Auto Costs On The Cheap

One area of spending where we have done a great job of keeping costs low is auto expenses.  This is an area where you can get by on the cheap (one old beater to share for the whole family) or very lavishly (a fleet of 3+ luxury sedans and a beefed up toy hauler pick up).

As with most expenses, we focus on the value side when making transportation decisions.  Our goal is to get from point A to point B reliably and consistently, and keep our vehicle operating expenses low.

We have two Hondas, both 13 years old, both bought brand new.  As I explained in my recent post on the RootofGood household finances, our auto costs run around $3,500 per year total.  Gas costs are the bulk of the expense at $2000 annually.  Maintenance/repairs, insurance, taxes, registration, and inspection are $1500 annually.

The biggest auto expense comes from gas for Mrs. RootofGood’s 45 mile round trip commute.  It is almost all freeway, and she travels off peak, so traffic is minimal (usually a 30 minute commute one way).

Mrs. RootofGood drives around 12,000 miles/yr, and 85-90% of that is commuting.  We use my Honda Civic for the every day driver if we happen to drive around town as a family.  With 3 kids in the back seat.  The Civic can be snug at times (for the three kids in the back anyway), and we use the Honda Accord and the way more spacious back seat for vacations.

When I was working, I drove around 6,000 miles/yr.  Over half of that was for work.  My commute was ~2,300 miles during the year, and probably another 500-1000 miles of reimbursed business travel (at a rate of $0.56/mile).  Our cost of operating the cars add up to approximately $0.20/mile not including depreciation.

$0.20 per mile seems like a low operating cost.  Both cars are sedans, and as a result many maintenance tasks are less expensive than those for larger vehicles.  Replacement of four tires, for example, usually runs $250-300 including installation for mid-range all season tires.

Our personal travel mileage including vacations, shopping, errands, hauling kids to/from school and to grandma’s, social visits, and the occasional beach or mountain vacation add up to approximately 4,000 miles per year in recent years.  Or a little over 300 miles per month on average.

I recently quit working, so my mileage is likely to drop from 5600/yr to 3000 or so.  I normally walk the kids the 1/2 mile to school, and we walk to parks, the library, the community center, restaurants, the grocery store, the dollar store, and other shopping in the neighborhood at distances of 0.5 to 1 mile.  We enjoy living in an area where we can walk to many different destinations.

At $0.20 per mile vehicle operating costs, walking instead of driving also saves us a small amount of money on each trip.  Walking the kids to school, for example, saves us about $75 annually.  The money is relatively trivial, but the enjoyment of the outdoors, the social interaction with neighbors and friends you see while walking, and the fitness benefits make walking worthwhile.  It also helps the kids get accustomed to walking, so that when we do go on vacation, they usually make it at least a few blocks before they start whining!

Now that I’m retired, my typical weekly driving is a grocery store trip, and usually a kid related errand or two (doctor’s office, it’s raining so I drive the kids to school, playdate, or birthday party) and a lunch out with friends one or two times per week.  I think the longest trip I have taken in the 1.5 months of my retirement to date has been 16 miles round trip to meet a friend for lunch near his workplace.  Otherwise, a typical trip is 3-4 miles one way.

We have considered going to 1 car when Mrs. RootofGood retires in a couple of years.  Most of our auto expenses have been work related, and those expenses will stop soon.  I guess I’ll have to do the math of what it costs to have a car sit mostly unused all year.  I don’t know what value we would get out of having the 2nd car if we are both retired.

Our schedules will be much more flexible at that point.  I would estimate having the second car might come in handy once per month.  Right now the plan is to keep the second car for a year or so and see how much we use it.

We also live 1/2 mile from three different bus routes that connect to most of the destinations we travel to routinely.  I used to ride the bus to work regularly, and the travel time was actually less than my commute in my car, since the bus dropped me off at my office building’s front door (instead of my car’s parking space 2 blocks away).  The bus is only $1 per trip, and I’m comfortable enough riding it to get around in a pinch.  It’s a little bit of a hassle, but so is maintaining cars.  The bus might be plan B if we go to one car.

