Can you imagine getting by without a car?
Most people cannot, but I definitely can because I haven’t owned a car for 7 years. People are always surprised when I tell them that, but also are usually awed by it. Owning a car represents freedom and has been a huge part of the American dream for generations. Why would I give up that freedom? It turns out freedom is really convenience. As with almost anything, convenience has its costs. These costs can be hard to find, particularly for car ownership.
I first thought to sell my car in 2008 when I receiving a shockingly high maintenance bill. At the time I was living in Chicago and barely used my car. I didn’t need it to go to work, or meet out friends, or even to visit my parents on holidays. I could use the train for any of those. I drove my car to get groceries and run random errands about once a week. That’s it. So why was it costing $500 a year to repair a car I hardly used?!
I’m not a person to rush into a decision so I dug further into how I was using my car to find out what really it cost. The rate was over $0.70 per mile driven. To put that in context, The IRS allows companies to reimburse $0.56 per mile for cars driven for business purposes. That means I would lose money to take my car on a trip for work. Appalling!!
Altogether I estimated it would cost me over $3,000 per year (after taxes) to own a car. That’s a lot of money for the weekly trip to the supermarket and a few random errands. It’s even more when you consider that I need a job to make $3,000. To pay for the car, I would need to make almost $5,000 in salary before taxes. Selling my car would basically give me a nice promotion.
After that analysis it was a no brainer to sell the car, and it still is. Owning a car has a lot of indirect costs. Most people equate the cost of car ownership to the rising and falling price of gasoline, but what I found is that insurance was the main cost by a wide margin. If you live in a city and don’t use your car to commute every day, I bet that’s true for you too.
Don’t get me started on the cost to park a car in the city…
Conversely, NOT owning a car has surprising benefits. Taking the temptation to drive away forced me reinvent many of my routines, and in most cases has reinforced productive habits I want to do anyway. A good example of this is grocery shopping.
When I had a car this was a mundane activity where I tried to load as much stuff in my cart as I could, as if I were on Nickelodeon’s Super Toy Run. Inevitably, things like potato chips, ice cream, and microwave meals wound up in the cart. My rushed lifestyle reinforced the habit of buying that junk.
Without a car, my grocery shopping turned into a virtuous cycle of habits. I have to walk to the market and carry the groceries home. That by itself is light exercise, but it’s cascaded into more…I can’t load up on all the food needed for a week because that would be too heavy to lug home, so I make 4-5 trips a week. And since I’m making frequent trips I buy more fruits because they won’t spoil before my next trip out.
In case you missed the causation there: No Car -> Walking More (‘duh) -> Eating More Fruit. Tada…healthier living.
Another not-so-obvious car-free causation is reading more. I have to take public transportation to get around. Since I’m not driving, I might as well read. It’s better than staring at the back of a seat like David Puddy.
So the pattern goes: No Car -> Public Transportation -> Reading More. Voila…I’m smarter.
You might be saying, “that’s great if you live in city with robust public transportation like NYC or Chicago, but how does that help me?” You’re right that going car-free isn’t an option everywhere. If I lived in Dallas or even LA, I probably would have to buckle to social norms and buy a car, but you can go car-free in plenty of places if you commit to it.
When I moved to Portland, OR in 2014 everyone told me “Oh! You’ll want to buy a car!” But none of them have looked at this problem like I have. Who wants to earn $5,000 more a year to pay for the pleasure of sitting in traffic? All the while you’re getting fatter, dumber, and lazier. Thanks, but no thanks!
I’ve gone another year and half in a small city without a car and moved home to an even smaller community of 100,000. I still don’t own a car. There are definitely times when I need one, but that’s usually 1 or 2 times a week. Between Uber and car sharing services like zipcar I can get by. The cost of using either is still less than $5,000 by a country mile.
I see no end in sight to living car-free. The decision to sell it was probably the best choice I’ve made in the last 2 decades. It makes me wonder what other things I currently pay for, but don’t need….
Is anyone in the market to buy a 20 year old slightly used Stairmaster?
Thanks for reading.