For the first few years of my post-college professional life, I didn’t own a car. I lived in a small apartment on the edge of town with very reasonable rent. That apartment featured a bus stop about a quarter of a block away and a grocery store about half a mile away. The only reason I had to ever own a car was to travel to visit family, so when the relatively rare situations came around where I needed to visit family, I simply asked around for a ride. A couple of times, I rented a car.
Looking back, that seems like such a simple and joyful time in my life, filled with some nice freedoms that I simply don’t have these days. Today, I have a wife and three children and a house and much greater demands on my time. The idea of living without a car today seems impossible.
Or is it?
The truth is that right now we have two cars at home. My wife uses one for commuting. I use the other one about once or twice a week, mostly to run household errands or to go to a different place to work (I typically work from home).
When I let go of my preconception that we need a car for some reason, I realize that it’s mostly just a matter of convincing myself that a want – the ability to be “free” to drive somewhere during weekdays – is actually a need. It’s not a need at all. In fact, we could sell that car, pocket the money, save on many things… it quickly becomes tempting once you actually look at a situation and recognize that living with one fewer car in your household really is possible.
Here’s the stark truth: If you’re looking at a single big move that can really help your financial situation, one of the best ones you can make is to reduce the number of cars owned by your household. In that one step, you eliminate fuel costs, maintenance costs, insurance costs, registration costs, and replacement costs, and you likely also put an immediate burst of money in your pocket from the sale of the car. That amounts to thousands of dollars per year.
Of course, getting rid of a car comes with some real challenges. You simply don’t have the freedom to get around that you had when you did own that car. You have to figure out some new lifestyle patterns to adapt to having one less car easily available. It’s easy to convince yourself in that situation that your car is a “need.” But is it really?
Now is the time to consider whether that car really is a “need.” Could you have an enjoyable life without it? How can you make such a radical transition work in your life?
Most of the solutions that people immediately envision when it comes to a change like this are complicated and challenging, but there are actually a lot of relatively simple changes you can make when reducing your car count. Here are nine such lifestyle changes.
Change #1: Sell your car when you move – and be smart about the location of your new residence.
One of the best times to eliminate a car from your life is when you’re moving and making a fresh start of things. You can choose a location that minimizes the impact of not having a car so that the change has much less impact on your life.
Some things to look for when moving that can really make downgrading your car count much easier include having a mass transit stop very close to your residence, having a grocery store close to your residence, having a library close to your residence, and having your work either near your residence or near a mass transit stop. Living in close proximity to friends and family is also helpful if you can pull it off. When you can access work, food, and entertainment on foot from your apartment or home, your options without a car get much simpler.
In particular, I encourage people without a car to try to find a place to live near a library. There are almost always mass transit stops near libraries, for starters, but beyond that, libraries are invaluable resources, providing books and DVDs and audiobooks to borrow for free, as well as social and community events almost every day of the week. A library near your house can be an incredibly valuable life resource.
Having such services easily available often does come at a premium, but when you start calculating the additional costs of keeping a car as well as the time needed to commute when you live far from your workplace, it often becomes very clear that not having a car really isn’t that big of a disadvantage.
Change #2: Get maximum value from mass transit.
Mass transit – buses, subways, and trains – can provide almost all the transportation you need to get around a city, provided you live near a spot at which you can get into that network. If you can ride a bus to a train station or subway station and then ride that system to a place that’s close to your work, then you have a very easy transportation system that you can just ride each day, giving you time to read or do other tasks while riding.
If you’re in a situation where you’ll use mass transit each day for your commute and for other purposes as well – visiting friends, shopping, and so forth – then buying a long-term mass transit pass is going to be a good bargain for you in almost every metro area. Most metro areas offer passes that cover use of all buses, trains, and subways for a certain price.
For example, a pass for city transport in San Francisco – one of the most expensive areas in the country – is only $73 for an entire month of unlimited use, as of this writing, and $91 if you add in BART service which takes you to other parts of the Bay Area (which includes Alameda, Contra Costa, San Francisco, and San Mateo counties). For comparison, a DART pass for the Des Moines area costs $48 per month and covers the full Des Moines metro pretty well. Those prices are far lower than the cost of owning and operating a car.
