Trimming the Average Budget: Other Transportation Expenses

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This is part of an ongoing series about how to trim the budget of the average American. As this series focuses on such broad-based tips, some will work for you and some will not. You’re invited to mention in the comments the tips that you found to be the most useful for inclusion in a comprehensive budget trimming guide at the conclusion of this series.

Transportation – other expenses and transportation – $3,130

This unlclearly-defined category includes vehicle finance charges, maintenance and repairs, vehicle insurance, public transportation, vehicle rental, licenses, and so on. In other words, besides buying a car and putting fuel in it, every automobile expense goes into this category.

With such a varied caetgory that speaks to the wide variety of lifestyles people have, there are many ways to save money within this category that really work well for some people – and don’t work at all for others. Thus, use these tips with that in mind – look for the ones that work for how you transport yourself.

Learn how to do basic auto maintenance yourself. Changing your oil and checking your fluid levels isn’t that hard. Your car’s manual explains how to do all of these things. Instead of paying someone else a ridiculously high hourly rate to do it, spend that time teaching yourself how to do it. Once you know how, it’ll take you less time than dealing with taking your car to a maintenance shop.

Don’t skip the maintenance. Follow the maintenance schedule in your car’s manual to the letter. Why? Skipped maintenance inevitably leads to more repair costs and a shorter lifetime for your vehicle over the long run. The fluids in your car don’t last forever, and when they start to become dirty with wear, they can cause real damage to your car. Take care of business.

Get a bus or subway pass. If you find yourself dropping coins or bills into the till on the subway or the bus every single day, get a pass. Yes, it looks expensive, but if you’re riding every day, do the math. The pass is almost always far cheaper than the cost of paying the fee every day.

Shop around for auto insurance. This means more than just using Progressive and their “comparisons.” Actually get yourself a quote from several different insurers and study their customer service and reputation a bit. You might be with the insurer that was the cheapest a decade ago, but now it’s one of the more expensive ones.

Raise your auto insurance deductible. Honestly, over the last ten years, how many claims have you made on your insurance? Instead of paying more to have a $250 deductible (for example) only to find out you’ve only made four claims over the last decade (the average of the people I polled), bump it up to a $500 deductible or even a $1,000 deductible. Then take the savings on your premiums and put it in your emergency fund. Over the long run, you’ll almost always be cash ahead.

Don’t buy cars on a payment plan. This was somewhat covered in the “buying a car” part of this series, but some of the money lost to making car payments is categorized here as well. Instead of making a down payment and shelling out cash out of pocket for the payments, pay cash for the whole thing up front.

Never sign up for a car rental at the airport. Doing so puts you completely at the mercy of the rental agencies – and you will pay for that. Take the time to reserve a car in advance.

Shop around on car rentals, too, even after making a reservation. When you’re considering making a reservation in advance, spend some time shopping around for the best rate at your destination – and keep doing it when you have a few free moments, even after you’ve made a reservation. You can always cancel the first reservation if you find a better deal – and more often than not, you will.

I want your help! In the comments, please let me know which of the tips you find most useful for trimming these costs. I’ll include the top choices in a comprehensive budget trimming guide at the conclusion of the series.

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47 thoughts on “Trimming the Average Budget: Other Transportation Expenses

  1. at this point im almost positive youre keeping the shelter typo in there on purpose. maybe play it off as “what? i meant for it to be there all along!”

    and good tips, though i think ive read postings from you that covered them all before.

    most useful imo was the maintenance one.

  2. Well, I just want to do the flip side of ‘get a pass’, and say that its important for people who buy passes to make sure its justified. Yes, if you use the service morning and night 7 times per week it probably is, but if your usage has lowered lately, it might be time to count how many times per month you ride, and how much it would cost if you were paying per individual ride.

    Oh yeah, and that wasn’t included, but avoid cabs at all cost.

