The Real Cost of Owning A Car Continued

So I’ve been thinking a lot about what it would take to go car-free and how the finances would really work out. My friend in D.C. is living car-free but says she was disappointed in the local carshare program because of its expense – $15/hour plus a membership fee (if my memory is correct). Andy, a car-free commenter, looked around and saw that rates are generally cheaper in other areas ($5-$12/hour plus mileage, membership). He also pointed out that living without a car and using a carshare money ends up cheaper in the long run because

1. you’re not paying those fixed costs of car ownership that no one thinks about

2. you learn to make your trips much more efficient when you are paying a price that feels expensive

In my Friday post I talked about the fixed costs of car ownership and figured that I spend about $2,000 a year before I even drive it anywhere. When I add in fuel costs, I spend about $2,800 a year or $233 a month. (I originally posted a miscalculated number of $3,600 a year; sorry.) I tried breaking my costs down on a per mile basis but concluded those numbers are misleading because the more you drive, the cheaper the “per mile” cost becomes. This became especially obvious when I compared notes with Will. He only spends about $900 a year on his car but he only drives about 3000 miles so his “per mile” cost is higher than mine.  (Viewed another way, once you own a car there is very little economic incentive to drive efficiently since most of your costs are the same regardless of how much you drive – gas being the major exception.)

I’m still not sure how to objectively compare the cost of car ownership to other alternatives except to say that if I took the $233 I currently spend every month on transportation and applied it to living a car-free lifestyle, I would have a lot of flexibility to cover bus costs and rent a car when needed. Plus I’d get the fringe benefits of extra exercise and time spent outdoors from walking and biking. Andy says his main motivation to go car-free was reading a statistic that the average American spends 95% of their time indoors and watches 4 hours of TV a day. He decided he’d rather use those 4 hours for walking or biking and let go of the need for instant convenience and superquick transportation time.

So I’m trying to figure out an option that will put me really close to car-free but still allow me to go on environmental field trips out in the boonies. For starters, Will and I are planning to become a one-car household. It should be cheaper for each of us and allow us to allot some of our transportation budget towards bicycle upgrades or an electric scooter or maybe a vacation fund. So the question is, which car do we sell? At this point, I think we will sell my car for two main reasons

1. His car seems to need much less maintenance (as in $120 versus $800+)

2. If we keep “his” car, I will be able to psychologically convince myself that I should really minimize driving since it’s “his” car. (I’m sure I could totally accept it as “my” car but I want to discourage myself a little from driving when it’s not necessary.) Will is already very good at not driving unnecessarily.

I’m sad to let go of the greasecar dream but my particular greasecar has needed a LOT of maintenance pretty consistently over the last three years. I also feel that greasecars really only make sense for commutes and long drives, which is something I’d like to avoid. Hopefully I can sell my greasecar to someone in town who will let me borrow/rent it for road trips. And maybe I’ll try again in the future with a newer diesel that (hopefully) will require less maintenance. For now, I’m looking forward to living a car-minima life.

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4 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    cinco said,

    June 9, 2008 @ 11:27 am

    Random: Salon article on flying vs. driving

    I don’t think I saved any of my many price comparison spreadsheets, but I believe my options looked roughly like this (in Washington, D.C.):

    -Cost of car: $2,000-3,000 (used Toyota, Honda, or Subaru with a good history). Monthly payment would probably be in the $200-300 range.
    -Insurance each year: $500-600 depending on the make and model of the car (quote from Geico–horrifying!!!)
    -Cost of gas: Who knows! When I had a car over a year ago, I filled the 11-gallon tank around once a week. A year ago I paid around $3.30/tank. Probably a low estimate to say $40/week x 52 weeks = yearly cost of $2080
    -Possible maintenance on car: Unknown

    Cost of transportation:
    -$3 a day to ride the bus to work; this is reimbursed in full by my job (they pay either parking or transit fees).
    -$85 hard-wearing Timbuk2 bag to hold all the stuff that my car used to (jacket, umbrella, lunch, etc.)
    -Time waiting for buses and trains
    -Difficulty transporting large or heavy items
    -Difficulty or inability to go certain places

    You can see how easy that decision was to make, at least financially. Housing is extremely expensive here, and on one income using transit I have something left in the bank at the end of the month. If I had a car, I’d be buying gas and groceries on credit cards.

    I admit that sometimes it is a huge pain to not have a car. Shopping is problematic–forget bringing your IKEA purchases home on the bus. I grocery shop about three times more often than I used to since it is cheaper than renting a Zipcar (in my area, car costs range between $8-15 per hour depending on the car (and traffic guarantees that I would never get anything done in under an hour!). However, there are no cars within a mile of me, so depending on the errand I would probably need to pay for transportation on one or both ends of the trip. Costs are also higher on the weekend when I would be most likely to use the service). Right now I live in an area with accessible transit, but many other cities have far fewer options (one county a mile away from me has no buses on Sundays), and I still have trouble on weekends as the buses stop running at midnight and my metro station doesn’t have a cab stop.

    Overall, I enjoy having what I think is a slower but more active lifestyle (on average, I walk two miles a day). After the first few months I mainly quit being annoyed about all the “wasted time” that I spend waiting for buses (DC’s MetroBus is notoriously late). I bring my mp3 player and a book everywhere so I can entertain myself (I read more than twice as many books last year than I did the year before). I found driving and sitting (in my un-air conditioned car) in traffic far less enjoyable than sitting on a cool, peaceful bus listening to podcasts. Also, MetroBuses run on natural gas.

    /longest comment ever

  2. 2

    Student Doctor Green said,

    June 9, 2008 @ 8:02 pm

    You guys are enviro-math geniuses. Keep it coming.

  3. 3

    Andy said,

    June 10, 2008 @ 6:35 pm

    I’m glad you pointed out the price per mile issue too. Having a lower price per mile is good, but only if the total miles driven allows that to be cheaper.

    Anyway, for how I am living right now, being car free was the obvious option. I drove a 1997 Subaru with almost 200,000 miles, ready for it to die any day. I purposely moved to a place where I knew I could find a green job, make enough money to pay the bills, and live close enough to work and the places I need to go for biking and walking to fill 99% of my wants. For the past 6 years I’ve been wondering why people get trapped in the car using cycle, where a good amount of money made at work goes towards paying off a car, so I’m glad to have sucessully avoided that. I don’t need to work to pay to get to work!

    Here are my expenses:
    Bike: expected to last 5 years, loosing $100 value per year = $8.33/mo
    Repairs: estimating $50/yr = $4.17
    Getting my exercise on the way to work: priceless! ha

    So my estimated commuting costs are about $13 a month, which about 2% of what I earn, and that sounds good to me. There are still car costs I have because my girlfriend still has a car, which I generally never drive. She commutes 20 miles in a week with that, but might start trying the bus to see if those times work for her. The main problem is that her shift ends close to the last bus time, and if for some reason she missed the bus I would have to pick her up, or she would have to walk 3 miles.
    Keep up the good blogging!
    -Andy

  4. 4

    emma said,

    June 11, 2008 @ 6:30 pm

    We have four kids and just spent many days trying to figure out the cost of going carless vs. keeping the car. We figured out that, although we probably spend more like $600+ a month (with insurance and repairs) on the car, it was too inconvenient to go carless for a family of six. I can barely carry home the ingredients for one dinner without a car, let alone the whole week. We’re just making a real concerted effort to use the car less (carpools, public bus, walking). It is a real dilemma in this country.

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