Once you have such a pass, it’s well worth your time to get to know the schedule, especially regarding routes to and from your house to frequent destinations like your place of employment, nearby stores, and the homes of friends and family.
Change #3: Get your exercise on a bicycle equipped with a bag, pannier, or rack.
A bicycle is a low-cost way to gain significant freedom in terms of how you move about the city. Many cities have bicycle lanes on roadways and other features that make it quite easy to get around on your bike.
To really maximize the value of using a bicycle, it’s well worth your time to get your bicycle equipped with a basket or rack that’s permanently affixed or a bag that attaches easily to your bike and can be carried as well (panniers are bags that attach near the rear wheel of the bike). Such attachments make it easy to do things like go to the grocery store for a few items or go to the library using your bicycle, as you can easily carry quite a few items in a bag or a basket.
Like anything in life, riding a bicycle effectively in a city or town takes some practice, but once you’re used to it, it not only provides a ton of freedom, it also improves your fitness and gets you moving around. You can run to the grocery store on your bike almost as fast as you can in a car, except that you’re also getting a moderate workout on the trip and you’re spending a lot less.
Change #4: Get additional exercise from walking/rucking.
As appealing as a bicycle might be, I personally enjoy simply walking to nearby destinations (within a mile or so, or a couple of miles if I’m hitting multiple places). I like seeing what’s happening in my neighborhood, listening to a podcast or an audiobook as I walk, or just thinking about life. I like to walk at a healthy pace so that there’s some moderate health benefits, too.
In fact, one of my favorite ways to exercise is rucking, which simply means walking or hiking or jogging with a backpack that has some weight in it. I actually have a weight that I sometimes put in my backpack just for extra weight (along with the normal items I carry) when I’m walking and thus extra calorie burning benefit.
A healthy-sized backpack can hold several library books or DVDs and several odds and ends from a grocery store with ease, plus you don’t have to worry about securing a bicycle when you go to the store. You can just go in, go shopping, buy your stuff, put it in your bag, and head out.
I often choose to walk to nearby destinations even when I have a car just because the experience is pleasant. I’ll walk to the grocery store or the library with my backpack on if I’m just buying a few things or grabbing a book or two or returning an item. It’s convenient, pleasant, and free.
The first three lifestyle shifts work well for a single person who typically doesn’t carry a large quantity of items to and from their homes, but what do you do if you want to go on a big shopping trip? That’s when you utilize friendships in a way that’s mutually beneficial.
To illustrate this, I’ll give you an example from a friend of mine named Kenny. Kenny lives in an apartment by himself, but he still wants to take advantage of some bulk buying on things like toilet paper and soap and rice (which he seems to eat with every meal). He doesn’t own a car, so what does he do? He talked to a friend and bought a Costco membership for them to share. Once every few weeks, Kenny’s friend picks him up in his SUV and the two ride together to Costco. They use Kenny’s membership to buy items for each of their households, then Kenny’s friend drives Kenny home and helps him unload. The friend gets to use Costco for free; Kenny gets to bring home bulk buys without owning a car. They both win.
Look for these types of synergies with your friends and family. You don’t want to simply rely on someone to drive you places without giving something in return, so perhaps you could purchase a Costco or Sam’s Club membership and share it with people in exchange for a ride (and bringing home any items you buy). Maybe you can go out with friends and occasionally buy drinks or something to repay them for driving you each time. Look for ways to give value to people in exchange for rides and you’ll find someone who’s quite happy to give you an occasional ride when you need it.
Change #6: Consider carpooling, too!
If you continue to think through the strategy described above where you share rides with friends, you’ll inevitably hit upon the idea of carpooling. Carpooling – in which you consistently go to a particular destination with someone who lives near you – can be a big time and money saver for everyone involved, particularly if the destination involves a location that isn’t easily accessed via mass transit.
For example, when I was in college, I carpooled regularly to my hometown with another student who had a car on campus. It added almost no extra effort for him – he would just drop me off at my house as he drove past it and pick me up as he was departing for school – but it enabled me to not need a car at school. I would split the cost of gas with him as well.
