Should Our Family Drop From Two Cars To One?
As Mrs. Root of Good’s retirement date comes closer, we have to revisit the question of whether we should get rid of one of our cars and become a single vehicle family.
First, let’s ponder the significance of the auto. Cars are an oxymoron. They are an incredibly convenient way to travel from point A to point B very quickly. However, owning and maintaining a car isn’t convenient at all. I’m approaching the question of whether we should drop to one car from this vantage point: convenience versus inconvenience and cost.
The Ultimate in Convenience…
This is America. Cars are cheap, gas is cheap, the open road beckons. Land use planning leaves much of America spread out and poorly accessible by foot or by bike, at least where I choose to live a few miles from downtown Raleigh. The car is the default choice of transportation for anyone who can afford one, and many who can’t.
In five to ten minutes I can traverse most of the city, reaching major shopping centers, parks, libraries, hospitals, and downtown cultural attractions. Parking is almost universally free and plentiful. Twenty two hours per day the traffic is bearable. The car is a wonderful modern tool, truly a luxurious way to get around town.
For us, having a second car means Mrs. Root of Good and I can independently go anywhere we want regardless of what the other person is up to. I might have a volunteering obligation on the other side of town while Mrs. RoG wants to run errands, visit family, or pick the kids up from school.
…Comes with Inconvenience…
Cars are stuff. And stuff always makes demands on your time. Throughout the year I spend a good bit of time maintaining my car. I complete most of the routine maintenance and repairs myself or with the help of a shade tree mechanic friend. It takes time to figure out a repair procedure, procure the right parts and equipment, and complete the actual repair and follow up testing. Even if I outsource one hundred percent of car maintenance, I’m still on the hook for many hours each year of dropping the car off, waiting at the auto shop, and then driving back home.
Cars cost money. With two cars, we split our annual mileage across two vehicles. If we drop to one car, all of our driving will be concentrated on one vehicle. This means we’ll have to do slightly more maintenance on our only car but won’t have to maintain a second car at all. As a result, annual maintenance costs will drop.
The annual fixed costs of car ownership should drop roughly in half if we drop to one car. We would only owe property taxes, registration, and inspection fees for one vehicle. We currently spend around $1,000 per year on maintenance, taxes, registration, and inspections, or around $500 per vehicle. Dropping to one vehicle means saving $500 per year on those annual maintenance and operation costs.
Insurance costs might drop, though perhaps not that much since we would still have two licensed drivers on the policy. I’ll assume insurance will stay the same at around $500 per year.
Depreciation is the biggest car ownership expense for us. The Honda Civic and Accord we bought fifteen years ago depreciated by $800 to $1,000 per year. Owning only one car would save us around $1,000 per year in depreciation costs.
Adding the maintenance and depreciation costs together, I find that dropping to one car would save us $1,500 per year. That’s a pretty steep cost to pay for the added convenience of a second car.
Do We NEED a Second Car? Or WANT one?
We have to face the facts. We are homebodies by nature. We really enjoy staying at home and doing fun stuff around the house. Sometimes we don’t leave the house for multiple days in a row. When we do, it’s often to destinations not far from home and we walk to get there.
We don’t eat out in restaurants very often. At night you’ll find us enjoying dinner and a drink at home, sometimes by the lake on our back patio or sometimes in front of the TV engrossed in a thriller on Netflix. We rarely go to bars or concerts.
Most driving trips are either grocery shopping or seeking fun at local parks, swimming pools, museums, or visiting family and friends. We are homebodies.
And much of our shopping and recreating doesn’t involve driving at all. Within a mile of our house we can walk to:
- community center
- elementary school
- major grocery store
- Asian and Hispanic grocery stores
- dozens of restaurants (chains and local eateries)
- dollar store
- big box discount store
In other words, we can walk to almost everything we need on a routine basis, and sometimes walk for miles just for fun.
