The Real Cost of Owning a Car

I feel like we’ve posted a lot about transportation the last few weeks but that’s where my mind has been. There were some great comments in response to my post last week about visiting a friend who lives car-free in D.C. and it got me thinking about alternative transportation. It also got me thinking about how much money I spend on my car.

I read a book about going car-free awhile back that claimed people could save $10,000+ per year by going car-free and my immediate thought was “Sure, if you have a new car and are making payments.” Of course, in the back of my mind was a little voice saying “Geez, I don’t want to know how much I spend on my car!” So I put off the calculations for awhile but I finally sat down this week and cranked through it. The numbers are a little rough because I didn’t track down all my expenses for the last two years. I also sincerely hope that I won’t spend as much money on car repairs as I did last year ($1,800) even though I am probably just deluding myself.

I paid cash for my car but lets spread that cost over 5 years and assume that I’ll get about $1,000 for it when I finally give up and sell it. I spent about $4,000 on the car in 2005 which included the grease conversion and a new set of tires. So that would be $3,000 over 5 years or $600/year.

car purchase = $600/year
insurance = $350/year
plates = $80/year ($35 for “environmental” plates)
oil changes = $200/year
maintenance = $800/year

So the grand total is $2,030 per year in base costs. Since I bought the car 3.5 years ago, I have driven 46,646 miles which is about 13,327 miles per year. That’s probably a little high considering I drove the car to Oregon and back in 2005 so lets say with my new lifestyle I drive more like 10,000 miles per year. (Yes, I like nice round numbers).

More rounding gives us $2,000 divided by 10,000 miles or 20 cents per mile in base costs. Ouch!

I figure a tank of diesel costs me about $50 and takes me about 500 miles, which gives me a nice round figure of 10 cents/mile.

So driving my car on (free) veggie oil costs about 20 cents per mile while driving my car on diesel costs about 30 cents per mile. On an annual basis, if I drive 80% of the time on diesel, I’m spending a total amount of roughly $3,600 on transportation, or $300/month$2,800 or $233/month (sorry, had a bad math moment there). This makes the bus ($1.25/trip) and carshare programs ($15/hour) seem much more affordable. If I were to sell my car and set aside $150/month for transportation costs, I could use that money for five hours of carshare time ($15×5= $75) plus 28 bus trips ($1.25×28 = $35) and still have $40 left to buy fancy accessories for my bicycle or save up for a plane ticket.

Alas, with my current job situation I need access to a car pretty continuously during field trip season so I probably can’t go totally car-free just yet. We also don’t have a carshare program here so that’s not an option. I’m thinking perhaps the solution is for Will and I to share one car but the next question is – which one? Tune in next week for another stimulating session of applied mathematics!

Your weekend homework: How much does YOUR car cost? this!

10 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    Brian said,

    June 6, 2008 @ 10:02 pm

    I’m care free in Seattle, and I’ve never really done the math on what it would truly cost to own a car here. However, I have to imagine the math is even better in my favor since a) insurance is way more expensive here and b) mass-transit is way more convenient. Thus, I’ve been car-free for four years now and (mostly) loving it. There are definitely days when it’s a drag, but for the most part it just works.

  2. 2

    Andy said,

    June 6, 2008 @ 11:55 pm

    It’s great when people actually make the calculations and look at the options. I think that’s why I like this blog a lot.

    My 2 cents:
    People always round down expenses, and round up the costs of alternatives. I see it as comfort in thinking that what we do now is “not so bad” or “good enough.” You shouldn’t disregard the fact that you spent $1,800 on repairs one year, because it was the reality of owning the car, even though it may not be that expensive each year.
    On the flip side, carsharing is pretty wacky at $15 dollars and hour. Here’s a few other places that I had searched randomly (mostly):
    Ithaca Carshare (ok so this is the one I work for): $5-8/hr + 20c/mi
    Philly CarShare: $6-8/hr + 9c/mi
    CityCarShare (San Fran): $5/hr + 40c/mi
    AutoShare (Toronto): $5-10/hr
    Community Car (Madison, WI): $8/hr
    Now of course these also carry other costs like monthly fees which make i incredibly difficult to compare prices, but they are a bit cheaper than the $15 you mention.

