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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Budget Hero

Budget Hero title screenYou’re probably familiar with Marketplace on NPR, but did you know that they make games now too? They recently published an online “watercooler game” called Budget Hero. It’s pretty basic and is currently pretty slow since their server is getting hammered, but it’s worth a look. Balancing the federal budget has never been so interesting!

When you start the game, you get to pick three goals, which is a nice way of reminding you that there’s no objectively best federal budget. The best you can do is to have a budget that is the best at a particular category. Once that’s done, you get a bunch of dials at the bottom that tell you how your budget looks in terms of long-term sustainability, current deficit, and your goals. Above that are buildings that represent different budget categories, the taller the more expensive. It’s an amazing way of visualizing the budget. I had no idea how little a portion of the budget goes to education, especially versus the big three: defense (and diplomacy), healthcare, and social security. Clicking on a building gives you a selection of “cards” that describe a budget change (“reduce military spending by 10%”) and a cost or benefit (“-$305 billion”). Double-clicking gives you more information on the pros and cons of that particular card. You can also modify taxes in a similar way.

Playing around with it was really interesting. Although I’ve heard about things like Bush’s tax cuts, it’s hard to put it all in perspective. In Budget Hero, I can put it in terms that I understand (if I repeal Bush’s tax cuts, I can fund mandatory healthcare and alternative energy research).

There are some drawbacks too. Clicking on a building (budget topic) can sometimes give you a “server is busy” error message. The cards also focus on specific policy directions that have been talked about. If you want to do something off the wall, you won’t be able to model that here.

Despite these minor flaws, it’s entertaining and a great way to make sense of the budget. It also helped me get a handle on the costs of some of the issues I feel passionate about and what I’d have to sacrifice to pay for them.

I highly recommend trying it out!

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Learning About Mortgages

Coin TowerWill and I went to talk to a mortgage broker today at Lotus Mortgage. We’re starting to get serious about buying a house and we figured our next step was finding out if we even qualify for a loan. It turns out that we do, which is very reassuring. We don’t make a lot of money but we have really good credit (the broker told me I have the highest credit score he’s every seen for someone under 40) and we have quite a bit of money in savings – at least as a percentage of our income.

I felt really good hearing that we’re doing all the right things financially but really bad hearing that there are a lot of people out there – of all income levels – who are not doing it right. It is very scary to me that there are people making six figures who have less money in the bank than we do. It’s especially scary as I start to hear more about increasing foreclosures and an impending recession and people being abruptly reminded that credit is not a source of free money.

I think part of the reason we’re doing well financially is that we put a lot of effort into living sustainably and in accordance with our values.  (Part of it is also an ingrained terror of debt.)  We have a strong set of goals we’re working towards and we spend (and save) our money accordingly.  It’s frustrating sometimes and a lot of times I struggle to identify my next goal but in general it keeps me going in the right direction.  I’ve also learned that not buying something very rarely makes me unhappy.  There are moments when I think “If only I had enough money to buy a fancy compost tumbler!” but they honestly don’t last that long.  And those times when I do spend $50 on something I thought I desperately wanted, I generally lose interest within a couple of weeks.

I believe a house will be a satisfying purchase.  Will and I are still debating about some of the details like which house and what features are we looking for but I’m sure we’ll figure it out eventually.  Or perhaps we’ll buy one of those charming country homes with a 1200 square foot detached garage and one of us can just live there.

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When Should We Buy Organic?

Baby Eating An AppleI try to eat organic foods when possible. I believe we need to lobby for organically, sustainably produced whole foods and that it’s important to put my money where my mouth is but it can be challenging to follow my ideals and still stay within our grocery budget ($240/month). There are times when cheap and healthy align well (oatmeal is cheaper than PopTarts) and times when they conflict (organic cheese costs a lot more than Velveeta).

I was excited to read what Get Rich Slowly had to say about An Easy Way to Go Organic. J.D. referenced a New York Times article that suggested switching to the organic version of five common foods – milk, potatoes, peanut butter, ketchup, and apples.

I love the list but would change it a bit myself. I am currently taking a cooking class called “Healing With Whole Foods” that is based on Traditional Chinese Medicine and the idea that eating the right foods can strengthen the body and immune system, while eating the wrong foods can tear us apart. The instructor, Andy Reed, is very good about constantly reminding us that nobody’s perfect and it’s all about compromise. He tries to eat mostly organic but can’t afford to, like many of us, so he suggested prioritizing which items we buy organic. His number one suggestion?

Buy organic butter. This was a new concept for me but it really made sense when he started to explain. Conventional butter comes from cows that have been given antibiotics, growth hormones, and feed made from pesticide-filled grain. Most pesticides are lipophyllic, meaning they bioaccumulate in fat, so butter is one of the most important things to buy organically.

He also suggested buying only organic meats and dairy products for the same reason. Most of my motivation for buying organically raised meat comes from my belief that we should treat animals well but I also enjoy eating meat that is free of pesticides and antibiotics. I am currently reading “My Year of Meats,” which is a fictional novel by Ruth Ozeki but it includes some factual and disturbing information about the dark side of conventional meat production (thanks, Dana).

Get Rich Slowly had another post about Organics versus Ethics and how to decide how much environmental health or personal health or food quality is worth to us, in dollars, and how to tell if organic is really “worth” it.  That’s a big question that I personally am not quite ready to tackle.  I believe we need to move towards a food system that produces nutritious, affordable food while keeping our environment in good shape, and the organic label is at least one step in that direction, so I’ll do what I can.

We buy organic butter, meat, peanut butter, rice, beans and a random assortment of other products. (Sometimes I wonder if there’s really much of a difference between organic crackers and conventional crackers – I definitely doubt the benefits of choosing organic Cheetoes.) We buy a mix of organic and conventional produce. And so far we seem to be fairly healthy and happy.

I think the next step will be switching to organic cheese. We looove cheese and it’s hard to afford buying the quantities we want at organic prices. Anybody know of any good sources of cheap organic cheese? And ice cream? Mmmmm, ice cream….

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