  3. Take a bike!

    Although I should probably add that bikes are not entirely without expenses: yes, they are largely problem-free and easy to take care of, but without proper maintenance, you can get a lot of grief, like brakes that don’t brake, for instance (yes, this happened to me, once).

    I regularly found myself fiddling with something or other on my Trek bike about once a month–the disc brakes weren’t straight, or the seat needed adjusting, or the derailleurs needed tuning, or something was clicking. Bikes may not cost a lot of maintain, and most of the maintenance can be done by yourself if you’re handy with a screwdriver. But they do need it, and if you don’t like having grease stains all over your hands, be prepared to spend about $20-40 every so often at the bike shop.

  4. PLEASE fix the shelter typo. At this point, I’m even starting to get a little bit embarrassed about it.

    I also find it entertaining that so many of these posts have mentioned paying cash up front for a car when you’ve spent so long telling us how financing your Prius was such a smart move because it gave you more opportunities.

    For other urban dwellers who are considering monthly passes – do your research and make sure you know what kind you’re buying. Usually some are unlimited rides for XX dollars, and sometimes you are simply purchasing a card and putting cash on it (like SmartTrip here in DC) and you can ride until that money runs out, then you have to refill, but there’s usually no time limit in which to spend it. Some people will be better served by one type versus the other.

  5. I second Jules’s suggestion about the bike (although I don’t actually have one myself right now). If the roads you travel have any kind of traffic congestion, you might be surprised by how biking is not really that much slower than driving or taking public transportation for short trips.

    And the flip side of Marie’s comment about cabs: Yes, they’re expensive, but if taking the occasional cab means that you can get by without having a car, that can be a good deal. I probably spend less than $100 a year on cab fare (when I want to go somewhere that the buses and trains don’t go), and as a result, I avoid spending thousands of dollars a year on a car.

  6. Also, search online for discount codes for rental cars. There are always discounts to be had (free upgrade, 3rd day free, etc). Just search the car rental name plus “discount code”. It usually just takes a couple of minutes of entering a few codes to see if there’s one that will work.

  7. These tips were not at all helpful in trimming shelter costs! Ha.

    Blindly following the maintenance schedule in your owner’s manual is throwing money away. Do the essential stuff and skip the padding.

    Changing your own oil makes little sense today. With quick lubes and even dealers doing this for ~$20, it doesn’t make sense to take the time to go to an auto parts store, buy oil and a filter, and then spend even more time (even if it’s only 15 minutes) to do the job. Plus… you’re still not done, as you now have to dispose of the waste oil safely. I go to the Jiffy Lube, provide my own filter so I know it’s of high quality (they give me a credit), and I’m done 10-15 minutes later.

  8. For those who don’t feel so healthy as to use a bicycle, there are also motorcycles and scooters and powered chairs and Segways and golf carts and a myriad of other options.

    When trimming budgets, don’t fall into the trap of conventional answers (owning a car) be the only option!

  9. keep tabs on your car’s alignment. good tires are not cheap, and reducing wear is worth the money.

    we used to spend about $20 every other month on tolls. until we invested in a toll pass (i-pass), which cost us $20 up front as a refundable deposit, but cut our toll rates in half. we have long since made up for the up-front fee, and it saves us a lot of time and hassle.

  10. Yeah, there’s lots more that can go into this category. Walk more. Bike for short trips. Take the bus or train instead of driving. Take the train instead of flying on short trips out of town. Shop around for airfare. Take vacations in places where you won’t need to rent a car. Carpool.

    Maybe some of these will show up in the section on gas costs – transportation is broken down into odd categories on this report. Trent’s small-town midwestern perspective is clearly showing, too, with its focus on getting around by driving.

  11. To add to Kevin’s comment…

    The cost of the oil you need plus the filter costs more than what you would pay to take it in to the 10 minute oil change place and have it done. Last fall, we decided to try and change our own oil, and it cost us over $20 for just the oil. I can get my oil changed, with oil, filter, and labor for $20 at some places. Where these oil change places do get you are on things like headlights, windshield wiper blades, and other things.