    I think the most important point is that when you own a car, you also own the convenience it carries. I can’t count how many times I drove somewhere because I wanted something which could have not been done, or could have been combined with another trip, or could have been done by bike. Now that I don’t own a car, I don’t make those random trips, so I not only buy less, but the times when I would use carshare I want to be extremely efficient with my time since I’m paying for it directly. You should make an estimate of how many times you drove when you could have gotten around by other means, and add that to your expenses and I think it will make not owning a car look even better. Of course it all depends on where you live, where you work, how you live, and what conveniences you are willing to lose… but that’s exactly the reason why I chose to live and work in an area I knew I could bike/walk to and not need to own cars.

  3. 3

    Emily said,

    June 7, 2008 @ 10:45 am

    Our car (while we’re still making payments) costs us about $688/month. That’ll go down to $450/month in a year when we’re done with payments…and hopefully it won’t need $2500 of work each year. We could have gotten a car for half the price, but it was important to us to get a high efficiency/low emissions vehicle. We do have a second car but use it only about 4000 miles/yr. I figure that costs about $150/month.

    We drive to work together each day, and we take a fair few car vacations that are a vital part of making our lives meaningful (retreats, seeing family and friends). There is no bus service within 7miles of us, so doing without a car would mean we’d have to move.

    I’ve been kicking around the car-having vs. country-land-having equation for a while now. When we moved here from the deep forest, living in the city was absolutely unthinkable. I do love where we live, and I love my ever-expanding garden – though I could feasibly garden in the right city lot, too. Of course, given the current housing market, we probably couldn’t sell if we wanted to… *sigh* For the moment, I’m building my biking chops and trying not to feel too guilty about still having a car.

  4. 4

    Will said,

    June 7, 2008 @ 1:12 pm

    Brian: I’ll have to ask Naea. She just got a car after having been car-free for a while.

    Andy: I think that Maggie purposefully rounded the way she did to show that even in the worst-case scenario, it can make a lot of sense to go car-free. $15 is the cost that Maggie’s friend in DC pays, but it would probably be cheaper here. IU almost brought in Zipcar at one point, so I’ll use their cost in Columbus as a comparison. Their charge is $9 an hour plus $50/year (and a one-time $25 fee that I’ll ignore). So for $75 in a month, you could drive a little less than 8 hours a month instead of 5.

    Hmm… except that the rest of the numbers don’t quite work. Maggie’ll go back through and fix them in a bit, but basically, her total cost of ownership is more like $235 a month.

    I’ve talked to some people who’ve lived in bigger cities (Seattle and Pittsburgh) and the lack of parking has a similar effect on them. Once they’ve got a parking spot, they won’t move their car unless they have a bunch of errands to go on at once. One guy I talked to at the wedding even kept a bike in the back of his truck so that he could just park in the right general area and then bike the rest of the way!

    Emily: Yeah, one of the reasons I’ve been able to use my car so little is that we’ve borrowed Maggie’s parents’ car for vacations. Driving to NC is about 670 miles each way and I tend to make 1-2 trips a year. Without access to another car, that’d add over 2500 miles a year to my driving!

    I think Maggie’s most recent plan is to buy a house close to the city and then save up to get some land in the country. That way, we could still drive infrequently but could get some of those country benefits when we need to.

  5. 5

    Linnea said,

    June 8, 2008 @ 2:33 am

    My numbers: I bought the car for $1800 about six months ago and spend about $40 a month on gas (at $4+/gallon). I get a bus pass for free from work, so generally speaking that’s what I use to get around town (if I didn’t have a pass, the fare just went up to $1.75 peak). I also have a bike, but I’m really not a fan of cycling downtown, so I use it primarily for recreation. So… My car owning expenses are about $340 a month. Zipcar costs $10/hr here, with stupid penalties tacked on for no reason (which is why I no longer have a membership), so I reckon I’d spend about $50 a week that way.

