Cars are a way of life in the US (and around the world). While most of us enjoy the freedom they offer, their costs can be a burden on the budget. Not everyone can live without that red mark in the ledger, but we’ll help you find out if you might be a candidate.
Where I live in Atlanta, the necessity of owning a car is highly subjective. In some areas, it’s not possible to get by without a car, as everything is miles away. In other places, everything you need is right down the street. While some cities may swing obviously in one direction or another, I imagine I’m not alone in trying to decide whether or not owning a car is even worth it anymore.
The High Costs of Owning a Car
Giving up your car feels almost un-American. In fact, when we suggested selling even your second car, it was a controversial opinion. However, there’s no doubt that it’s an attractive option. To give ourselves a baseline for some perspective, here are just some of the costs you can (and will) accrue when owning a car:
- Down payment/up front cost: Even if you don’t pay your car off up front, you’re probably dropping at least a few thousand dollars immediately. If you’re financing a car, that few thousand dollars is just the beginning.
- Loan interest: The longer the term of your loan, the more you’ll pay in interest. It may not seem like much, but depending on how much your loan is for, as well as the length of the loan, you could end up paying thousands more on top of the cost of your car.
- Maintenance and repairs: Basic maintenance like oil changes, tire rotations and replacements can (ideally) cost you a couple hundred dollars a year at minimum. If you have an older car that requires any major repairs, that number skyrockets.
- Gas: Not only is gas one of the most regular expenses that you pay when you own a car, it’s also one of the hardest to predict. Changes in the the global economy far, far away from you can affect how much it costs you to get to work.
- Insurance: In most places, having insurance on your car isn’t just a good idea, it’s mandatory. This can cost hundreds to thousands of dollars every year, depending on the types of coverage you get. And, unfortunately, saving money on this front by getting reduce coverage can cost you big if you get in an accident (assuming you’re allowed to skip certain types of coverage at all).
It’s easy to see why not owning a car would be an attractive proposition. Necessary or not, owning a vehicle is perhaps the second-biggest money pit in most people’s lives, behind the home you own or rent. Reducing those costs sure would be nice.
Alternatives to Owning a Car
So, let’s walk through a hypothetical scenario where you don’t own a car. What are your options? Keeping in mind, you don’t have to limit yourself to just one of these—you just need to know which ones work in any given situation.
In some cities, saying “use public transportation” is all you need to give up your car (looking at you, New York City). Unfortunately, this isn’t the case everywhere. Public transit is typically most widespread in urban settings. If you’re curious what your public transit availability is like, you can use Mapnificent to see where you can get from a given location within a specific time rate using only public transit.
The cost, however, is what’s most important here. Unfortunately, we can’t compare every single scenario for everyone to their public transit alternative. However, according to the American Public Transit Association, in 2011, commuters who relied on public transit instead of owning a vehicle were able to save an average of $ 10,230 annually, or about $ 853 per month.
Of course, that study assumes that you completely eliminate your car, which means that if you don’t live in a place where public transit can service all your needs, you’re not even a candidate. As a personal example, I live in Metro Atlanta, but I’m outside the area that public transit readily services. I would need a car to even reach the outskirts of coverage. Obviously your mileage (ha) may vary.
When It’s Useful
- Daily Commutes: If you have to make more than a half dozen trips to and from work every day (as most do), public transit should probably be the first option you look for.
- Traveling Light: If it’s not something you can carry on your back or roll behind you, you’ll have a hard time bringing any cargo with you on public transit. There’s not typically much in the way of storage space here.
Car Sharing Clubs
Before Uber and Lyft came along (we’ll come back to those in a bit), there were car sharing clubs. Services like Zipcar or Hertz 24/7 allow you to pay a monthly fee to access to a network of cars you can use only when you need them. Zipcar’s basic service (as an example) starts at $ 6/month (a pretty incredible deal on its own).
As you might expect, though, there are some downsides. For starters, you have to reserve a specific timeframe, beginning and end. If you need more time in your car, you’ll need to extend a reservation, assuming someone else hasn’t booked the time.
Another downside is coverage area. In order to use a Zipcar, you have to walk to a Zipcar station to begin with. If there’s not one near you, you’re out of luck. You can drive it anywhere (within your reservation period, of course), but the starting point is your biggest leash.