I checked out our Walk Score from walkscore.com and our house received a 37 out of 100 which translates to a “car-dependent neighborhood”. They offer a breakout for different categories of nearby destinations and we actually scored around a 50 (“somewhat walkable”) for groceries, general shopping, dining, drinking, and schools, a 75 for parks “very walkable”), and much lower for errands, culture, and entertainment. That seems about right. We lack culture but almost everything else is somewhat walkable.
We also live within easy walking distance of three transit routes (one of which we caught for the five minute ride to the Greyhound bus station to start our seven week vacation in Mexico). Easy access to transit means we can get to tons of other destinations without a car for about a buck each way. Walkscore.com gave us a Transit Score of 32 (“some transit”).
Currently neither one of us adults owns a bicycle, but that’s another easy solution to get us past the current mile or two walking radius. A traditional bike in the $150-300 price range or an electric bike in the $600-1,000 price range would extend our car-less theater of operations to three to ten miles (if we dare brave the busy city streets!). A pair of e-bikes would set us back about the same $1,500 we spend on car maintenance and depreciation in one year.
Looking at all the angles, we probably don’t need a second car. Right now, the main reason we want one is because that’s the status quo. We currently own two cars and it’s easy to keep doing what you’ve been doing for the last 15 years without introducing change.
Can We Do It?
With change comes fear of the unknown. What if one of us is stuck at home when we want to go somewhere? What if I’m out having fun with our only car while Mrs. RoG unexpectedly needs to pick a kid up from school? What if our only car breaks down?
Between walking, biking, transit, and the very infrequent Uber ride or rental car, we could probably make do with only one car and save close to $1,500 per year. It might not always be the most convenient set up. However, maintaining only one car eliminates some of the auto maintenance tasks (which is convenient).
In general, retiring early gives us a great deal of flexibility in our schedule so that with a little planning we can make sure the car is generally available to whoever needs it for kid-hauling duties, shopping, or recreating around town.
We just enjoyed a thirteen week test run of both of us not working when Mrs. RoG took her sabbatical. We were on vacation for seven weeks of her sabbatical and didn’t need any cars. The other six weeks we spent at home and never needed a second car the entire time. In my routine early retired life, I don’t drive very often, so I feel like the need for a second car is very low.
One way to approach the dilemma of ditching the second car is to simply do it and then evaluate for three to six months to see if we really miss it.
Looking Into the Future
Although cars are easy to buy and sell without ridiculous transaction costs, I like to look ahead into the future to forecast our needs.
Our oldest child is going to middle school in one year. It won’t be walkable and we don’t know for sure whether the school bus will come to our street or whether we will drive our kid to school. Our transportation needs might be different at that point. Transit routes take us within a half mile or mile of likely middle schools, so that’s a decent plan B for the occasional ride to school.
Long term I would like to upgrade to a minivan or SUV that holds around seven people for family road trips and for carrying our family of five plus a couple other family or friends.
Five and a half years from now, our oldest child will be able to drive on her own. We still don’t know what we’ll do about providing a car (hand me down? buy one for her? split the cost?) and auto insurance. Part of me says keep one of our well-maintained fifteen year old Hondas. The Civic only has 98,000 miles on it after all!
Then I realize in five and a half more years it will be a 21 year old Honda Civic that lacks modern safety features and the reliability of a newer car when our oldest would start driving it.
The Bigger Picture – Owning and Consuming What’s Optimal
I like to think and analyze what we own and whether it’s the best use of our financial resources. We can “afford” a second car, but is it the best use of $1,500 per year? Do we get $1,500 worth of convenience out of a second car? Could we spend those funds on something more awesome?
I think all of us should view our large expense categories with the same critical eye.
Are we using all of the house we currently own? Do we need all this space? How are we using it? Could we downsize?
Do we get the most value out of our restaurant and grocery purchases? Can we make small incremental changes to get even better value out of food expenditures without sacrificing nutrition and taste?
For us, housing, transportation, food, and vacations are two thirds of our entire $32,400 per year retirement budget, which is why I emphasize the importance of critically examining those expenses.
If you didn’t have to work, could you go to a one car family? Completely car-less?