One Year Later: How We Make It as a One-Car Family in the Suburbs

A little over a year ago, my husband and I faced a decision: what to do with my old, beat-up minivan. Even though the van had been paid off for a while, it was starting to cost us more than we wanted to pay in terms of updates and repairs. I had spent around $700 on new tires and several hundred more on new brake pads in just the prior year. Since the van was worth $4,000 tops, we were growing tired of pouring money into it.

After talking it over, we started to wonder whether we could get by with just one car. It would be a bit of a challenge: We had owned two cars for our entire marriage, after all, and we have two kids who don’t always participate in the same activities. Plus, while more than half of New Yorkers get by without any car at all, we don’t live in a big city with a subway system to fall back on.

But in the end, we decided it seemed silly to have two cars since we both work (mostly) out of our home. Ultimately, that meant selling the van to a family friend for $3,500. Not only would this put $3,500 cash in our pockets, but this also meant we could quit paying for oil changes and repairs and cancel the insurance, too. Better yet, we would gain half of a two-car garage for storage and whatever else we wanted.

How We Make It Work as a One-Car Family

It’s been well over a year now, and our adventure as a one-car family has gone off mostly without a hitch. Here are some of the issues we’ve had to negotiate to make it work:

#1: It’s essential that at least one of us always works at home.

First off, without a subway or other transit system handy, our life as a one-car family wouldn’t be possible for us if we both worked outside the home.

We have our own businesses, which means that one of us is almost always here at the house during the work day. Usually it’s me, and I don’t mind being here without a car at all.

Either way, I know there’s no way we could make this work if we were to ever go back to traditional 9-5 jobs. With that in mind, having at least one of us at home is essential to our ability to remain a one-car family.

#2: We use Uber and other services in a pinch.

One of the biggest secrets to our success as a one-car family is the fact we rely on Uber and other ride-sharing services when we’re in a bind.

For example, I travel some for my work and occasionally have to get to the airport first thing in the morning. When that happens, I pay around $44 for an Uber to the airport instead of having my husband wake our kids or leaving them without a car. Then, when I arrive home, I either Uber home or have him pick me up.

Also, I used to worry about what I would do if we really needed food and my husband was gone with the car. But now that I’ve started using grocery delivery most of the time, that worry has completely disappeared. Chalk up another win for having groceries delivered instead of schlepping to the store.

On the rare occasion one of us goes out with our friends, we also use Uber or ride along with someone else instead of leaving the other person stranded.

#3: We ride bikes when we can.

Because we live near the center of our city, it’s possible to ride our bikes to some destinations as long as the weather is good. This has allowed us to ride bikes to certain events when my husband has the car – like my kid’s piano lessons or to our friend’s house across the neighborhood. We’ve also ridden bikes to birthday parties a few times when my husband had to be one place with the car and at least one of our kids had to be somewhere else.

Since there’s a gas station and convenience store right outside our neighborhood, we could also ride bikes there if we were desperate for hot dog buns or Tylenol. When my kids were younger, I don’t think I would have felt so comfortable doing this. But, it works fine now that they’re ages 6 and 8 (and almost 7 and 9, they’ll have you know).

#4: We plan to rent a car in certain situations.

While we haven’t had to rent a car yet, we know the time is coming where we will likely have to pay for a multi-day rental. If my husband drives out of state by himself to see my in-laws, for example, he would need to rent a car because it wouldn’t be okay to leave me stranded with the kids for days at a time.

And, what happens if our only car has to go into the shop for repairs? In that case, we already know we’d be on the hook for a rental while it was getting fixed.

Also, we justified keeping our minivan for far too long due to the fact you could lay the seats flat and use it to move large items. The thing is, we rarely took advantage of this outside of spring when we used our van to haul mulch. If we need a truck to haul mulch or anything else, we can always rent one or borrow one from a friend, right?

Why Being a One-Car Family Is Worth It

At this point, you’re probably wondering whether the money we save by not having a car has made all those sacrifices worth it. Paying $45 for an occasional Uber trip certainly adds up, as does grocery delivery and other services we may have to access.

The thing is, I still feel very confident that we made the right decision – financially and otherwise. Here’s why:

  • We saved $300 per year on auto insurance. Once we removed the minivan from our auto insurance policy, our premiums went down around $150 per six months, or $300 per year.
  • We no longer have to pay for license plates. Until we sold the van, we were paying around $100 per year to renew our license plates.
  • We eliminated the prospect of costly repair bills. The biggest problem with keeping our old van was the many “what ifs” that came with it. What if it needed more expensive repairs? Since it was an 11-year-old model and sat mostly unused, we worried a lot about how much it might cost to maintain it in the future. Now those worries are gone.

With these details in mind, I’m fairly certain we’ve saved a bundle by selling our car. The $300 we’re saving on auto insurance and the $100 we paid for plates can pay for a lot of Uber rides, and the elimination of repair bills means we won’t be out thousands of dollars to fix the van in the future. Plus, after we sold the van, we put $3,500 cash in the bank, knowing full well that the van could only be worth less and less with each passing year.

However, the best part about all of it is the peace of mind we gained. I love having one car for the simple fact it makes our lives much simpler than they were before. Now, we only have one car to clean and maintain, and we only have one oil change schedule to remember. We only have to renew the plates once each year, and we only have to worry about repair bills from one car at a time. And yes, we have more room in the garage, which is something I truly appreciate.

The Bottom Line

Can everyone share a car with their spouse? Absolutely not! When you have two adults going in different directions every day, without a subway or useful bus system to help out, sharing one car could easily become a nightmare. Still, there are plenty of instances where people could share a car, but don’t. I know, because we were those people for years until we decided to sell the old minivan.

Nowadays, I’m perfectly happy with the fact I don’t have my own car. I don’t care if people think it’s weird, or if they wonder if we’re a one-car family because we can’t afford a second one. What I crave most at this point in my life is simplicity, and having one car has definitely delivered on that front.

Holly Johnson is an award-winning personal finance writer and the author of Zero Down Your Debt. Johnson shares her obsession with frugality, budgeting, and travel at ClubThrifty.com.

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