By Manisha Thakor | June 13, 2011
Recently a friend emailed me a photo from a gas station. It showed a $100 price tag for filling up the tank on his 2004, fully-paid-for SUV. The message said: "Holy Cow – I've never seen a bill like this before."
Welcome to the new normal in transportation. Millions of consumers who are already reeling from job losses, stagnant wages, and declining home prices now have a new life challenge to add to the list: the specter of $4/gallon gasoline. According to an Associated Press poll, a whopping 4 out of 10 Americans are experiencing financial hardship due to rising gas prices. With the average family spending $110 or more a month on gas than they were just six months ago, it's no wonder many people are finding themselves "gas"-ping for relief.
So what can you do to help ease the financial pain?
Check with your employer to see if they offer a Commuter Account. This nifty employee benefit enables you to pay for commuting-related expenses, such as public transportation costs (think: bus, subway, train, ferry, bicycle and vanpool expenses), as well as parking (either near public transportation or at work) – with pre-tax dollars.
Those last three words, "with pre-tax dollars," contain the hidden treasure. In plain English, that phrase means you could save up to 40 percent on these qualified commuter-related costs. The reason is that, when you sign up for a Commuter Account, the money used to pay for those expenses comes right out of your paycheck before Uncle Sam takes his share, so you are not taxed on those dollars.
Another neat feature of Commuter Accounts is that they are quite flexible. You can sign-up (or sign-off) on a monthly basis throughout the year. This monthly enrollment feature is in contrast to the other types of pre-tax benefits, like health care flexible spending accounts, which limit your ability to sign-up to just once a year during open enrollment period or when you experience a qualifying life event, such as the birth of a child.
As luck would have it, around the corner on June 16th is "Dump the Pump" day. This is a nationwide celebration of the myriad of ways in which we can each rethink our transportation strategies. So if you are driving yourself to work each day and getting sick of the prices at the pump, this is a great time to think about switching to public transportation, as well as taking advantage of Commuter Accounts to pay for your qualified commuting expenses.
Shockingly, only 1 in 5 workers eligible for Commuter Accounts takes advantage of this money-saving benefit. That's why I've teamed up with WageWorks to help raise awareness around this cost savings opportunity. And given that signing up for this benefit is like getting a coupon for up to 40 percent off qualified expenses, you'll want to run – not walk – to your benefits office to see if you are eligible.
Last but not least – let's talk bottom line. How much could you realistically expect to save by taking advantage of these types of programs? Well, each month participants can contribute up to $230 for public transportation and $230 for parking costs – if the parking lot is near the workplace or used to get to the workplace. (To get a sense of the cost savings for your specific situation, check out this nifty online calculator). Assuming full use of these benefits is made by a participant who is in the maximum tax bracket, annual savings can be in the $1,800 to $2,200 range. Now that's something worth gas-ping about – but this time for joy.
“My FSA is a life saver! Last year I was diagnosed with a malignant tumor and luckily I was able to have the necessary surgeries to remove it immediately since my FSA covered all of the out-of-pocket costs for my deductible and medicines.”
Annual Savings: $816