They’re not getting rich working out of their cars. But with gasoline prices plunging, the road to making a living is a lot less bumpy.
For pizza delivery drivers, cabbies and anyone else fueling up their vehicles every few days, pump prices below $2 a gallon can mean weekly savings of $20, $50 or even $150, compared to just a year ago.
The benefit is as much psychological as it is economic.
“Whenever you get that break on the price of gas, it just feels really good,” said Patty Bodling. She has gone through seven cars in her 33 years making home visits for the Visiting Nurse Association of Kansas City.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Wichita Eagle
Visiting health care workers and pizza delivery drivers aren’t the only ones enjoying the plummet in oil prices, which are down by half since June, driving fuel prices to lows not seen since 2009.
Every driver likely has noticed they are paying less – a lot less.
For the average U.S. household with two vehicles, gasoline expenses last week were about $25 lower than what was spent in a week this past summer.
Businesses are getting a boost, too, from truckers to plumbers.
It’s a temporary windfall, for sure, and the benefits have not been extended to, say, airline tickets, groceries or package deliveries.
But the impact is real enough to millions of people – including the delivery crew at Waldo Pizza.
For the moment it means real growth in delivery captain Ryan Papke’s checking account. Nothing astounding, maybe $100 a month, but enough to make him feel better about pursuing a loan on a second car that doesn’t smell like pepperoni inside.
“Right now we’re winning in an occupation where we sometimes feel like we’re losing,” said Papke, 33.
The smart drivers, he said, don’t blow the extra cash in their pockets at area nightclubs, as some younger ones do. Rather, the smart ones invest while they can in vehicle repairs, save for a down payment on another car, or whittle down debts.
“I love my job … but it absolutely destroys a car’s parts,” Papke said. “I'll tear through 30,000-mile brakes in 15,000. Oil changes, maintenance, tires are an ongoing expense.”
For hundreds of area taxi drivers, who pay for their own gas, the weekly fuel savings can exceed $150 from what they were spending a few months ago, said Bill George of the Kansas City Transportation Group.
“They’re all in a good mood, like nirvana,” George said. “The drivers bore the brunt of high prices last year. And they’re now getting 100 percent of the benefit of lower prices.”
Angel Lopez is among them.
Driving his own Crown Victoria, Lopez calculates his fuel savings at about $70 per week.
“We need to enjoy it while it’s here,” he said.
With more cash in his pocket over the holidays, Lopez chose to take off more hours. Other drivers are doing the opposite, making the most of cheap gas by spending more time on the road.
Xavier DeJesus, a driver for the ride-hailing service UberX, last week filled up his Kia Sorento for $27, half what he paid when he signed up for UberX in June.
“I’m gassing up more often and getting out,” DeJesus said. Because the cost of filling a tank is less, “you need only two rides to start making a profit. Sometimes you only need one ride. It’s worth it to get out there.”
Cash in the can
About 120 traveling health care staffers with the Visiting Nurse Association log a total of 1.5 million miles a year across a 17-county region in their own vehicles. They’re reimbursed 56 cents a mile whether gasoline prices are high or low.
When the prices are low, a little box of spending cash in physical therapist Bodling’s home fills up with 10s and 20s.
“You literally see that box of money grow,” said Bodling, who drives her Toyota Avalon to the homes of five patients each workday.
“I don’t put on nearly as many miles as some nurses, but I’m noticing a big difference,” she said. There’s maybe $30 more left in the box each week after she buys groceries.
Waldo Pizza deliveryman Jon Paul notices the same with the tea bag tin that holds his spare cash.
On top of the restaurant drivers’ base salary and tips, they collect delivery fees based on the distances they travel. For every delivery close to the restaurant, Zone 1, their paychecks go up $1 to cover mileage and their cars’ wear and tear.
In zones farther out, they collect another 50 cents or more.
The delivery fees are calibrated to match the federal tax deduction of roughly 56 cents per mile for work-related travel, said Waldo Pizza owner Phil Bourne: “If they drive 100 miles, hopefully they’re getting $56 from delivery fees.”
When gas prices hit $3.50 a gallon, some drivers complained that the reimbursement wasn’t covering costs. Sometimes they would need a $10 loan from Bourne at the start of the day to fuel up their cars and pay it back at shift’s end with the tips they collected.
Nobody is complaining now.
And that includes longtime driver Paul, who likened his job to playing poker.
“Some weeks you win a little, some you lose a little,” he said. “When you’re winning, you want to stockpile as much as you can.”
Price of diesel
The price of diesel fuel hasn’t dropped as sharply as that for gasoline.
But it has dropped enough for Mid Central Contractors to pocket about $3,000 a week from what it was spending a few months back to fuel its fleet of five dozen trucks, said transportation manager Bob Lodestein.
His firm, as well as trucking companies and drivers who own their rigs, will happily take the savings. But many would prefer stability over the wild price swings of recent years, Lodestein said.
“The way it is, you don’t know what the prices are going to be in six months,” he said.
That makes it difficult for companies such as Mid Central to set rates on its customers from year to year.
“Stability would be awesome.”
Charges on bills
Fuel surcharges also are starting to come down, although not always as quickly.
UPS has a monthly surcharge that lags the price of diesel, the fuel it uses, by two months. The fuel’s prices are provided by the federal Energy Information Administration, and the company posts on its website how it determines the charge.
“We make it very transparent to our customers,” said Susan Rosenberg, a spokeswoman for UPS.
Consumers who ship, for example, a 20-pound box from Kansas City to Los Angeles using UPS Ground that costs $30 will save about 46 cents.
Airlines so far aren’t even that generous. Airfares continue to rise even though jet fuel prices are down 40 percent. Airlines say a lot of that is due to fuel prices being locked in.
But that will change this year. Delta said it could save $1.5 billion in fuel costs, and the International Air Transport Association said cheaper fuel will help push airline net profits from $20 billion to $25 billion.
The trade group predicts fares this year will drop 5.1 percent.
In the big picture, the decline in oil prices – down by half since June – is beginning to pinch energy states like Texas and North Dakota, but overall it’s a boost for the nation’s economy, with more money available for other things besides fuel.
Cheaper fuel prices could add up to $219 billion, or roughly 1 percent to the country’s $17 trillion economy, said Stephen Brown, a former economist with the Federal Reserve Bank in Dallas.
That’s not a huge effect, but it’s enough to get attention, said Brown, now a professor of economics at the University of Nevada.
“It’s a pretty nice number.”