Downsizing Your Automobile Count

Over the last month or two, my wife and I have seriously discussed going from a two car to a one car household. She’s a seasonal worker, and during her work season she can take the car to work, which would leave me at home without an automobile. During the off season (which is ongoing), she’d be at home, allowing us both to have automobile access during the day.

If we lived in a suburban or city neighborhood, this would be an easier choice for us. The car would be gone immediately – and good riddance, because it eats money.

The average American automobile has persistent costs, even if you scarcely drive it. Car insurance, maintaining the license on that vehicle, and basic maintenance to ensure that it’s roadworthy can add up to hundreds of dollars a year without even driving it a mile, and the second you do take it out on the road, with $4 a gallon gas, oil changes every 5,000 miles or so, other maintenance, and risk of damage, it’s a serious cash gobbler.

Living in a neighborhood where I could walk or bike to every service I need – within three or four miles – would make this decision a no- brainer. We live in a pretty small town, though, one small enough to not even have a proper grocery store – and that makes the decision very difficult.

What Do I Actually Need?

If you’re trying to make a decision about reducing your automobile count, consider what you actually need during the day. I know this is an issue that many home office folks and stay at home parents struggle with, as do single people in urban situations who are considering going from one car to no cars. A vehicle is expensive and getting rid of it would be a huge savings, but the loss of freedom can prove painful.

Make a list of all of the things you actually need an automobile for during the day.

In order to really evaluate whether going to a one car situation is really an option for us, I tried to make a list of the resources I actually need during the day.

A library

Library use is essential for me. I typically use about one day every two weeks for a library run, where I spend several hours at the library and usually come home with ten books or so. However, I usually go to a library in another town, as our town’s library is very small and has extremely limited choices on personal finance issues.

A grocery store

I often go grocery shopping on Mondays by myself without the family around. That would become impossible without a car.

A post office

The post office is in bicycle range. I have never gone there on foot, but the trip is realistic on a bike and with a basket on the front of my bike, I could make the trip when I need to (to ship packages).

A hardware store

There’s also a hardware store within bicycle range. I often do small home repairs and other such tasks during the day when the family isn’t around.

Some Solutions

WalkScore

One spectacular tool in helping to figure out a solution to these issues is to see the resources actually around you and how far away they are, and that’s when the stellar site WalkScore.com steps in.

WalkScore allows you to put in your home address, then lists the services near your location in a bunch of different categories (grocery stores, restaurants, bars, coffee shops, movie theaters, schools, parks, libraries, bookstores, gyms, drug stores, hardware stores, and clothing stores). It also assigns a “score” which provides a rough numerical estimate of how good your house location is in terms of the resources available within reasonable walking distance.

My score is 29/100, which is about what I’d expect given that I live in a small town. There are some basic services within walking distance, but many of the services I need are in larger towns 10-15 miles away.

People in suburban and urban areas have much better scores. For example, I entered John‘s address and he got a 60/100, with only movie theaters being more than a mile and a half from his location. Rachel, who lives in an even bigger urban area, got a score of 55/100, with, again, a movie theater being her most distant destination.

WalkScore is a very useful site for determining what services are nearby. The score itself isn’t all that useful other than as a thumbnail comparison, but the identification of nearby services for any address is very useful, indeed. It helped me to identify solutions for my problem areas.

Library solution without a car

We could make this into a weekend family stop about once a month, where I go do the research I need to do while my wife and children participate in story time and other library activities, or drop me off there and go to the park or grocery shopping.

Grocery store solution without a car

We could simply move the weekly grocery trip to Sunday afternoon and take the kids along each week. Grocery shopping with my wife, my two year old son, and my nine month old daughter is substantially slower and usually a bit more expensive than going by myself, but it’s not a life-shattering difference.

Post office and hardware store solutions without a car

In both cases, a bicycle can handle the situation for about seven or eight months out of the year. During the winter months, however, much of the time the weather won’t permit me to go on a lengthy bike ride, so I’ll have to wait until evenings to hit the hardware store and Saturday to hit the post office. Both are mildly inconvenient but doable.

Our Final Decision (Which May Be Different Than Yours)

We’ve decided, for now, to remain a two-car household. Why?

Emergencies.

If I’m at home during the day working and my wife is in another city working, what happens if there’s an emergency with me or with one of our children? There’s no mechanism for me to attend to their needs. I could take care of it on bicycle, but not in the middle of an Iowa winter. Also, given our location, it’s very difficult for my wife to have a backup car to take to work if our only car were to have problems in the morning.

Thus, our eventual car plan is to get a “main” car that’s very reliable, pretty new, and intended to run for a long time, and then an “emergency” car that I can use in a pinch if I need to, but won’t be used much at all.

What did I really learn from all of this?

For us, two cars are pretty important and a move to a single car isn’t realistic, but there are many situations where reducing your family’s car count by one can be a big savings.

Don’t overlook it, even if it seems inconvenient at first.

Spend some time figuring out what you actually need the car for and whether that use can’t be supplemented cheaply by other tactics, such as walking or riding a bicycle or renting a car on rare occasions. For us, for example, if we lived in a warmer area and perhaps closer to my wife’s place of work, we’d likely go down to one car, and that would save us substantial money each month.

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