  12. When doing repairs or replacements, look for places that give a lifetime warrenty or something for free in exchange. I bought my new tires at Sam’s, they were the cheapest around for the specific tire I was looking for and they offer a free rotation for the life of the tires, that’s a savings of $15 every 4-5 months.

  13. I choose to live in an urban area close to everything where I don’t need a car. I haven’t had a car in well over 5 years and not only don’t miss it a bit but am overjoyed to be without the hassle of having one. I can walk a lot of places, take subway (occasionally bus) to other places, and can take a cab on the rare occasion I need to without worrying about it, since I’m saving so much by not having a car. Work subsidizes my public transit commuting costs to work, which is nearby. I also belong to a car sharing service – Zipcar – although I very rarely use it, since everything else works so well. Finally, I occasionally borrow a friend’s beat up old car to get to a suburban volunteer commitment, although I usually take the subway and then walk a half hour to get there. Besides financial and other benefits to being car-free, I get a tremendous amount of exercise walking everywhere, get to know people in my neighborhood and beyond, and get a lot of reading done since I usually leave the driving to the public transit drivers.

  14. On the note of Bus Pass – In our town there is bulk buy pass, where you basically save approx 10% off the total fair. (A $10 card is worth $11 of transit). These are great for people who use the bus, but not enough to warrant a monthly pass. Also, you don’t need carry around loose change. Also, if you do your research you can sometimes find ways to limit the monthly bus pass farther. My husband was able to get a Semester Pass from the university he attended for $87.00 whereas the standard monthly pass was $100+. Just food for thought.

  15. @ kevin and kathy

    for me the costs are a wash, pretty much the same either way. my parents had oil pans cracked twice at two different automotive places before. that kinda instilled a “im going to do it myself so i have no one to blame but myself”. additionally, i pride myself on independence, so if the costs are the same but i can do it myself, why not spend some time for an experience and technique that could maybe help someone else one day?

  16. another point i forgot is that the focus is on maintenance in general. good example is the dealership wanted to charge the gf $69 to replace a cabin air filter on her honda accord. we declined, i researched the part online. it costs $15 and i found a walkthrough online. so maybe you cant save money on oil changes. but i bet you can on other maintenance items.

  17. @Brad,

    I know how to change oil and have done it tons of times. I still change the oil in my Harley, as the dealer is into gouging – $100 for oil and a filter. For a car, IMO it makes little sense.

    BTW: I don’t know how someone could “crack” an oil pan removing a drain plug. There had to be something else involved.

  18. @ kevin

    jeeez. 5 times the price for half the wheels. kudos on saving the $$$.

    i dont know why you wouldve assumed it was when they were removing it they cracked it. they over torqued it when they were replacing it.

  19. @ Brad #18

    There is nothing wrong with learning to change your own oil if that’s what you want to do. I do think it’s important that people are familiar with the workings of their vehicles. Knowing those sorts of things can help you avoid getting ripped off if you take a vehicle in for repairs to a less than above board mechanic.

    It’s just that saying it’s cheaper to do it than taking it to the oil change place isn’t necessarily accurate.

  20. two things:

    1. If you chose to skip the auto insurance on a rental car, make sure that you have some sort of coverage for “loss of use.” My auto insurance will cover damages, but they will not cover loss of use. Loss of us IS covered by my signature visa card, so I made sure to rent with that card. Always good to call the relevant parties and make sure you’re completely covered, as loss of use fees can be significant.

    2. Honestly, I just reduced my deductibles on my car. It’s a good idea to ask and not just blindly change things. It costs me only $30 more a year to keep my deductible at $250 instead of $500. Someone just hit me in a hit-and-run, and I had to pay out $500 to fix it. Talk about how frustrated I was to not have spent that $30 (I just changed policies last year to a new carrier). At a minimum, it is worth asking about deductible amounts and differences in your premium to decide on your personal level of acceptable risk.