If there’s a remote destination outside of the realm of mass transit that you go to regularly – say, a home town or your workplace or some other frequent destination – see if there isn’t an opportunity for carpooling to that destination in your life. Look for ride sharing programs in your area; many universities operate such programs. If you live near relatives, you should definitely talk to them about carpooling to family events.
Change #7: Rent a car for longer trips.
Sometimes, there are events in your life that require you to drive beyond the bounds of where your regular options can take you, or you find yourself stranded at inopportune times. Those are the moments where renting a ride is the best option.
Renting a car is a perfect solution for a road trip. It’s pretty inexpensive to rent a car for a few days for driving to a wedding a few hours away or some other similar event. Rent the car, go to your destination, then drive back and return the car later on. It might be a little expensive, but since you’re doing this rarely, it’s not too bad. You can cut down on the cost by sharing a rental with a friend or family member (or two… or three).
If you’re just stuck in the city without access to mass transit (maybe you stayed out too late), just rent a ride from a taxi or Uber or Lyft. These services will provide someone to drive you to your destination for a reasonable price.
In both cases, you’re simply renting your ride to fill in a gap where your feet, your bicycle, or mass transit can’t help you with your situation. These solutions aren’t free by any means, but since it’s an infrequent solution, it’s pretty reasonable.
Change #8: Get an ‘everyday carry’ bag and stock it appropriately.
With all of these options, you’re going to be out and about without the convenience of being able to keep items temporarily in your car. That’s why it makes sense to get into the habit of carrying some kind of bag with you most of the time when you leave the house. That bag can contain items that you may need on a normal day out and about.
For me, this kind of “everyday carry” bag usually includes toiletries (a toothbrush, a bit of toothpaste, deodorant, etc.), a backup shirt, a water bottle, a snack of some kind (usually several), some notebooks and pens, and a book to read as a bare minimum. I usually have my laptop in there as well, unless I know I won’t need it and am worried about security in any significant additional way.
These items often keep me from making incidental purchases when out and about, so it actually saves money. It’s also convenient to always have a bag on hand so that you can easily collect and carry small items as you go, wherever you might be. I basically don’t leave the house without my “everyday carry” bag.
Many people view the loss of a car as a loss of freedom of choice. They think of all of the things they might want to do that are now less convenient because of the lack of a car.
One way to combat that sentiment is to spend some time thoroughly canvassing all of the things that are available to you within a mile or two of your house. What public services are available? Libraries? Civic organizations? What stores are near you? What cultural centers or gathering points are near? What parks and recreation services and locations are nearby?
Spend the time to do a thorough canvassing of your neck of the woods. Explore every block and avenue to see what’s there and investigate anything and everything that seems interesting. Use tools like your community’s website and Meetup.com to see what kinds of interesting things are going on nearby.
You may end up discovering things you had no idea about. Even in my relatively rural small-town area, this strategy unveiled a number of services and activities and programs that I didn’t know about until I actively looked for them. In an area with a diversity of residential, commercial, and government facilities, there are all kinds of things happening. Find them and you’ll be glad you did.
Whenever most people think about getting rid of a car, they think immediately about the disadvantages and what they’ll lose in the process. What’s often overlooked is that many of the disadvantages can easily be mitigated with some little lifestyle tweaks – and some of those changes can uncover significant life advantages, too. You’ll be spending substantially less money, for starters, and you’ll have the opportunity to discover and truly enjoy some of the opportunities near you that you may have overlooked in the past.
If you’re on the fence about getting rid of a car, give these lifestyle tweaks some serious thought and see for yourself whether some of them may make sense in your life. If you find that at least a few of them are quite workable for you, then it may just be that selling off a car isn’t the big loss that you initially thought and that the savings and other benefits may end up being a surprising net benefit for you.
- The Dead Minivan Experiment: How We’re Trying to Become a One-Car Family
- Walking, Biking, Driving, and Cost Effectiveness
- The Best Used Cars for Simply Getting Around