Reading Alan’s series, The Year of Living Car-lessly, has left me grappling with car questions: Could we do it? Could we kiss our only car good-bye? How would it change our financial picture? How would it change our daily lives in Seattle?
We’ve got a few things in our favor. First, we already ditched one car—my husband’s. Martin hated driving to work anyway, but part of his inspiration for becoming car-free was learning about Seattle’s “One Less Car” study. He says that his decision was easy, especially since we now share my zippy little Volkswagen GTI. But truth be told, he rarely drives. He commutes to work by bicycle around the north end of the lake—28 miles each way—or he rides the bus across the 520 bridge. When it comes to errands and entertainment, we tend to walk.
Second, we live in the complete, compact community of Capitol Hill (a neighborhood in Seattle) where our walkshed index is 445—that’s 445 businesses within a mile of our front door. We live only four blocks from our local co-op grocery, a great local coffee house, our local video store, a used book store, a locally owned music store, a not-so-locally-owned drug store and countless tasty restaurants. Plus, we’re only two blocks from medical care and two blocks from our yoga studio. For what more could we ask? There is no real reason for us to drive except to gather with friends and get out of town.
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Some simple math
And with some calculations, I found the one car is costing us a bundle. That zippy little Volkswagen GTI gets 22 mpg in town and 30 mpg on the highway—not bad, but not great. Barring any big weekend road trips, I consume about two tanks or 24 gallons of gas a month, to the tune of roughly $70. I use my car primarily to commute to and from work.
But that’s only part of the story. Let’s say I decide to get rid of my car altogether. According to the car cost worksheet that Alan referenced, by the time I make my $380/month car payment, fill the tank twice, and factor in depreciation, tabs, insurance and maintenance, it costs me $830/month to drive my car. That is almost one-third of my monthly take-home salary as a full-time Seattle Public School teacher. Wow.
Now, let’s pretend that today I’m faced with the same decision—to buy or not to buy a zippy GTI. Instead I buy an unlimited bus pass ($54/month), I upgrade and maintain my bike for commuting ($20/month), and I use FlexCar an average of 10 hours a month ($103/month). That means that rather than spending $650 /month on my car payment, insurance payment, and costs for tabs, gas and maintenance, I now only spend $177/month on transportation, gas and insurance and have $473/month to invest in a savings account that yields 5% .
At the end of six years I would have $39,147.49 cash. Now that’s not just walking-around money. That’s a down payment for a house or a few years of world travel. Sadly, the real story is that after six years of paying for and driving my car, I will have a car that will likely be worth about $10,000 and very little travel money in the bank. Sure, I’ve done some fun things in my car, like visit friends in Port Townsend, Bellingham, and the Methow Valley. But I would have gladly considered creative ways of getting to those places if not having a car meant eventually traveling in Thailand, Nepal, Kenya and Bolivia.
If someone had helped paint this financial picture for me when I was in my 20s, I would have thought much harder about whether I really wanted to buy my first car. Back then I created a lifestyle that required a car. But now I find that my husband and I have naturally gravitated toward a lifestyle that can support car-less living. We live in an urban community where everything we need is within a relatively short walk, bike, or bus ride. Now it is just a matter of weaning ourselves off of a few car conveniences that, while they are nice, I’m not sure are worth the high price.
We are halfway down the car-less path—one car down, one to go.