At some point we will have to update our cars with newer cars.  I am tentatively planning on buying a lightly used 6-7 year old car for around $10,000 or so.  Given our growing family, the next car might be a minivan.  Gas mileage and operating costs will be higher than those for our sedans, but our annual mileage won’t be as high as it has been if Mrs. RootofGood isn’t working.


Auto Insurance

A great way to chip away at auto expenses is to shop your auto insurance.  Don’t assume that your auto insurance provider has the lowest rates around year after year.  The auto insurance market is competitive, and the best insurer this year probably won’t have the most competitive rates in a year or two.  Many providers offer discounts to new customers.

If you haven’t shopped your auto policy in the last year or two, make sure to do so now or at your next policy renewal.  Like those Geico commercials say – you can save up to 15% on your auto policy in 15 minutes.  Except you should talk to 3-4 insurers to increase your odds of finding the cheapest policy.  So make it an hour.  In my opinion, spending an hour to save a few hundred dollars is an excellent investment of time.

We only pay around $550-600 per year for auto insurance for the two of us.  I still call around every year to see if anyone can undercut my current insurer.  The last couple of years I haven’t been able to cut costs in this area, but I’ll keep checking since my rates just went up a small amount at the last renewal.  I get very little value out of “customer service” with an auto insurer, since we have an incident extremely rarely (maybe once every 5-10 years).  The leading insurers seem to be fairly similar (and faceless) once you get beyond their marketing (hand holding, being “there” for you, having cute lizards/cavemen, etc).


Auto Maintenance

Before I close out this post, I wanted to touch on auto maintenance.  I do minor tasks myself, but take the car in for routine oil changes roughly on the recommended schedule.  The auto shop does a free 30 point (or some large number) inspection and gives me some problem areas.  Many times these are total B.S. after I research the issue a little, but sometimes the problems they identify are actually problems.

I have found that it is usually better to spend $100-200 to fix a minor problem before the problem causes catastrophic failure of some important system in the vehicle.

You can call around to a couple trusted auto shops to see who can do the repair for the lowest price.  I have found some routine maintenance tasks can be significantly cheaper at the dealership versus the independent mechanic’s shop.  Apparently that is because the dealership will lie through their teeth and recommend totally unnecessary repairs (= pure profit), to which suggestion you respond with a firm “no, thanks” until you research and possibly debunk their recommendation.  Again, sometimes the suggested repairs are legit, but not always.

I have a trick for tire rotations.  I always get my tires installed at Discount Tire.  They tend to be the least expensive option anyway, and I buy the tires at one of their big sales they have a few times per year ($100+ off per set of tires).  The kicker is they offer free tire rotation and balancing for life, and they will repair punctured tires for free (in my experience).

I also do a few maintenance tasks myself at home.  I’m generally scared to do anything with the engine itself, but I’ll complete simple tasks like replacing the air filter and checking and refilling fluids (brake, oil, windshield wiper, transmission, power steering, coolant, etc.).  I have a reminder on my calendar that pops up on the first Saturday of the month to remind me to check the tire inflation levels, and the oil and coolant levels in our cars.

Our cars are 13 years old, and at some point are likely to start leaking tiny amounts of oil and/or coolant if there is a leaky gasket or pin prick hole in a hose.  I would rather figure this out at a routine monthly maintenance check in my driveway than 20 miles from home in the rain stranded on the side of the interstate.

I’ll dabble with small repairs like replacing bulbs and fuses, resetting the OBD computer, and most recently, replacing the power window motor and arm.  Youtube was my friend for all those tasks.  The parts are usually a tiny fraction of the total cost of repair if you went to an auto shop.  I have probably saved $1000 or more over the years doing simple repairs at home.

