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Living Without A Car: 10 Tips On How To Do It

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What does your car really cost?

According to the AAA, the average cost to own a small sedan is $6,354 per year, and that’s the cheapest of the nine car types on their list. At the high end, the average cost for a pickup truck tops $10,000 per year.

Of course, those are averages, and they’re based on buying new and driving 15,000 miles per year. If you buy a used car, drive fewer miles, and use some of the 63 ways to save on gasoline previously detailed here, you might cut that cost down to, say, $4,000 per year.

That’s still a lot of money, and you can only reduce it just so far. Even when you buy used, a car loses value over time, and there is no way to legally avoid annual licensing and insurance costs. Nor can you avoid all repair and maintenance costs.

Let’s face it; if you actually use your vehicle, there’s almost no way to spend less than a few thousand dollars per year to own it.

Unless… you go without a car. Let’s see how…

10 Strategies For Surviving Without A Car

Can you survive without a car? According to recent statistics, millions of people in the U.S. (almost 8% of households) get by with no vehicle, so it’s clearly possible.

I did it when I was single and living in a small town. My wife and I have been without a car for at least six months twice over the years, in two different cities. We did it specifically as a way to save money, and we may choose to go car-less again in the future.

To survive comfortably without a car you’ll probably have to use a combination of strategies. Here are some of the possibilities…

1. Move To A Larger City

It’s often easier to go without a car in larger cities, thanks to public transportation and bike lanes. WalkScore.com has a list of transit and bike-friendly cities, and AOL has a list of cities where it’s easiest to live without a car. Here’s the latter list:

  • Minneapolis, Minnesota
  • Baltimore, Maryland
  • Hialeah, Florida
  • Long Beach, California
  • Oakland, California
  • Seattle, Washington
  • Washington, DC
  • Chicago, Illinois
  • Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
  • Miami, Florida
  • Newark, New Jersey
  • Boston, Massachusetts
  • San Francisco, California
  • Jersey City, New Jersey
  • New York, New York

If you happen to live in one of these places already, great! Ditch the car. Of course, if you’re trying to save money, you don’t want to move to New York or San Francisco. In fact, moving to some of the cities above could increase your monthly expenses beyond any savings achieved from getting rid of your vehicle.

So, if you want to save money by moving to a place where you can dump the car, start your search with a list of the cities with the lowest cost of living. Then, based on your own needs, research their public transportation systems, bike lanes, and the availability of stores within walking distance of the neighborhoods where you might live.

2. Move To A Very Small Town

Some communities in the U.S lack public transportation and are spread out enough that walking or bicycling are impractical as a means of routine transportation. But many small towns have everything within walking distance, making it possible to live without a car.

Kiplinger has a list of the cheapest small towns in America, which includes communities of up to 50,000 people. But you may want to go really small to find a home with everything nearby.

For example, when my wife and I lived in Florence, Colorado, the grocery store, hardware store, a pizza place, several pubs, our dentist, and our favorite Japanese restaurant were all within a fifteen minute walk of our house. In fact, the entire town is less than two miles from end-to-end, so nothing can be too far away if you live near the center.

Of course, with a population of only 4,000 or so, the options for shopping (and doctors and entertainment) were limited, as is the case with any small community. So even if you find a town that has the essentials all within walking distance, plan on using the other strategies here to travel out of town regularly.

3. Use A Bicycle

Walking, unless you really like the workout, is useful only for destinations within a mile or less. On the other hand, a bicycle can get you almost anywhere in a city within a reasonable amount of time.

For example, Tucson, Arizona, where my wife and I live, is very spread out, but thanks to bike paths and bike lanes that cover hundreds of miles, and busses that all have bike racks, you can still get anywhere in town with a bicycle. A retired friend who lives on less than $500 per month (yes, really) uses his bicycle as his primary transportation here in Tucson.

Not surprisingly, Tucson has a “gold” rating on Forbes list of bike-friendly cities. It also has a low cost of living. That’s a great combination if you are ditching the car and pedaling to save money.

You can put together a bike, helmet, seat cover, lock and other minor accessories for less than $200 new, or go even cheaper by buying used. My experience is that a cheap bicycle with a gel bike seat cover is almost as comfortable as an expensive bike, at least for around town, and it’s less likely to be stolen.

4. Walk

This morning I walked to my Dentist office (15 minutes). Yesterday I walked to the grocery store. Even though we have a car for now, we want the option to get rid of it someday, so being able to walk to a number of places was one of the key criteria when we bought our home.

But if you’re choosing a new home based on “walkability” ratings, be careful. WalkScore.com shows a walk score of “0” for our zip code, even though in 5 to 15 minutes we can walk to 3 grocery stores, our bank, our doctors, our dentists, 3 bars, 20 restaurants, and two dozen other useful destinations. Apparently the algorithm has identified a part of the zip code that’s out in the desert.

