The Carefully Considered MetroCard

by Rachel Kramer Bussel

When I had a full-time job, the decision to buy a weekly unlimited or monthly unlimited MetroCard came down to one thing: how much money (or credit) I could spare at that moment. I live in Brooklyn and commuted to Manhattan, so the subway was a vital part of my budget (not enough that I ever knew when my MetroCard would expire, but it was something I needed to get to work). Usually I went with the monthly card, since I knew I’d be using it at least twice a day — usually three to four times if I ran an errand at lunchtime or went out at night — sometimes less on weekends. But since becoming a full-time freelancer last October with no official office save for the nearest Gimme Coffee, I’ve had to carefully calculate which type of MetroCard will best suit my needs, and the decision is far from clearcut.

The prices seem to change just when I’ve gotten used to them, but currently stand at $29 for a weekly unlimited card, and $104 for a 30-day unlimited card. Single rides cost $2.50, and you get a seven percent bonus for pay-as-you-go cards over $10 (so $10.70 worth for $10). The MTA used to sell an unlimited one-day “fun pass” but discontinued that in 2010 (though I only learned this the other day, when I tried to buy one).

For a while, I was traveling at least twice a month, so it didn’t make sense to buy an unlimited card. I plan to be in the tri-state area for the next few months, so I’ve been trying to figure out a good strategy, but more often than not it seems like a mystical puzzle with no right answer. Some days, I barely leave my apartment, traveling within a six-block radius for coffee and food, then returning home. Other days, I may make several stops, and it’s hard to predict in advance. I tell myself that I will go to my gym, New York Sports Club (monthly fee: $80), whose nearest location is in Manhattan, pretty much every night before I go to sleep, but actually getting myself inside the gym is another matter. Even when I rationalize that only going four times a month works out to $20 per use, it is rarely enough to rouse me, but I continue to pay because I want to encourage myself to work out.

Lately, I’ve been spending several days in a row at my boyfriend’s place in suburban New Jersey, though visits aren’t on a set schedule. Some weeks I’m there for five days in a row, sometimes it’s two, and sometimes it’s one night here, one night there. I’ve been buying pay-as-you-go cards, figuring that as long as I don’t exceed $29 worth of rides in a week, I’m still getting the better part of the deal. That’s true, except it doesn’t take into account the contorted calculations I do when I possess a pay-as-you-go card. Those don’t cost money, but they do cost time and a little bit of stress.

Instead of simply trusting myself to have made the original calculation correctly, when I buy the pay-as-you-go cards, I keep trying to configure my errands to require as few subway stops as possible. Sometimes this means more walking, from, say, the library on Murray Street to my post office box at Canal Street and on up to Union Square (I think it’s a little over a mile total), during which I’m likely to stop at Georgetown Cupcake in SoHo, which I justify it because I run a cupcake blog.

But what I’ve found when it comes to freelancing is that time gets eaten up much more quickly than it did when I had a full-time job — at least, it feels that way. If time is money, then the $2.50 I save by not taking the subway I probably waste in some other form. There’s also the converse problem: When I have an unlimited card, sometimes I feel guilty if all I want to do on a rainy (or lazy) day is relax. I’m a huge fan of public transportation and would be perfectly happy to never have to go in a car again, but I can’t deny that sometimes waiting for the subway and trying to get a seat and negotiating the crowds is not the most fun activity. Even a day off from being a straphanger feels like a mini vacation from, well, my fellow New Yorkers.

It’s funny because while I will try to plan ahead and do whatever I can to not take that one extra ride, I have no problem paying $3 for a bottle of Smart Water at Duane Reade when I’m super thirsty, rather than thinking ahead and refilling a bottle at home (or making use of my gym membership and refilling it there) or impulse buying a $2.99 tabloid. Maybe it’s because when I’m paying for food or a book or a piece of jewelry, I feel like I am getting something tangible, something I couldn’t just create myself. But if I could theoretically walk, whether it’s ten blocks or two miles, at my more penny-pinching moments I feel like I should.

My biggest MetroCard challenge, once I’ve made my purchase, is making sure I know where my weekly or monthly unlimited card is located in my purse, so I don’t mix it up with the stray pay-as-you-go ones floating around in various notebooks and pockets with a few leftover dollars on them. Sometimes I think it would be easier, even if it didn’t work out exactly in my financial favor, to fork over the $104 and just go wherever I wanted within New York City for thirty days. I’d be saving myself mental trial and error that might just be more valuable than money. But, no. I want that money.

Rachel Kramer Bussel is a freelance writer focused on sex, dating, books and pop culture. She’s edited over 40 anthologies, including Suite Encounters: Hotel Sex Stories, Do Not Disturb, The Mile High Club, Going Down, Orgasmic, Women in Lust, and Fast Girls, and is Best Sex Writing Series Editor. She edits the weekly Sex Diaries for Daily Intel and blogs at Lusty Lady and Cupcakes Take the Cake.

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