We sold our car over a year ago. We still don’t have one. We’re an upper-middle-class, middle-aged married couple. Supposedly a car (or two or three) demonstrates our social status. Conspicuous consumption is supposed to advertise our relative wealth. Since we prefer actual wealth to the perception of it, we don’t particularly care. What do we have to prove? No matter what car you drive, you still have to look for parking just like everyone else and get stuck in traffic just like everyone else. Or, if you go car-free, you can skip both. Avoiding the conspicuous consumption trap of automobile ownership is a subversive, fun way to broadcast conspicuous leisure!
As a quick note, we had a VW Jetta TDI that was recalled due to the emissions scandal. We took the buyback offer. Due to our low mileage, we got a big check that meant we had essentially been driving it for free for two years. It was a great little car. We don’t really miss it, though; for the last year we owned it, we’d have to take it through the car wash every time we drove. I work at home and my husband walked to work, so we really only ever took it to the movies every couple of weeks. We were car-free in most ways, except for the payments and the insurance and all the other expenses.
Cars are EXTREMELY EXPENSIVE as a proposition. Between the payments, the insurance, gas, oil changes, parking, bridge tolls, and maintenance, it was running us $700 a month. Cars are also socially expensive. Take a look around at all the single-occupant vehicles and ask, is this really the most efficient way to run things? Take a look around at all the pavement, the parking lots and roads and viaducts, and ask, is this really the best use of our space?
Let’s go back to that $700. We could certainly have qualified for a loan for a more expensive vehicle, or leased one at a higher bracket still. But why? Unless you’re absolutely in love with the physical experience of driving, it’s a little silly. I in fact loathe driving and find it to be THE least pleasant adult activity. I’d literally rather scrub a toilet, do taxes, or take a load of trash to the dump. Driving sucks! Neither of us are particularly impressed with the aesthetics of automotive design, either, and if we were, we could just go to the car show every week, or put up some car posters or something.
So we bought a practical compact car. Great. Fine. It was still $700 a month.
IRA contributions for one person under age 50 are currently, as of 2018, $5500 a year. That works out to $458.33 per month. Two people, since we’re a married couple? That’s $11,000 a year, or $916.66 per month. ($12,000 if one of you is over 50 and $13,000 if you both are). By not owning a car, we were able to redirect that money to fully fund one of our IRAs and half of the other.
Oh, hey, I just remembered. A lot of couples have two cars! Crazy, right? One for each of you! Why not have a house for each of you, too?? Two refrigerators and two ovens! And YOU get a car and YOU get a car...
Add up all of the expenses for both of your vehicles over year and compare that total to the $11,000 to $13,000 that would go into your IRAs each year. If you already fully fund your IRAs as well as making car payments, awesome! Good for you! Celebrate by skimming through some vacation packages and comparing those prices instead.
I want to tell you that five grand can buy a really excellent three-week vacation for two.
Not owning a car. Isn’t that extreme? It depends on how you define ‘extreme.’ I’d say it’s extreme to carry credit card debt and pay 16% interest on it. I’d say it’s extreme to “buy” a $30,000 car that depreciates the moment you drive it out of the dealership, and then make payments on it for five years or more. I’d say it’s extreme to age one year every year and not have solid plans for how you’re going to support Future You in your old age.
It’s truly not a big deal. My husband rides the bus to work, and he has a little folding bicycle that he uses between stops, because the bike rack is often full by the time he gets on the bus. His work pays for his monthly bus pass. He’s able to use that pass every day, even if we’re going to the movie theater or something. I work at home, and I walk to my gym, so I only generate transportation expenses when I go into the city once or twice a week.
Instead of driving on Southern California freeways, we can sit back and relax. Play games, read the news, read books, take catnaps, chat with other passengers, generate all sorts of wacky stories, and even get in a few steps on the pedometer.
But how do we do our errands???
We’re within walking distance of the post office, a UPS store, a hair salon, two pharmacies, two dry cleaners, a pet food store, the public library, several boutique gyms, a couple of restaurants, and the veterinarian. For everything else, there’s online delivery, which again is cheaper than car ownership just for the sake of a couple dozen errands per year.
There’s a grocery store a quarter-mile from our apartment. When we lived in a house, the nearest grocery store was about a third of a mile. The house before that had a store directly behind our back yard. They’re everywhere! We’ve also ordered grocery delivery and found that it was pretty reliable. Without that $700 monthly carrying cost of a vehicle, there’s a lot more latitude for tipping delivery drivers.
We sometimes use a ride-share service, like when we go to the airport, or when we’ve left the movie theater and it’s forty minutes until the next bus. The occasional $15 fare for two people is nowhere near as expensive as car ownership. Like paying for deliveries, ride-sharing is a way for us to contribute to the economy. I like the idea of jobs with no dress code, where drivers can choose their own schedules and play the music of their choice.
We’ve rented a car once since we sold our car. We also rented a moving van, but we would have done that anyway because our mattress wouldn’t fit in a car. We always planned that we would rent a car about once a month for running errands, but in practice it hasn’t happened. We just haven’t needed it.
When we first returned our Jetta to the VW dealership, my hubby was a little nervous. I didn’t learn to drive until I was 29, so I didn’t really care, but this was the first time he hadn’t had his own car since he was 16. He used to talk quite a bit about buying a motorcycle, or getting a new car, and I would remind him that we could take a Lyft to the dealership that very night if he so pleased. No call for anxiety. We wanted to test out being car-free for a year, using that time to move more quickly toward our goal of financial independence. That year is now up.
Now that we’ve done it, we’re most likely never going back. I won’t say “never” because innovation is happening quickly, and who knows what game-changers might hit the market in the next decade or two? For me, a car-free life is about the same as it ever was. For my formerly freeway-commuting husband, it’s a whole new world. He now sees car ownership as an unnecessary, extravagant expense. Car-free and carefree!
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.