To manage routine maintenance, I keep a spreadsheet where I record all maintenance tasks completed, along with the odometer reading and date.  The spreadsheet has the recommended maintenance intervals for all tasks such as replacing coolant, replacing spark plugs, rotating tires, changing the timing belt, replacing the transmission fluid, and of course oil changes.  The schedule I keep in the spreadsheet helps me keep up to date on maintenance.  I also use the spreadsheet to keep notes on problems the auto shop has mentioned, or things that I discover on my own.



How do your auto maintenance and operating costs compare?  Are you your own mechanic?

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  1. Hey! I was wondering how fast does your wife travel to go 45 miles in 30 minutes…per my math that is about 90miles/hour. Where can you drive 90 miles an hour every trip???

      1. She might go 90 mph some places. Although 80 mph is probably more typical on the freeways here. 😉

        And yes, it is 30 minutes 1 way for ~23 miles. 🙂 Average travel speed around 45 mph.

  2. We share one vehicle and probably spend less than $1,500/year on it.
    Cutting back to one vehicle worked out very well for us. We actually could just get rid of the car completely and go with public transportation + car sharing. I like having a car though. If we really need money, then we can try it.

    1. To me, it’s about way more than what you can save in annual operating costs. To me, it’s been about using my vehicle choice (a 1996 Dodge Dakota) as a secret weapon to reach retirement 8 years sooner!

      I chose my vehicle for its reliability, safety and comfort instead of as a status symbol and manhood substitute that needs updating every 5 years. That choice enabled me to lower my “magic retirement number” by $200,000!!!* It would have taken me 8 more years to save that amount before I could become financially free and pull the trigger on retirement.

      Retired To Win

      * That’s $8000 a year in extra vehicle costs (loan payments, depreciation, extra insurance, etc) times a 4% swr = $200,000.

  3. This is interesting, as I’m trying to figure out how I’d fit our 3 kids (twin babies and a toddler) in the backseat of a Civic or an Accord!

    This is impressive and something I would love to tackle as they get a little older and their car seats aren’t so bulky and cumbersome.

    Just discovered your blog today and I look forward to watching your journey continue to unfold. You give me encouragement to get my 38 year old butt in gear!

    1. It’s a squeeze in the civic, much easier in the accord. 1 is in a booster seat (for another year), the oldest doesn’t have a seat, and the youngest is in a car seat for another year probably (then he will take over big sis’s booster seat which is luckily not pink but instead a nice neutral color).

      We don’t drive a lot so that helps. Most trips are 5-15 minutes, and the oldest can sit in the front seat if my wife isn’t riding with us.

      We always figured we would need a minivan or small SUV to accommodate all the kids, but haven’t hit that point yet.

      Glad you get some encouragement from the blog! That’s why I write – it’s great to see people internalizing what I say and making positive changes in their lives. Take care!

  4. Great post!

    Just out of curiosity, what tires are you using for your civic? I am looking at getting replacement tires for my civic that I also plan on using until almost forever, and was wondering what tires you had/how you feel about how they are performing. Thanks!!

    1. Hankook Optimo H727. Rated for 100k miles, but I’ll never get anywhere close to that from these tires (I don’t drive a lot). They seem pretty decent and are priced as “mid range” tires. I’ve had them 1.5 years, and they look like new tires (they have 6000 miles on them). For the 185/65R-14 tires (for a 2000 civic), has them for $76 each, free shipping, no tax, plus another $65 off in immediate savings and discounts. That’s where I order tires from, then have them installed at Discount Tire retail store. My hankooks came with $150 in rebates, so I ended up paying about $155 total for mine.

      I have only had a traction problem once when the tires spun a little on wet pavement as I accelerated from a stop. Otherwise, braking stopping distance is great and cornering traction is solid. We rarely get ice/snow in NC, so no comment on winter weather handling.

  5. I can’t get my husband to stop commuting to go see his friends and play basketball. It’s out of the way from where we live. I actually work close to that gym he goes to. I commute every morning and afternoon. He does it in the afternoon to go play basketball. Sigh….have no idea how to reason with him on this. Any suggestions?

