My husband and I have been car free since 2003, when his 1993 Saturn bit the dust. We have lived in New York City all that time, where we commute on the subway, ride our bikes, catch cabs, use the bike share system, take the East River Ferry and ride regional rails. Plus, at least once a month we rent a car from a car sharing service, for weddings, day hikes and visits to Grandma's.
Since we had a kid, however, we've debated the cost and benefits of owning a car.
According to a study just released by AAA, the average cost of car ownership actually fell slightly last year, to an average $8,876 per year. That's based on 15,000 miles of annual driving for a sedan. The lower costs were thanks to lower gas prices and increased fuel efficiency. Due to the lower gas mileage, "family sized" cars cost more: $9,753 for a minivan and $11,039 for an SUV.
But going from two cars down to one, or one to zero, doesn't automatically mean pocketing several thousand bucks. To consider whether it's right for you, you have to figure out:
1) What is the cost of the alternative?
Once, only those who lived in cities with extensive public transportation systems could think about giving up car ownership. The rise of car sharing services like Zipcar, Car2Go, Enterprise CarShare and RelayRides has prompted more people to consider the move.
A car sharing service offers a more convenient way to rent a car. You pay a membership fee and make reservations online. You can pick up the car at different locations (hundreds of them in some metropolitan areas) and unlock it with your membership card. No waiting in line or going out to the airport, and you can rent by the hour or day. According to Zipcar, 40 percent of their members say they either sold their car or decided not to buy a car because of Zipcar.
Let's say you have a monthly Zipcar membership in Chicago. The average $8,876 cost of owning a car would pay for 109 full days of driving at the higher weekend rate after membership and fees. So unless you have a long daily car commute, it's almost certainly going to be cheaper to rent.
If your second car is a less fuel-efficient, less used truck or van, you could sell it and substitute an occasional rental instead.
Car sharing isn't widely available in areas with low population density, and it doesn't cover every possible situation where you'll need to drive. It's too expensive for daily drive commutes. You'll probably need to budget for the cost of additional cab rides, say to and from the airport or for a night out. Or, if you have a habit of driving to big box stores to make bulk purchases, you'll need to build that into your model.
2) Do your home and work situations allow for cutting back on driving?
After my parents retired and became empty nesters, they got rid of their second vehicle. This can be a smart choice for many retirees. Even working couples can arrange to share a car given careful planning.
If you have a long daily drive, a radical decision would be to move closer to work, or arrange to telecommute if possible. Studies show that time spent commuting by car has a negative impact on happiness.
3) What are the other lifestyle concerns?
Most couples sharing a car, or folks with just one car, spend more time walking or biking, which is good for overall health (which in turn will save you money in the long run).
On the downside, it can't be denied that owning a car is often the most convenient way to get around. No car can mean long walks and long waits for the bus or subway in all kinds of weather. This can be a no-go if you or a family member are in delicate health or if you have small children.
Luckily, if you can't give up your car(s), you can still save money by trading over to a more fuel efficient model and driving less -- even just one day a week.
(Anya Kamenetz' latest book is "DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education." She welcomes your questions at email@example.com)
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