    I did buy my car on a loan rather than pay cash. I’m glad I did this. Yes, I spent about $4,500 on interest (financed $15k for 5 years, then paid it off in three). However, I didn’t have enough cash to get *anything* at the time, and having a car helped me greatly in my career. Further, I was able to build up some excellent credit, and that’s meant a lot to me. Mostly, the interest is a big bummer. But I have a really nice car still, it’s all paid off now, and my credit is awesome.

  21. Actually, I find “you’ve only made four claims over the last decade (the average of the people I polled), ” to be an awful lot, unless there are a lot of cars of these particular policies.

    In the past decade, we’ve had 2. I hit a curb and a deer hit my Husband.

  22. If you’re going to delete negative comments, why not delete the one with the curse word in it? I’d prefer not to see it, especially on a Sunday. There’s enough of that junk in the world…

  23. I just figured out last night that I have 22 more payments on my Honday Element, then I’m car payment free! Since my husband and I share one car, I’m hoping we will remain car payment free for a few years after the final payment is made.

    As for saving on shelter, I’d like to see ways to convince a “slum-lord” to lower our rent. For example, we have a serious bug problem in our rental house and our landlord doesn’t do anything about it. What’s the best way to negotiate lower rent?

  24. If you live in a major city and have health issues, you sometimes have to use cabs as you may not be able to go up/down stairs to access subways (only a very few have any kind of elevator access and even then, if you have to walk long distances and have trouble walking, you can’t use the stop). This can even apply to certain busses that may not be accessible.

    FYI: You don’t have to be old to have health challenges that make it impossible to use public transportation. Sometimes you will only need cabs temporarily while recovering from an injury. For some, it’s more permanent.

    Special rides are available for some folks but they are hard to schedule and very undependable.

    Depending on where you are going, and if you can share a cab, you can sometimes NOT spend all that much more than public transportation.

    And there are other considerations. I’ve had friends who were carrying a lot of stuff and insisted on taking public transportation. Two pulled their backs badly, another injured an arm. Not only did this seriously affect their ability to work and do things, but it cost them a lot in terms of missed work, and doctors and hospital bills.

    Sometimes, depending on your physical condition, you need to take cabs. And you have to factor that into your budget. You have to cut back on something else.

    Even using cabs, if you group your errands you can save money.

    And consider having stuff delivered. Even with fees, it’s often less than public transportation, cabs or a car.

    Cars in the city? It’s throwing money away as well as your time (to find parking spots; and if you’re paying for parking, in the city, that’s serious OOP money).

    Cheaper to rent zip cars, find/share rides with others.

    yea, it can be problematic to schedule, but it’s offset by so many other benefits of city living.

  25. @26 karyn. That is there because someone is a liar. Someone lied to Johanna about who is getting paid what by which advertising company and how, and blocked someone else from commenting because I had the evidence that it was all a lie.
    Johanna said negativity drives the page views here and racks up the advertising payoff for this blog, and that was denied. Even though there was
    a post that stated very clearly to the contrary and was a complete backtrack.

  26. @#26 karyn if 5 letters of the English alphabet arranged in a certain pattern cause you such pain it is probably wise just to turn off the internet, TV and newspapers and just hide.

    @29 Welcome back Henry.

  27. Little House, IRT the lowering rent due to bug infestation check with your state attny. general’s office to see if there are any state laws being violated. Also look under the fair housing act (federal) and see what the landlord is guilty of. Seem to recall that a person can either hold rent in abeyance and/or charge the landloard for hotel fees until apt. is free of bugs. No one should pay full rent for living in those conditions though most do because they feel powerless to protest. Of course, the landlord will most likely ask you to vacate so he can get renters that don’t complain.

  28. So, I gather from Henry’s 2 remarks about tobacco (one on this post, the other on another in this series) that he’s a smoker…

    I’m sure all the categories on that chart will come around sooner or later.

