Updated on 02.11.12

Eliminate One of Your Cars Entirely (41/365)

Trent Hamm

Over the last few days, I’ve talked about a lot of options that you can use to get to work and run errands without the use of your own car. Carpooling, riding public transportation, and riding a bicycle can all achieve this goal.

There’s still a problem, though.

If you use these tactics, you’re leaving that car sitting in your driveway. You’re still making payments on it (if it’s not paid off). You’re still paying for insurance on it. You’re still possibly paying for parking on it. You’re slowly losing money to depreciation on it.

A car is a money sink, even if it just sits there.

Eliminate One of Your Cars Entirely (41/365)

The reason people own a car is that it gives them flexibility in transportation. You can hop in the car and go do all kinds of things, from getting to work and getting groceries to going to a friend’s house or going to the movies.

However, during my early professional years, Sarah and I together only owned one car. I went to and from work on the bus and would sometimes stop for groceries along the way. Many of my friends were within reach of the bus as well, and many of the other services in town were reachable via the bus. I also sometimes used a bicycle for some errands. Sarah would use the car for her commute and we’d use it in the evenings for things we both had to do.

Our financial life was so much easier with only one paid-off car to worry about. Our insurance was relatively cheap. We were paying for commuting fuel and maintenance on only one vehicle.

In fact, one of the first acts that led to our financial downturn was the purchase of a second vehicle, followed shortly by a necessary replacement of the original vehicle that Sarah drove. This led us to two car payments, a higher insurance rate, the fuel and maintenance costs of two commutes, a parking cost for me, and the constant depreciation of both cars.

Sure, we had more flexibility, but we also had a much bigger financial burden on our shoulders. Buying a second car was one of our biggest financial errors.

Over the last few days, we’ve talked about a bunch of tactics that work well for replacing driving. Take the bus. Take your bike. Get rides with others.

If you’re in a position where these tactics can replace your need for a car, then replace it! Sell that car, stop the insurance payments, and stop putting fuel and maintenance into that beast. Use the other methods available to you for getting around and bank the hundreds of dollars that a car will potentially devour during a given month. Not only that, if the car is paid off (or mostly paid off), selling the car can provide a big cash boost for getting rid some of the worst of your debt.

If you want a surefire tactic for living cheap and getting out of debt, living with one less car is certainly a way to achieve that.

This post is part of a yearlong series called “365 Ways to Live Cheap (Revisited),” in which I’m revisiting the entries from my book “365 Ways to Live Cheap,” which is available at Amazon and at bookstores everywhere. Images courtesy of Brittany Lynne Photography, the proprietor of which is my “photography intern” for this project.

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  1. David says:

    This advice, while problematic for people with only one car, may be more problematic still for people with none. But if I have to end up with minus one car, I want it to be minus one yellow Neon.

  2. Michelle says:

    Doesn’t Trent have two vehicles?

  3. Riki says:

    Michelle –

    Yeah, but there’s nothing WRONG with having two vehicles. Trent and his family are not in a situation where they’re struggling to eliminate debt; they are already over that mountain and can easily afford the cars they have (or, I assume so based on what he has written).

    He’s right. Eliminating a car is a great way to save a ton money IF it works for your family. For families really trying to pull themselves into a better financial position, it can make a huge difference. Short-term pain/inconvenience for long-term gain, so to speak. Nowhere did he say that’s the way everybody should be living, rather he very clearly acknowledged that this kind of situation doesn’t work for everybody.

    There are plenty of reasons to criticize Trent without looking for and/or obtusely misinterpreting things.

    (Wait, did I just defend Trent?)

  4. Riki says:

    For the record, my partner and I thought long and hard about going down to one car. Unfortunately it doesn’t work for us at all, but I really wish it did!

  5. Michelle says:

    #3 Riki: I was just curious, I think you’re reading too much into a pretty straightforward question.

  6. Riki says:

    So, what would Trent’s family having two vehicles have to do with this article?

  7. Katie says:

    I got rid of my only car, david, and couldn’t be happier about it (and I do, in fact, save a significant amount of money).

  8. Johanna says:

    Oh no Trent is giving advice that isn’t applicable to everybody make him stop make him stop make him stop.

  9. Vanessa says:

    Erm, I thought Michelle’s question was innocent. I had actually forgotten they had two vehicles since all Trent talks about is the Prius. But ok for them if they need two.

    Leo (zenhabits) has 6 kids and no car which is pretty amazing.