It’s better, once you’re considering specific homes, to use Google maps. Just zoom in to see what’s within a half-mile (or within a mile or two if you really enjoy walking).

5. Pay Friends And Family For Rides

Begging for rides will chase away friends and irritate people at some point. On the other hand, if you pay for rides, even if that just means chipping in a couple bucks for gas, people will usually be happy to help you out.

Living with people helps too. When I used to rent out bedrooms in my home I was without a car much of the time, but my tenants were happy to let me ride along to the grocery store and other destinations with them because I always gave them a few dollars for the trip.

On the flip side, when I had a car I charged my coworkers for rides to work. I often picked up three riders, which covered all of my car expenses for the miles driven ($2 per person for each way), and making it easier for them to live without cars.

6. Have Groceries Delivered

It may be easy to take a bus to work, but not so easy to carry a load of groceries home on public transportation. A car really helps here. But it’s less-necessary if you shop online and have food delivered.

Of course, ordering food products online is tricky. For example, my wife and I don’t want food sitting for hours in the 130-degree mailbox here at our condo complex.

Fortunately many local grocery stores are now delivering right to your door at scheduled times. Check for those services when choosing to give up your car, and when choosing a new place to live.

It should be noted that most stores charge for delivery and some charge higher prices for items ordered online versus the same items if bought in the store. Take into account those extra costs when calculating your savings from going car-less.

7. Buy A Scooter

A scooter can save money versus owning a car, and in some states you can operate a scooter without a license if the engine size is 50cc or smaller. You can find the legal requirements for your state on DMV.org.

Scooters or mopeds can be used for relatively long commutes and trips around town, but they can’t carry much, and you’ll wish you took the bus when it’s raining or snowing.

Also, according to MotorScooterShopper.com, the savings may be less than you think despite the 80 miles-per-gallon these vehicles can get. That’s because of the lifespan of a scooter is typically 20,000 miles or less.

8. Rent A Car For Trips

If we go without a car again, my wife and I agree that we’ll have to rent a car from time to time. We’re just not willing to give up road trips.

It may seem expensive to spend hundreds of dollars to rent a car for a few days, but in the end, if you only do so a couple times annually, the savings from not owning will outweigh those costs. And because most car rental companies offer unlimited mileage as part of the deal, you can get a lot of value from that rental (I once put over 5,000 miles on a week-long $219 rental).

9. Use Taxis And Uber

 

Taking a taxi or using Uber or Lyft can also seem expensive, but the total costs of an occasional paid ride can’t compare to the daily expense of owning a car.

And realistically, there will be times when you’re stuck without a bus, train, or other public transportation. For example, we like to take the bus downtown to avoid parking hassles, but sometimes we stay too late to catch the bus home.

When deciding to go without a car, plan on the expense of taxi rides, even if you’re also planning on using the next strategy.

10. Use Public Transportation

Here in Tucson it costs $40 for an unlimited monthly bus pass. You can reduce that by about half if you’re low-income, elderly, or disabled. That’s really cheap transportation if you’re using it daily.

In New York a monthly pass for the subway costs $121, which might sound expensive, but New York is the most expensive city in which to own a car. Parking costs alone can run higher than the monthly MetroCard.

How Much Can You Really Save?

The savings you get from getting rid of your car depend on how much it costs to operate your current vehicle, where you live, and your specific transportation needs. But for an idea of what’s possible, let’s look at an example, starting with the assumption that your current cost to own a car is around $8,000 annually.

Your New Transportation Costs (Annual):
  • $600 – Bus pass
  • $600 – Car rental;  twice each year
  • $400 – Taxi and Uber rides
  • $200 – Bicycle-related expenses
  • $200 – Additional expenses of not owning a car (higher prices for delivered groceries, gas money paid to friends for rides, etc)

That’s a total of about $2,000 per year, which is far less than it costs to own almost any vehicle and, in this example, a savings of $6,000!

The decision doesn’t have to be permanent, of course. If you can save $6,000 annually it might be a great way to save up cash for a car, so at least you’ll own one without debt payments. Or it could be part of a three-year plan to save money for a down payment on a house.

What else could you do with an extra $6,000 per year? Hmm…

There is one more factor to keep in mind when making the decision to get by without a car. Any gap in auto insurance coverage will result in much higher rates, even hundreds of dollars more, when you decide to own a car again. Fortunately, according to DMV.com, the higher premiums will usually go down after six months of coverage.

If you’ve gone without a car for more than a few months, tell us about your experience… and keep on frugaling!

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