    Since right now we’re talking about transportation, let me point out that many of these items are in odd categories or that we may think we know what’s included (for instance, how many realized that new car payments discussed recently did not include the interest paid on your car loan?). I went back to the source, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and hunted around until I found the glossary (which I then bookmarked, so I can go back to it easily).

    So, when we talked about the average car payment being $300, that was actually the actual principal on the loan and the interest is tucked in here.

    For people who buy automobiles, buying a cheaper car will lower the amount in the earlier category, paying cash or getting the best deal on the interest rate (look for those 0% offers) will assist in reducing their spending in this category (as will all advice on reducing maintenance costs).

    On the other hand, not using a car eliminates spending in the previous category but probably will result in a net increase in this category. That is, they won’t be paying interest on a car loan or to change their oil, but they will be paying for cab fares, transit fares, membership in car sharing networks, paying for rentals, maintaining a bike, etc.

    What you really want to look at is the total cost of owning, running and maintaining a car versus the total cost of all the other options you will use to get around in the absence of a car. Some of those costs may show up in yet other categories to be discussed later.

    For example, we deal with the situation of having 4 adults in one house, with 2 cars between them. My son-in-law must take 1 to get to work 45 minutes drive away and not on transit lines. I take the other in order to get 2 adults to work, plus 2 to 3 children to school/preschool. That has left my husband cycling to work most days and very occasionally taking the bus partway and then having to walk the remainder of the way.

    In addition to the cost of the bike and bike maintenance (already mentioned) he had to purchase special waterproof, reflective clothing (costing close to $300) in order to be able to bike to work in pouring rain. Considering that we live in Western Canada, that means an average of 3 or 4 days per week through the winter. The 2 or 3 days per *year* that it snows he either buses or the city comes to a screaming halt and everybody stays home. That happens maybe one day per year, if we have more than 6 or 8 inches snow because most people here have no clue how to drive in snow.

    My tip for reducing transit fares is that I buy books of faresavers whenever I know I’ll be having to use the bus. They come in books of 10, don’t expire and there’s a discount on the per zone fare cost. It also means you don’t have to find or carry the correct change.

  29. Little House, You live in the unit, why don’t you do something about the bug infestation? For roaches, mix half and half sugar with Borax (from the laundry supply isle at the grocery store). Put it in saucers in unobtrusive spots where the roaches are, and stir the mixture up weekly so it stays granular. Ants? Set ant traps. Flies? Put up screens. Keep all food put away in metal or plastic containers, remove sources of enticement: wipe up crumbs and spills immediately, Cover garbage in metal can with tight lid. Vacuum frequently. Wash floors with disenfectant. Put mothballs in with out of season stored clothing and bedding. Mosquitos? Put a small water garden outdoors with some goldfish. We use an old porcelain laundry sink with a few feeder goldfish. The still water encourages mosquitos to breed in the pool, and the fish gobble up the larbae so they never mature. Put up a bat house, put up a plaform on the garage for swallows to nest. You can also move instead of complaining!
    As to transportation, get a bike for local errands and close visits, and use it! You don’t need a fancy, expensive bike. In suburbia, many yard sales have very inexpensive bikes, and often you see bikes out for the trash, and can help yourself to free ones that way. My pre War, baloon tired bike is great for local runs, and when you want to stop, you back pedal. It’s easy, healthy and cheap! The only maintenance the bike’s needed for years has been occasional air in the tires.

  30. I let my man change my oil and do other maintenance on my car. He likes to work with his hands and he feels like he is contributing more to our family than just $. For car rental etc, my auto service, AAA, offers discounts on many things car related, and some other stuff too. Even though I don’t always use the service for a ‘tow’ the membership $ is recouped by the discounts. If you are a member look on their website. Also your employer may have agreements with companies in the ‘Travel’ industry. Mine does and on cell phones, amusement parks, they might not advertise it, try contacting your personnel office.