  10. David says:

    Not all that amazing. It implies merely that Leo spends less time driving than he does … (complete this sentence using your skill and judgement).

  11. getagrip says:

    It doesn’t just have to be about two versus one car or no cars. Once you have other drivers in the house chances are you are sinking costs for teenagers or college children. Even if you have them paying gas and insurance they usually, on a part time job, aren’t going to be able to pay for many repairs or even routine things like brakes or tires.

  12. Izabelle says:

    2 comments in moderation? really?

  13. EngineerMom says:

    We had two cars when we got married in 2007 – a 2002 Mazda Protege (DH’s, paid for) and a 2004 Toyota Rav4 (mine, with a loan on it that was less than even the “dealer buy” price).

    When we found out I was pregnant, we decided to sell the RAV to both improve our cash flow (no car payment, less car insurance, etc.) and get some extra money to help defray the cost of me being on unpaid maternity leave for 6 weeks. We were in a good situation in that regard – sold the car private party for about $3000+ more than we owed on the loan.

    However, when we married, we had also intentionally gotten an apartment on a bus line that went directly to DH’s work. I still had to drive myself to work (the closest bus line to where I worked was a mile walk on a 45mph road with no sidewalks – not a good idea in Minnesota winters), or we may have sold both cars! We did have an added expense of my husband getting a bus pass, but that was miniscule compared to the cost of the car.

    We still only have one vehicle, two kids and almost 5 years later. We moved to Cincinnati, then bought a house within walking distance of a bunch of important locations (library, several grocery stores, a park, a YMCA, etc.) rather than out in the ‘burbs.

    Getting rid of a car, if you can, can really be a budget-saver. I can’t even contemplate how difficult it would be for us to accommodate another car in our budget right now. Just the rise in insurance and gas would be difficult, let alone a car payment.

    We’re not too unusual in our neighborhood – I know of at least three other households that get by with only one vehicle. Granted, two are comprised of one full-time working parent and one stay-at-home parent, and the third is one “part-time plus” (30-35 hours/week roughly) with the other spouse in grad school where a lot of the work is done at home. All of us have kids, in fact all but one household has two kids.

    It’s a different lifestyle – a lot more walking, a lot less shopping, and a lot more planning to cluster errands or just deal with being out of something. There’s much more work done to coordinate who needs the car that day (I can’t take the kids to their regular ped without a car, but there’s an emergency room within easy walking distance if it’s something truly acute), which means we spend a lot more time talking to each other.

    All in all, I like having only one car. There’s no “my car” or “your car” – it’s “our car”, and we both work to keep it clean, gassed-up, and the maintenance up to date.

  14. David says:

    Autres temps, autres moeurs, I guess. To me, the notion that you can live frugally by having “only” one car instead of two is akin to the notion that you can live frugally by eating caviare twice a week instead of every day.

    It may be that in the land of the free and the home of the brave, it actually works out cheaper to have a car than not to have a car. But I would like to see the numbers run, before being convinced that even one car is a necessity as opposed to a luxury.

  15. Sandy says:

    Thanks to the person who mentioned zenhabits. What a great blog! I am now subscribed :)

  16. Other Jonathan says:

    For the past 3 years my wife has worked next door. About 2 months into that arrangement, we realized that her car, which was a modern day lemon, was barely used. We turned a money pit into a $10k payday and have been a one-car family ever since and it’s saved us a bundle and gives us lots of garage space. That said, once we have children we’ll need a second car, no question.

  17. Vanessa says:

    @ Sandy

    Glad you liked it :)

    You might also like his other blog mnmlist(dot)com though it is not updated as often. Leo is my minimalist idol!

  18. Other Jonathan says:

    “It may be that in the land of the free and the home of the brave, it actually works out cheaper to have a car than not to have a car. But I would like to see the numbers run, before being convinced that even one car is a necessity as opposed to a luxury.”

    David, I live in Southern California. There is an extensive bus network throughout LA and Orange County, as well as some trains and a limited but growing light rail and subway system. There are also sidewalks and, in some places, bike lanes. So yes, going without a car here would be possible, if not necessarily convenient. And yes, technically speaking, it would generally save money – you’d save on purchase and maintenance, fuel, and insurance, while only paying for transit passes and likely getting a lot of good walking exercise.

