get a higher salary,” Wally says. “If you have a higher salary, you can negotiate off that higher salary in the long term.”

Still, the time vs. money debate comes up often for Wally’s clients and is the main reason why so many more job candidates are trying to negotiate for remote-work privileges or flexible office hours. “People typically want to work remotely, and it’s what comes up most frequently with the clients I work with,” Wally says.

Wally adds that employers are usually more receptive to candidates asking to work remotely than they are to candidates trying to negotiate for a commute-based raise.

That’s precisely the position Sackett found himself in earlier this year with the auto parts manufacturer. Ten percent of the employees quit after the move was announced, which was less than the 20 percent anticipated. And while the company offered a $10,000 bonus to anyone who sold their home and bought a new one near the new office, Sackett admits that amount hardly covered the costs associated with moving. The only employees who were offered raises were a few of the engineers, since it would have cost more to replace them.

But that doesn’t mean everyone would be inclined to take the raises. After all, some people place more of a premium on their free time than on cold hard cash.