  31. “This UNLCLEARLY-defined …”

    “With such a varied CAETGORY …”

    “In the comments, please let me know which of the tips you find most useful for trimming SHELTER costs”

    Oh come on, Trent, that’s just lazy. You’re getting paid to write this stuff, show a little pride in your work, for crying out loud.

    “Don’t buy cars on a payment plan. Instead of making a down payment and shelling out cash out of pocket for the payments, pay cash for the whole thing up front. ”

    Do as I say, not as I do, eh? You had to know we would jump on this one.

  32. @Henry: I think you’re confusing me with someone else. I remember the exchange you’re referring to, but I didn’t initiate it.

  33. Check out different bus pass plans available.

    Like others have mentioned, if you are using your pass only for work, a montly pass might not be the cheapest. However, I found out that my bus system offers a 10 pass card. There isn’t any savings, but I’m not struggling to find fare money at the last minute twice a day.

  34. I agree about doing car rentals in advance. You can get great bargains on car rental by comparing the different rental sites and also looking at airline sites. I always use off -site such as Dollar, National etc. and have been impressed by their service and ease of using a shuttle bus to get to their sites.

  35. I also find it curious that you are giving car maintrenance advice when you didn’t even want to tackle any of the problems on your truck (some minor).

  36. I’ll echo the common theme here that frequently paying someone else to change your oil is pretty close to the same cost as doing it yourself. Around here, many places have an ‘early bird special’ where you can get as much as a 25% discount just for getting the car in before 10am.

    However, it’s still important to know how to do that kind of stuff, and to keep an eye on things.

    We recently borrowed my mother’s car, and just out of force of habit I checked her oil while filling it with gas, and found it almost entirely empty. This was only 2,000 miles after paying someone else to change it. Luckily we caught it in time and were able to prevent damage, but not checking it would have lead to some SERIOUSLY expensive problems.

  37. One thing not mentioned is that if your car is older and not worth much you can save a bundle by dropping the collision coverage(also called comprehensive). My car is only worth about $1000, and with a $500 deductable the collision insurance was $300/year more, so even if I have an at fault accident, I would only be ahead by $200, and ater the first year, I am ahead regardless.

  38. Regarding getting your rental car at airports:

    Many rental agencies are charged fees for being located at the airport, and they have no choice but to pass them on to their customers. I used to live in Atlanta and would rent cars for road trips. Renting off site from the airport saved me about 30-40%. They still allowed me to return the car to the airport, if I wanted. The ‘airport tax’ (just google ‘airport concession fee’ if you want to see more about this charge generally) is worth avoiding, unless you’re in an incredible hurry. If you’re staying somewhere for several days, catch a cab to an off-airport rental location where you’ve already reserved a car.

  39. shop around for auto insurance because every type and age and location of driver will have a different rate depending on how each company rates different risks.
    check out primericasecure.com to get quotes on over 20 companies at once.

  40. Don’t forget to invest in the best available bike helmet. And don’t assume that you will be able to ride the bike without getting injured, sometimes seriously or fatally. I would rather have a couple of tons of steel and plastic around me than go up against the scofflaw drivers defenseless.

    Stella, thanks for mentioning that not everybody is healthy. Almost all of Trent’s advice is based on the assumption that you have unlimited energy to do things yourself, as is most people’s on this blog. It is not necessarily laziness that has people buying convenience.

  41. OMG!

    Doesn’t anybody see the 800# gorilla in the room? How do you dispose of the used oil?

    WHEW.. I feel better now!

    Thanks

  42. Our biggest money saving tip concerning transportation is just to keep a car as long as possible. Once its paid off you have a car with no payments!! Just occasional service. I’ve been payment free for about 3 years now, and i can put that $300 into savings.

  43. The bus passes here in Seattle are only worth it if you are literally riding the bus almost every day. They cost 36 times the one-way fare, so you’d have to go to work and back at least 18 times in a month to break even. I do believe the yearly pass sells for 11 times the monthly cost.

    They do have a (relatively new) type of pass that you put money on that doesn’t expire, however, there’s no discount at all for doing that.

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