Adventures in pointless frugality: Shopping for a gas station

Gas prices sign

I’ve been fascinated in one way or another by gas prices ever since I worked at a gas station in college.

At first it was just the geographic variation in prices, like how I could drive across the river from Pennsylvania to New Jersey and pay 30% less.

Then it was the structural variation in prices, tied to oil prices and the geopolitical situation. (Depending on your age, you may not realize how scary things were in 2008, when there was a serious possibility of the gas price crippling our economy.)

And before you Europeans scoff at how cheap gas (ahem, petrol) is in the U.S., let me remind you that at the moment our entire economy is in one way or another linked to gas prices (transportation of people and goods), and if gas becomes unaffordable, we’re basically screwed as a nation.

I’ve owned a car for much of my adult life. One of my Expenses categories is “Transport”, which includes things like train tickets, car parts, and, yes, gas.

All this is a very long way of saying that I’m finally willing to accept that, after so many years, I’ve been approaching filling up my tank all wrong. And all in the name of frugality too.

The price of gas

GasBuddy is a great resource for those who like to nerd out about gas prices. They have data on cheapest and most expensive prices, trends, charts, graphs, and a “heat map” that’s endlessly amusing for people like me.

Gas price heat map
Gas price heat map of the US, showing high and low gas price areas. Source

So let’s do some nerding out.

In my neighborhood in Portland, there is a Shell gas station approximately two blocks from where I live. The price of gas there is currently $3.22 per gallon.

(That’s 69 Eurocents per litre for all you Europeans out there, about one-half to one-third of what you’re paying. Yeah, I know, I’d hate us too.)

But for the longest time, I would never go there. That’s because I have a Costco membership, and Costco is known for having cheap gas.

(Currently, the Costco by my home is $2.93 per gallon, 29 cents or 9% lower than the Shell station.)

So I would always avoid the local Shell station and head out to Costco whenever possible.

The only problem is that this is stupid.

Driving to not save money

The distance between the Shell station (and by extension, where I live) and the Costco is 8.5 miles.

READ MORE:  How to keep your miles from expiring without spending extra money

So, assuming I’m coming from home, that’s a 17 mile round trip.

The average fuel economy of a car in the U.S. is around 24 miles per gallon. (That’s 12 litres per 100 kilometers if you’re following us from Prague.) So to drive to and from Costco requires 17 miles ÷ 24 mpg = 0.71 gallons of fuel.

Now, 0.71 gallons of fuel, at Costco at the given price, would cost $2.08.

Vehicles vary widely, but it doesn’t seem unreasonable to say that the average fill-up is 12 gallons. So if an average driver of this average car with its average fuel economy went to Costco, saving 29 cents per gallon, this average driver would save $0.29 × 12 gal = $3.48.

So with a cost of $2.08 and a benefit of $3.48, you’re netting a grand total of $1.40 per tank.

That $1.40 can buy you…nothing. (Well, okay, you could buy something.)

(Actually, in my specific case the math is slightly worse. My car gets about 40 mpg, so I’d be using 0.425 gallons to get to Costco, costing $1.24, and then filling up 9 gallons for a $2.61 savings, netting me only $1.37 per tank.)

Your time is worth nothing

But what if money is really tight, and/or you drive a lot. In other words, what if you’re an Uber or Lyft driver? (Sorry, that was cheap. But then again, so is Uber and Lyft.)

Let’s talk about time.

It takes between 20-30 minutes to drive to the Costco in question. And I know it’s just as long back. So that’s 40-60 minutes of your time (assuming no queue at Costco) to save $1.40.

Unless you’re in the most direst of situations, that is not worth it. If you need $1.40 that badly, then you might want to rethink your car situation (or at least your Costco membership).

And thing is, that I did this all the time, using Gas Buddy to find the cheapest gas and driving out of my way to get there.

Now, I will admit that this could be just another instance of things feeling cheaper once you start to accumulate wealth. Maybe I’ve forgotten how much $1.40 felt like, or just how little I valued my time. But I’m pretty sure that this is an example of pointless frugality: an act of spending a large amount of time to save very little.

How many hours have I spent driving out of my way over the years? Too many.

How much have I saved doing this? Too little.

READ MORE:  Why holiday shopping is more complex this year

And that’s true regardless of where in the world you’re following along from. No conversion necessary.

But enough about me. Do you shop for a cheaper gas price? Is it worth it to you? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments are closed.