    1. You can put it in terms of dollars or time. Like how much you could save by not driving constantly or how many hours he spends driving to/from. I wouldn’t worry too much about it, since it’s a relatively inexpensive way to get good exercise and have a lot of fun while socializing with friends.

  6. Curious what the mileage is on the cars?

    Are they around 150,000 and 90,000? (13 years roughly times the stated annual usage). If that is the case, you can probably safely assume you will have another 100K on each car without major concerns.

    If you should choose to keep them, you would probably have them for another 20 years!

    I recently passed along our Toyota Camry with 375,000 on it to my daughter. Still runs great and I wouldn’t blink on taking it cross country.

    Still you may wish to trade the smaller auto on a van in the next few years. You have time to shop and haggle in the marketplace. You may even be able to trade straight across or sell and have enough to fully pay for a similar mileage minivan. Better yet, sell both cars and put all the proceeds towards the nicest, lowest mileage minivan you can find.

    My guess is that once full retirement kicks in that one car will be more than enough and you will be driving less than 5K per year not including vacation drives. Your annual total cost may be in the $1,500 annual range.

    If you wanted to get hardcore about it, you could even shoot for less than 1,000 miles per year total use. That would average to 20 miles per week. Since you have the time a long walk or bike commute to the stores would be easy enough. In that case, you would be looking at sub $800 annual costs and one of your current cars would last for your lifetime!

    One interesting note – Mileage per gallon may not be of much concern to you at all. Let’s assume you drive 3K per year. If your MPG is 35 your annual gas costs would be around $300. In a vehicle that has 18 MPG your annual costs would be around $550. A $20 per month differential.

    All of that said, probably best to wait a few months after your wife retires to see what your actual usage and needs are. You may decide that taking the kids on a 3 month summer travel cross country camping trip rocks your boat!

    Bob Werner

    1. Yeah, those mileages are a good guess. Maybe add 5k to each. They are 14 years old now (both 2000’s).

      We are in a holding pattern right now on the cars. Like you say, I’d like to give it a few months after Mrs. RoG retires to see if we actually need two cars. I don’t think we do. It might be inconvenient occasionally to only have one car, but I bet we can overcome that (uber/lyft, taxis, get a bike, walk, bus, etc).

      Long term I think we will end up with a minivan or one of the smaller 7-8 seater SUVs (honda pilot?). They usually cost a little more than sedans, but when buying used, not that much more expensive really.

      You picked up on a good point. If we don’t drive more than a few thousand miles per year, the MPG isn’t really that important. I considered getting a hybrid, but I’m skeptical that we would ever recover the additional up front cost by saving on gas.

      1. Really, you could probably get 5 MPG and be good. LOL

        A few years ago my car blew an engine. I drug my feet for well over a year before replacing it. At the time my wife and I worked close enough to home to walk to the office if we had to. It required a bit of communication and compromise but worked out fine. I would definitely do it when we live in a town again.

        You might consider looking into a KIA Borgoatta. Very roomy with, I think, a 7 seat option. I think they only made them for 2 years.

        They are not pricy for SUVS. With 3 children, its easy to imagine them wanting to bring friends to outings. So it is nice to have the extra space.

  7. I drive a ’97 Civic, best purchase ever. Bought it in 2003, all cash. At the time I thought I overspent (buyer’s remorse), over time it’s been a blessing and now I plan on driving it to the ground. All my coworkers drove much fancier cars, they still work…
    I don’t do mechanical work (I figure it’s cheaper as I could make a mess), I only check tires pressure, oil, etc. Always ask for synthetic oil and filter and the 30-points check. Alignment at the dealer every 2/3 years to get more info and learn about recalls.
    My only indulgence is to rent when I take road trips in the summer. I figure it’s safer and always ask for the economy/compact.

    1. Pretty good deal!

      The road trips were a big reason we upgraded. With the cars getting older we felt it would be better to have a newer, more reliable vehicle when on the road. And something bigger for the five of us. We only drive 100-200 miles/month locally when not on road trips.

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