We don’t just talk about weird ways to make and save money here at The Penny Hoarder — we live them.
While penny hoarding isn’t a requirement to work here, it’s hard not to pick up some frugal habits when your work focuses on them every day.
So I was excited to learn our lead developer, Branndon Coelho, landed on a creative solution to save money on gas for his commute to work after he and his family relocated to join our St. Petersburg, Florida, office.
Adjusting to a New Commute
Before the move, Coelho was self-employed and working from home in Southern California. He was fortunate to evade the dreaded daily commute.
Coelho, his wife and their two young daughters moved across the country in their 2006 Dodge Ram Diesel Dually. They brought no other vehicle to the city, where Coelho would be commuting about five miles each day to the downtown office.
The truck is a beast, long and wide, and “has that diesel sound,” he points out. It’s not ideal for driving and parking in the city.
Coelho’s wife is home with the kids while he’s at work. She doesn’t often drive during the day, but they like her to have a vehicle at home if she needs it.
They needed a creative solution.
Save Money, Time and Headaches With an Electric Bike
Coelho’s answer to his newfound transportation question isn’t too shocking at first glance: He bought a bike.
A little more surprising, though? It’s an electric bike.
Many a health- and environmentally-conscious person will leave the car at home in favor of the cheaper, non-polluting, easy-to-park bicycle. But Coelho is the first person I’ve met to choose an electric bicycle.
It’s the first time I’d heard such a thing existed, to be honest.
Why the throttle, instead of good, old-fashioned manpower?
“It’s too far, and I’m not in shape,” Coelho admits.
But the decision goes beyond a simple aversion to daily exercise. “With the summer heat here (in Florida), I know I’m not going to be pedaling for five miles.”
“And I don’t want to take the truck, because it’s huge and polluting and costs money in gas, and (I have to find) parking,” he explains.
“An electric bike is basically the easiest way to get here.”
Adding a battery-powered motor to the traditional transportation allows Coelho to reap the financial and environmental benefits of riding a bike — without the misery of working up a sweat that has nowhere to go in Florida’s already-saturated 90-degree summer humidity.
And the bike trumps a vehicle in convenience.
“When I just want to go to the donut shop, and I have the choice between driving the truck [and] cruising on the bike, it’s convenient to just hop on the bike and go,” he says.
He even has a trailer to tow behind the bike, so he can bring his daughters along on short trips.
How Much Can an Electric Bike Help You Save?
With no previous daily commute to compare to, the bike’s impact on Coelho’s budget isn’t straightforward.
But it’s hard to deny he’s saving money compared to driving his truck or purchasing a second vehicle.
Let’s say he bought a second car: an average vehicle that gets 24 miles per gallon of gas.
For a five-mile commute each way, with today’s $2.22 per gallon national average gas price, he’s saving $18.50 per month on gas alone.
If he shirked the meters and parked a car in a nearby $3/day lot, that’s another $60 per month.
Even if he took the time to find free parking, the savings would be psychological — parking the bike inside the office is much less of a hassle than finding the perfect spot for a car.
He also didn’t have to pay to insure or register his bike, as he would have for a second vehicle.
To register a car purchased in Florida, he’d pay about $130 upfront, then about $30 per year to renew.
He pays $95 per month to insure the truck and would expect to pay about the same for a second vehicle.
So, he’ll save up to $2,212 in his first year commuting with the electric bike.
And that doesn’t include the cost of buying a second car.
How Much Does an Electric Bike Cost?
As you might expect, an electric bike is pricier than its mechanical counterpart — but much cheaper than an automobile.
Coelho paid $1,750 upfront for his used bike. He shopped around and found new models between $3,000 and $7,000.
“I don’t think I’m getting a $7,000 bike,” he says, emphatically. “Even $3,000 for a bike sounds like a lot, but when I use it to replace my work vehicle,” it’s not so hard to justify, he points out.
With a tight budget after the cross-country move, the used bike fit his family’s price range.
“If I bought a car in that range, it would be a bad car,” he says, “and, if I have a choice between a nice bike and a bad car, I’ll take the nice bike.”
The bike is also cheaper and easier to maintain than a beater car would be.
In the almost eight months he’s owned it, Coelho has spent about $640 in bike maintenance. The biggest share of it was a $500 new battery.
“If I could do it again,” he says, “I’d probably have gotten something with some kind of factory warranty,” which would have saved him the $500 bill.
As fast as an electric bike goes — Coelho’s flies up to 28 miles per hour without any pedaling — bumps in the road jolt it quite a bit more than a regular bike. A factory warranty would save money by covering basic maintenance this stress necessitates, usually for two years.
He’s spent about $200 customizing the bike, as well: a more comfortable seat, fenders to prevent splashing in the rain and differently-positioned handlebars.
If he sold the bike now, Coelho estimates he could get about $1,500.
And of course, since the bike runs on battery power, he has to plug it in. He doesn’t notice any impact on his electric bill from charging, but estimates it costs between $1-$2 per month.
What Happens When It Rains?
A bicycle is fine transportation when the weather is perfect. And a pedal-optional electric bike is fine even if the heat is sweltering.
But what do you do if it rains? It does that a lot here.
“I’ve ridden in the rain, and I just bring my rain gear,” Coelho explains.
“I imagine I’ll ride during the summer and I’ll ride during the rain, and I’ll ride during everything. As long as I have the gear for it, there’s no reason for me not to,” he says.
With about 248 annual days of sunshine, St. Petersburg makes an electric bike an attractive option.
Even its 97 days with measurable precipitation are generally mild: It never snows, and the rain most days lasts only a few minutes.
If you live in an area that sees snow and freezing temperatures, you’ll likely face the same barriers on an electric bike as you would with a pedal version. While Coelho benefits in the heat from not pedaling, you probably won’t see the same relief in the cold.
In such a case, you might consider weather-proofing your bike — and yourself — for the winter, or using an older electric model as your winter bike.
Other Things to Consider When Buying an Electric Bike
Coelho mentioned few downfalls to the bike.
While he prefers it over driving a car or traditional bike, he did point out, “A lot of electric bikes look like electric bikes, because you can see the battery, so they’re a higher theft target.”
You need a key to start the bike, but a wily thief could hot-wire it or sell it as-is, like any stolen vehicle.
Finally, the bike runs on battery power, so you have to keep it charged. Is that a hassle?
Coelho says not at all.
A port on the side of the battery allows him to charge his bike “just like plugging in a laptop.” He says some models require you to remove the battery from the bike to charge, so that would be a little more difficult.
The battery should get between 15 and 25 miles per charge, so Coelho can get to work and back each day without an issue.
Another advantage of the electric bike over a car: If the battery dies or otherwise fails you mid-trip, you’re not stranded — it’s still a bike.
There’s no need to call someone for a jump or pay for a tow truck. Just pedal!
Your Turn: Would you replace your car with an electric bike to save money?
Dana Sitar (@danasitar) is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. She’s written for Huffington Post, Entrepreneur.com, Writer’s Digest and more, attempting humor wherever it’s allowed (and sometimes where it’s not).