    HOWEVER, it would cost heavily in time. Getting to or from work takes an hour and 20 minutes instead of 40, and still requires a 10-minute car ride to the light rail station (or, I suppose that could be substituted with an additional 40 minutes of walking and bus). Going to the grocery store would require more time and would have to be done more frequently because I can’t carry all my groceries at once. Costco would be out of the question. Furthermore, even if I lived within walking distance of work and shopping (i.e. paying much more for a cramped downtown apartment vs. my cheaper, larger house), my work requires attending meetings all over, and as a consultant, time literally is money. Even a couple hours a month lost to having to find alternative transportation would pay for a car.

    So, is having a car a luxury? Yes, in the strictest definition of the word. But a car is a tool that saves time and thereby makes money. Sorry if my points are scattered…it’s late and I’m tired.

  19. Nancy says:

    Now I’ve seen 2 pix by Brittany that involve Macomb, Illinois, and Western Illinois University. That is their bus system which is really pretty good! She must be going to school at WIU. Kind of fun seeing something local to me. I went to school there and live only 30 minutes away so am in Macomb on a regular basis.

  20. Izabelle says:

    Because we only had one car (bough used cash for $3900), we were able to afford a house closer to work, where public transportation is still decent.

    Then 2 years later we ended up on just one salary. Not having car payments and having to pay expenses on just one car helped us tremendously to keep our house while my husband goes back to school full-time. Had we chosen a house further away, this would not have been possible.

  21. Geoff Hart says:

    If you only occasionally need a second car (e.g., you need to take two kids to events on opposite sides of the city and carpooling won’t work for whatever reason), you can of course rent a car for next to nothing (in the U.S.) or for a more significant cost (in Canada). I’ve done this a few times when my wife was traveling with our car and I couldn’t get by on foot or on public transit. That can be significantly cheaper than owning even a used car.

    For an even more affordable option, look into “car sharing” alternatives. (I can’t post a link in this forum, but type those words into Wikipedia and you’ll get the right article.) For a small annual fee, which usually goes to cover the organizers’ expenses (e.g., maintenance, insurance, purchasing new cars when necessary) you can gain access to a car on a daily or hourly basis whenever you need one, and pretty much your only cost beyond that is gas.

    Provided you plan a little ahead to reserve a car during busy periods like long holiday weekends, you won’t have many problems getting a car if you live in an area with an established network; availability may be a bit less predictable in young networks that haven’t yet grown to full capacity. We have a pretty good network here in Montreal, but thus far, it’s primarily in the urban core. I’d join in a second if the network extended out to the ‘burbs where I live.

    To figure out what option works best for you, do what Trent does all the time: run the numbers. For example, let’s say a local rental costs you $50 per day (yes, it’s frequently that bad in Montreal) and Communauto (our shared car group) costs $200 per year (that’s a ballpark figure for their several different plans). If you use the car more than 4 times per year, you’re saving money; less than that and you should stick with rentals. They also offer a $500 one-time membership fee; if you use their cars more than 10 times, that’s clearly a huge savings.

  22. Lilli says:

    Why do all articles that talk about getting rid of a car suggest mooching rides? As one of my few friends that has a car in our city I can attest to the fact that it gets old fast when everyone asks for a ride, which does happen to me a lot. My other favorite is that I have friends who think it’s “easier” for me to come visit them rather than the other way around because it’s faster to drive than take public transit – even though parking in my neighborhood is free and plentiful (one of the reason I live here) and they live in the middle of downtown where it costs me $35 to park! Take the bus, ride a bike, catch a cab, or join Zipcar, but stop thinking that my car (which I busted my butt to pay off early) is your personal taxi!

  23. Gretchen says:

    I’m surprised one of the car tips was not “drive a manual transmission.”

    Cheaper to purchase, higher milage.

  24. SLCCOM says:

    Harder to steal, too, Gretchen. Apparently most of the casual car thieves don’t know how to drive a stick!

    However, the difference in mileage isn’t that much. Automatics are now much more efficient than when I was a kid.

    One thing not raised when suggesting saving money by getting rid of a car is that it limits your opportunities to make money in a side gig. Either your time is tied up in transportation, and therefore not available for a side gig, or the lack of transportation greatly diminishes the opportunities for second jobs.

  25. Laurie says:

    I’m always amused by the European or big city livers commenting about “Americans”, “people who live in the country” or “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” Just because where you live has easily accessible and low expense public transportation does not mean that everyone does!

    We have lived in Arequipa, Peru (one car, two kids), London (no cars, no kids), Florence (one motorcycle, one kid), Manhattan (no cars, two kids), and Philadephia (one car, two kids). We now live in metro Atlanta, where we started originally (two cars, no kids), and have two cars and two kids.