    I loved not having a car, parking can be a real pain in Seattle, but there are enough times when I need to get to a showroom in Tacoma in an hour, or transport a delicate model to class, that it’s become an unfortunate necessity. It also means that I can buy more groceries in bulk, because I have a way to carry it home.

  6. 6

    Maggie said,

    June 8, 2008 @ 12:14 pm

    Andy –
    I rounded in an extremely lazy way to make the math easier, which it turns out was pointless since I did it wrong anyway. 🙂 But it’s true that it’s easy to round expenses down and costs up. My next post will talk about the phenomenon you mention that having a car makes it so much easier to drive when we don’t actually need to – my original post here was about twice as long and I decided I needed to break it up. But it was your comments on the car-free post about inefficient driving trips and how car-sharing can be financially a lot cheaper than owning that got me on this roll. Thanks.

  7. 7

    Andy said,

    June 8, 2008 @ 4:32 pm

    Great Maggie, I’ll look forward to that!

    I have always wished to get rid of my car, and I’m so glad I finally did. In high school, I rode my bike most of the time in decent weather, and carpooled the rest of the time. In college I lived 8 miles from campus, but drove a shuttle van which brought an average of 13 people (throughout the day – this was a 7 person van) who would have otherwise driven to class. Now that I’m in the “real world” I was able to move to a place I knew I didn’t need a car for. Although there’s a great bus system AND I get free bus passes, I’ve been walking and biking everywhere because I like the exercise, and it means less time spent inside. There’s 2 numbers that stick with me, which is the only motivation I need to get outside of buildings or cars: The average American spends 95% of their time indoors and watches 4 hours of TV in a day. I have been listening to people say how they need a car because it just takes too long any other way, but if they are spending that saved time watching TV, than was there really a convenience to driving?

    The other thing about convenience I like to talk about is the car-free move from the Green As A Thistle blog. She could have sided with convenience and rented a truck to move from one place to across town, but instead she posted for people to come by and help out on bike. From the video there it looked like everyone had fun, completely random people showed up to help, friends were made, and someone said they would do the same type of move if they have the opportunity in the future. Now which is better: convenience of moving by car/truck quickly or meeting a bunch of cool new people while moving everything by bikes on awesome trailers, and making a fun day out of it?!

  8. 8

    The Real Cost of Owning a Car Continued | said,

    June 9, 2008 @ 10:11 am

    […] my Friday post I talked about the fixed costs of car ownership and figured that I spend about $2,000 a year before […]

  9. 9

    Lori said,

    June 9, 2008 @ 2:24 pm

    Wow, I’d never really thought about the true cost of owning and operating my car. I bought my 2003 Toyota Matrix new, so I may have a bit more base cost than others, but if I assume I’ll have it for a total of 8 years, sell it for about $2500 when I’m through with it, and calculate in oil changes, gas (assuming $4/gallon, which we haven’t quite hit here in St Louis), personal property taxes, licensing and insurance, I’m sitting right around $320 / month. If you add the parking pass that I just gave up for a light rail pass (woohoo!), that would add $80 / month to the expenses. Without the parking pass, I’m spending 48 cents / mile – our office reimburses at 50.5 cents, so I’d come out marginally ahead financially. Of course, my car gets 36 mpg. I’d hate to see the cost per mile of the average, 25 mpg car purchased new.

    We have WeCar, and it’s brand new to us. I just sat with representatives from Enterprise to talk about the program and consider it for our office. They charge $10 / hour or $30 to take it between 6 pm and 8 am. Since I just switched over the public transportation to the office, I’m looking into signing up for those late nights in the office. The fee to join is only $15 / year here.

    Thanks for making me really think about my addiction to my vehicle and what it’s costing me!

  10. 10

    Lori said,

    June 9, 2008 @ 2:27 pm

    To follow up. Here at least, WeCar’s $10 / hour includes insurance, taxes, gas, and mileage. Guess we have it cheap compared to others…for now…

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