When It’s Useful
- Scheduled Appointments: You work from home, but you have semi-regular doctors appointments. Since you know these ahead of time (and, presumably, how long you’ll be gone), Zipcars and the like are great for augmenting your existing transit schedule.
- Transporting Large Amounts of Stuff: You may be able to send the kids to school on the bus and take public transit to work, but when it comes time to take the kids to soccer, you’ll need trunk space. If car sharing is accessible around you, using it to move your gear can be helpful.
Ride Sharing with Uber and Lyft
These two companies may have hot, popular names attached, but you’d be forgiven for not knowing exactly how they work (or how much they cost). Both function very much like a taxi service, providing on-demand drivers who will take you from place to place. Both charge extra money by the mile, which means the farther you drive, the more it costs.
The advantage, however, is that Uber and Lyft can reach places that the previous options can’t. Zipcars need to park somewhere and public transit may not extend too far into the suburbs. Uber, however, can send drivers anywhere, and Lyft hires everyday people to be drivers, which gives them a broader footprint.
This puts (some) suburbanites squarely in their sights, but it varies wildly by how much you drive and how often. While Uber and Lyft may be more popular than traditional taxi services, they are still, essentially taxis. Driving from my own home to the grocery store a mile and a half away, for example, would cost between $ 6-11 on Uber or Lyft. One way. Now, I work from home, so barring social outings or general errands, the cost of driving to the grocery store a couple times a month could easily come in for less than the cost of a large pizza, much less a car.
When It’s Useful
- Social Nights Out: When you and your four best friends go out for a night on the town, you probably have no idea when you’re coming home. Services like Uber and Lyft allow you flexibility without scheduling a block of time like Zipcar.
- Residential or Suburban Travel: The major downside to both public transit and car sharing pools is that they’re fairly limited geographically. Uber and Lyft can reach much larger radiuses. Meaning, if you’re a stay at home dad and just need to get to the grocery store once or twice a week, Uber or Lyft can still come out cheaper than owning a (likely second) car.
Bicycles and Walking
Everyone knows that walking is an option. Unless you live in New York City, however, chances are most people don’t walk everywhere. Bicycles extend the range a little bit, but you’re still often limited by what’s around you.
One alternative that starts to get pricier is an electric bicycle. Some models can give you longer range by providing their own motion (as opposed to pedaling) using a small battery. Others will simply take the edge off of things like pedaling uphill. It may not sound like much, but it goes a long way towards extending the range you can reach on a bicycle. You can check out sites like Electric Bike for reviews on specific models that meet your needs.
When They’re Useful
- Traveling Nearby: Some cities are more sprawled out than others, but even traveling a mile or two can be done in a couple hours walking. Much less if you use a bicycle. Weather conditions, as well as physical ability affect how well this works (you probably can’t bike to work in the summer if you have to wear a suit), but for some traveling, it can help a ton.
- Low- or No-Cost Travel: Aside from the initial bicycle investment, traveling is more or less free. And your legs cost nothing. They’re not the most flexible options, and you certainly can’t go very far, but if you’re seriously considering giving up your car, it helps to know where you can get to with just the legs (and…wheels?) nature gave you.
Three Steps to Decide
Deciding whether or not you can live without a car is a pretty subjective thing and it often seems like it boils down to “Do you live in the city?” However, as a resident of Atlanta where “living in the city” is a pretty broad definition, I can attest to how little that question can actually help. There are too many variables. To simplify follow this process:
- Identify your top 3 car costs per year, add $ 500, then divide by 12: Usually, the top three car costs you’ll have are loan payment, insurance, and gas. If your car’s paid off but requires a lot of repairs, substitute that for your loan payment. In either case, add $ 500 for incidentals or accidents.
- “Spend” money on each service for one month: Before you give up your car, monitor where you travel every day for a month. Find out what option listed above that you might have used instead and add that cost to a monthly “budget.”
- Compare both budgets when you’re done: So, you found out that you would use public transit for your workday commute and you would’ve had to call Uber six times. If you could pay for those services with the total you got from step 1, it might be worth reconsidering the vehicle.
Ultimately, not everyone can give up their vehicle. That’s okay. However, owning a car is also a very expensive prospect that we’re often trained to believe is a necessary part of life. Even when it’s not. Take a look at the options available to you and give yourself some time to compare. If you can swing it, the savings can potentially be enormous.