    Our county and city have ZERO public transportation. There are NO taxis. We have NO bike lanes – we have many places where there are no sidewalks! My husband, a professor, while home more than most has a different schedule every semester, which makes it impossibly to have only one car – we’d LOVE to do so. I cannot walk even to the grocery store – no sidewalks and it is 3 miles away.

    We would gladly have one or no cars if we lived in the APPROPRIATE situation for it. I get weary of the “judgement” tone people have for this topic.

    My favorite ever was when we were in London hearing how “Americans” jump in the car just to “go round to the corner shop.” The “corner shop” can be further away than Londoners, Manhattanites and other large city dwellers travel in a given week!

  26. jim says:

    TO add to Laurie’s point about 50 million Americans live in non-metropolitian areas (rural or small cities/towns). In addition about 40 million Americans live in neighborhoods of metropolitan areas that don’t have transit access. Thats 90 million people who don’t have realistic mass transit options.

  27. Jane says:

    @Laurie – I’m assuming you are referring to a suburb of Atlanta when you say you have zero public transportation? Because obviously the MARTA exists, but presumably not anywhere near where you live?

  28. Laurie says:

    I don’t live in the City of Atlanta – we live in metro Atlanta (about 15 miles from Atlanta) which is defined as 13 counties around Atlanta. Atlanta (like Dallas) covers an enormous area and is very sprawled out (unlike Manhattan, London, Philly and most other large cities). Even then, when I lived in downtown Atlanta the trains and buses only have good service in certain areas (check out the online maps – I’d link, but we all know what would happen).

    For example, I lived in midtown (right in the center of Atlanta). To travel <2 miles to work I would have had to walk one mile to a bus stop, take the bus 1/2 a mile in the wrong direction, catch a train, ride for three stops (passing where I wanted to go) and then take another train 2 stops to get off .8 of mile from where I needed to go. I should also add that to get to the major university where I worked, I would have to walk through an underground tunnel (think creepy movie with druggies hanging around and a very real risk of being assaulted). This was the only exit within miles of the university – and the university was definitely there before the Marta line. This is a school with 20,000 students and thousands of faculty members and research scientists not to mention an enormous staff.

    There are huge pockets of City of Atlanta that are not serviced. Additionally, very few (only 3) of the surrounding counties that feed into Atlanta have bus or train service (less than 1/2) that connect with Marta.

    If you're interested in the topic check out the Wikipedia page – its a very political and racial issue.

  29. Tom says:

    To David’s point, I think there are a few factors that influence the abundance of car ownership in America
    1. Easy Financing: You can frequently find loans on new cars for under 2%, sometimes 0% I believe also that cars are generally cheaper here, since we obviously don’t have tariffs on vehicles from American car manufacturers.
    2. Cheap fuel, at least relative to the rest of western civilization.
    3. Culture: outside of densely populated metro areas, there’s an expectation that you’ll NEED a car to run your life. Apparently, from other posts, even people who do live in cities still find cars necessary.

  30. Kai says:

    It’s also that North America is so much bigger than Europe. We are used to bigger homes in bigger communities, in much more sprawling areas. The average person travels farther for work, and often much farther for play. I love my bicycle, but I’m not going to take it 130km to go hiking on the weekend.
    I think a lot of Europeans just don’t realize the difference of scale which strongly influences the relative benefit of car ownership.

  31. Johanna says:

    I’m not sure the overall sizes and population densities of North America and Europe are very relevant here. The fact that there are huge swaths of North America without any people in them doesn’t (or shouldn’t) make much of a difference in how easy it is to get around the swaths where there are people. If, for example, the northeast US were its own country, it would be similar in population density to many European countries. And yet, except for the major cities and a few smaller towns that happen to lie on Amtrak routes, it’s a lot harder to get around the northeast US without a car.

    What I think *is* relevant is that more of Europe was built in times when nobody had cars. Since 1900, the population of the UK has less than doubled. The population of the US has quadrupled. A lot of that growth has been in places like Texas and California, but the populations of Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, and New Jersey have all more than tripled.

    Also, zoning policies and transportation budgets of recent generations have been designed around the “American dream” of detached houses with big yards and white picket fences. But I must say I’m a little less sympathetic to the argument that “our culture tells us that we need these things.” If your culture told you to jump off a bridge, would you do that too?

