Opinion

Soaring gas prices make commuter benefits a necessity

Ask any commuter across the country and they’ll tell you that the cost of getting from home to the office every day is adding up quickly. While parking costs and public transportation fees don’t change often, gas prices do. And we all know the helpless feeling of watching the dollars rise uncontrollably when the prices are high at the pump.    

Nationally, gas prices have increased by an average of 41 cents compared to this time last year – a gallon of gasoline at the pump now averages about $3.65 nationwide. With no end to increases in sight and some analysts predicting prices of $5 per gallon this summer, consumers are looking to cut costs. Pre-tax commuter benefits accounts are more important than ever as a tool to help people cut down commuting expenses.

While benefits experts are typically familiar with the relief pre-tax commuter accounts provide daily travelers, they’re still a vastly underutilized tool. Based on average commuting costs, my company, WageWorks, Inc., estimates that commuters who take public transportation or park at or near work and elect not to enroll are leaving an average of $45 - $65 dollars on the table every month. You can calculate your savings based on your own transportation costs with our tool here. By using mass transit instead, the tax savings makes the gas commuters do buy go even further.

To improve enrollment, we should help employees understand that commuter accounts can save them up to 40 percent on almost all transportation to work. Eligible benefits include subways, trains, buses, ferries, vanpools and parking. With gas prices soaring, commuter benefits will help keep costs down for daily drivers who decide they would rather take public transportation because it means less gas to purchase and the tax savings on the commuting expenses stretches the money spent on gas even further.

Since commuter benefits are available to participants on a month-to-month basis rather than as a yearly commitment, there’s no reason not to sign up today.  For enrollees whose commuting needs change during the course of the year, they’re not stuck with the same plan. If you are taking vacation or change your commuting behavior, you can easily adjust what is being put aside each month into your account.

Communicating with employees through staff meetings, social networks, inter-office networks and email list serves can go a long way in boosting enrollment. Even as gas prices rise, commuters have options for saving money. Now we just need to make sure they know about them.

About the Author
Jody Dietel

Jody Dietel

Jody Dietel is chief compliance officer at WageWorks, Inc. and executive director of Save Flexible Spending Plans, an advocacy campaign to protect the accessibility and use of flexible spending accounts. Concurrently, she serves on the Board of Directors for the Special Interest Group for IIAS Standards (SIGIS), the industry group that determines standards for the use of Health Payment Cards at merchants without the need for documentation, and is a member of the board of directors for the Employers Council of Flexible Compensation and the HSA Council. A frequent speaker at industry functions, Jody is especially proud of being the only non-attorney to present at Employee Benefits Institute of America's conferences.

For more information visit, www.wageworks.com or www.savemyflexplan.org. To learn more about the proper use and advantages of tax-advantaged benefits, visit www.savesmartspendhealthy.org.  

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