  32. laura k says:

    Cutting down on the number of cars can also be a great way to save mental energy. When I moved into the city (Boston), my parents convinced me to keep my car for a year…just in case. (This, after a year of wanting to get rid of my car, but living just far enough out of the city to make it difficult.) On top the standard concerns about insurance, regular maintenance and the price of gas, in the 9 months I had it in the city, I had to worry about:
    -parking on the correct side of the street so I could avoid a ticket on street sweeping day

    -getting broken into (ie, leaving absolutely nothing in your car that isn’t attached, because it might have some street value; this includes wiping off the ring left by the GPS suction cup, which can entice thieves into thinking you’ve stored your GPS in the glove box [even if you haven’t])

    -dealing with repairs caused by someone doing something stupid on our too-narrow, one-way street (eg, backing up and ripping off my side-view mirror [that was before the mirrors that fold in] or an errant baseball or football)

    -one more thing to keep clean

    My mom recently commented about how she worried about me being cold during my travels, to work, the grocery store, etc. It takes me less than 5 minutes to get to the subway or bus (I realize I’m lucky, but I always choose where I live based on proximity to transportation), and once there, only a minute or two to step into a warm vehicle driven by someone else. On the other hand, my parents need to stand out in the cold for 20-30 minutes sweeping the snow off the car, then deal with traffic, find parking, etc.

    I don’t begrudge anyone their cars. I actually love driving (as long as it’s a stick shift), but I love living car free even more, especially since I don’t need a gym membership because I walk everywhere.

  33. laura k says:

    @ Johanna

    “But I must say I’m a little less sympathetic to the argument that “our culture tells us that we need these things.” If your culture told you to jump off a bridge, would you do that too?”

    Yes, possibly, if that were the socially acceptable — or even expected — response to a situation. (Look at harakiri.)

    I get where you’re coming from, but I think you discount the influence a culture has on its citizens. It is easy to say that we shouldn’t follow the crowd, but it takes a lot of energy to go against the norm. Not only do we have everyone/thing around us saying we should do X (e.g., own a car), but if you’ve grown up doing X, you’ll likely continue to do it into adulthood. The groove of inertia is a difficult one to overcome.

    Let me flip your argument around: If our culture told us to get rid of our cars (and created the infrastructure for everyone to do so), would we all do it? Probably not, at least not in the short term. I suspect it would take at least a couple generations for a no-car culture to really set in.

    Of course that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t push people to think about the concept.

  34. SLCCOM says:

    Population density is highly relevant. The more people you have in a given area, the less expensive and more logistically feasible it is to operate an effective and comprehensive mass transit system. I used to live in New York City. Loved the transit system there; you could get from here to there with just a reasonable amount of walking, no matter where you were and where you wanted to go. Overall, the system was reasonably safe, you could transfer from bus to subway and back as needed, and, well, you could get there! In NYC there are millions of people who need to go from anywhere to anywhere at all hours of the day and night. You didn’t have to wait an excessively long time, either.

    In Denver, you can get from a limited number of places to a limited number of places. Few bus stops were safe to wait at on off hours, and the reliability of the schedule was marginal at best. Too often, you could get from where you were to within several or more miles of your destination. There aren’t cabs available, and their cost would negate the money saved on taking the bus. There is a lot more sprawl, and fewer people per area, and as a result, a much poorer quality transit system. The poorer the quality and less comprehensive the system, the fewer people will use it.

    Where I live now, well, a 15-minute drive can cost you over two hours by bus, although because it is such a small town, you can get close to your destination by bus and don’t have to drive at one end or the other. If I were broke, I would make it work. I’m not broke, and I’m not in good health and if I want to do what I came to do, I’d better drive or I’ll be too exhausted to do it.

  35. Kai says:

    I was referencing the population density for large amounts as relevant to how the transportation systems are set up so as to require cars. I think your point about when the cities were built as compared to the age of the automobile as also relevant.
    Yes, within some older urban areas, it is easy to get by without a car, but there are also many more parts of north america where it is fairly difficult, because (for a number of reasons) the area is designed with drivers in mind.

    It’s not that society says I need a car so i buy one. It’s society designs cities around the assumption that most people have a car, so it strongly influences the benefit balance of having one.

    I live in a city that is completely designed for cars – the new neighbourhoods are built without bus systems at all for the first number of years, and are usually sprawling with long winding streets that are easy to scan in a car, but take forever to get out of by foot. I choose to live in the inner city where everything is much smaller, and I can get through daily life without a car, but it still makes a lot of things easier.

    There also is no bus system to the mountains (beyond the two big towns), and I happen to like that way, as I dread the Rockies becoming the Alps.
    There are benefits to both ways.

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