J.D. Moyer

beat maker, sci-fi writer, self-experimenter

One Weird Trick To Get Skinny, Rich, Tan, and Live Forever (No Car Experiment)

jdbike

My U.S.-made $200 fixie from criticalcycles.com

Title is of course tongue-in-cheek. But Kia and I are both leaner, richer, tanner, and healthier from the experiment thus far.

We’ve just completed our first month of not owning (or leasing) a car. So far, so good. In fact, we’ve committed to at least one more month of not owning/leasing. We started the experiment with a few questions in mind:

  • Would not owning/leasing a car be more or less expensive than combined costs of lease, insurance, gas, and fees?
  • Would it be more or less convenient?
  • In what other ways would it change our lifestyle or perspective?

The “rules” of the experiment are pretty simple:

  1. We can’t decline any kind of social invitation or project because of transportation difficulties. We just have to find a way to get there.
  2. No owning or leasing a car, but any other form of transportation is allowed (walk, bike, public transportation, car-sharing, taxi, etc.).

Preview of the Future

One reason I was interested in this experiment was as a sort of preview of how most urban dwellers will live in 5-10 years. If you can summon a self-driving car to your house within minutes, why bother owning? Unless you are a car fetishist, wouldn’t you be happy to leave behind oil changes, tire rotations, and DMV paperwork, forever?

We’re not there yet, but there are so many easy transportation options already available, that not owning/leasing is more of a mental hurdle than anything else. Giving up car ownership can feel like you’re giving away security and freedom, but that impression quickly fades once reality sets in.

Not owning or leasing a car isn’t unusual, especially among millennials. For people my age, especially those with kids, it is somewhat rare. For us, living in a walkable neighborhood, very close to our daughter’s school, we knew it was doable. Still, as the last day of our lease approached, we felt nervous and excited.

Experiences So Far

Kia has done most of the grocery shopping so far on her bike (an Xtracycle), which is equipped with saddlebags (panniers?). We needed to do one big shopping trip to pick up party food and supplies — for that one we used City Car Share. A few times I’ve walked to the local market to pick up a few things for dinner. I’m probably walking about the same amount, but more of my walking is for errands, less of the “evening stroll” variety.

We’ve used City Car Share a couple other times — once to go to a party in San Francisco, another time for an outing in Golden Gate Park. We signed up for a family account for $10/mo. Hourly rates vary. Here is the City Car Share pricing page. We also considered using ZipCar, but the many City Car Share cars near our house made the former ridiculously convenient.

I mostly work for home, but last week I needed to visit a client in Berkeley several times to move some software into production and do some on-site troubleshooting. The client is a little over five miles from my house. Due to traffic on 80, the drive took me about twenty minutes each way. On my bike it took thirty minutes. Definitely some good exercise. It’s more than I would want to do for a daily commute, but a fun challenge a few times a month. I ended up upgrading my bike seat, a one-time $75 cost.

Kia also works from home most days, but needed to visit a client in the North Bay for a meeting. She ended up renting a car for the day. City Car Share might have been slightly less expensive, but she wasn’t sure how long the meeting would go, and didn’t want to specify a return time.

I expected to use Uber and/or Lyft, but I haven’t needed to so far (Kia used Lyft once). At one point I found myself in San Francisco at 1:30am, well after BART has stopped service for the night. I checked Uber, but the surge pricing turned me off. I decided to take the bus home (to Oakland) for about $5. Uber probably would have gotten me home half an hour earlier, but I was curious about the bus experience. It was a little weird, but the bus dropped me off only three blocks from my house.

I’ve yet to do a detailed cost analysis. Here are my estimates to date:

Car Costs:

$220/month for Fiat 500 lease, including fees and taxes
$75/month for State Farm insurance, including loyalty and good driver discounts
$80/month for gas, bridge tolls, and parking
$50/month average cost of repairs and maintenance
$15/month amortized DMV registration

So about $440/month. Over the course of the lease we drove 13 miles/day on average, so that comes to about $1.13 per mile.

With the exception of the hubcaps falling off (twice), the Fiat 500 was highly reliable. Overall I felt like the lease was a good value (no money down) and relatively low hassle. It was the most “dialed in” car experience I’ve had in terms of spending the least money, driving a car I liked, and not dealing with a lot of maintenance. Still, being responsible for a car is a pain in the ass. You have to park it, protect it, care for it, pay for it, etc. In return it gives you an excuse to exercise less.

No-Car Costs:

City Car Share fees $113
Car rental and insurance and gas and toll $59
Increased BART/bus usage $30
Estimated amortized bike upgrade/maintenance $15
Lyft (one ride) $8

$225 total. City Car Share fees were higher than expected, mostly because we did the rookie move of returning the car fifteen minutes late without extending the reservation, which cost us $25.

So maybe we’re saving about $215/month? Maybe only $150/month if we increase our Lyft/Uber use, or use the car sharing services more. Still, nothing to sneeze at.

It’s also worth considering that we got an exceptional deal on the Fiat lease. If I were to lease a car tomorrow I would probably pick up an e-Golf. Including money down and fees, that would probably come to about $260/month. So compared to the actually available lease that I would want, we’re saving even more.

Of course there’s the option of buying a car, maintaining it yourself, and keeping it forever. I respect that choice but it’s not for me. I have maintained my own car in the past. It’s not something I miss. If I’m going to drive, I want to drive a newish car that is extremely reliable, and stick with the scheduled maintenance plan, to the letter. I never want to read another DIY car fixit book again, or listen to a mechanic describe the thousands of dollars of repairs my car needs to not explode or otherwise kill me.

In terms of convenience, it’s slightly less convenient to reserve a car on your phone and walk a few blocks to pick it up, compared to having a car in your driveway. But that convenience cuts both ways. You don’t have to have a debate with your kid about walking vs. driving the eight blocks to the restaurant!

Other shotgun impressions:

  • I’ve added an inch to each thigh (muscle) from the extra bike riding.
  • Weight is a couple pounds higher, waist half an inch smaller.
  • Walking to pick up food for dinner is really nice — a good after-work ritual to “reset” my state of mind and leave my work behind for the day.
  • Transportations costs are still significant … not quite as low as I’d hoped.
  • Whenever I come up with a “how am I going to do that?” question in regards to not having  car, I can quickly come up with at least a few solutions. For example, I ordered some office supplies online. No shipping charges, and I saved some time in traffic.
  • There are still MANY options we have yet to explore. Like ordering groceries online for delivery.
  • Our Feb. grocery spending was only $600. Usually it’s around $900, sometimes peaking at $1200. It was a short month, but I wasn’t aware of eating less, or less expensive food, and we hosted a birthday party and a dinner party. Maybe just an anomaly? I will keep an eye on this. Eating out expenses were average for February.
  • Both Kia and I have noticed, with hindsight, that many times we were driving out of laziness. Most of the trips we take are under a mile and just as fast on a bike (or even walking, when you consider the couple minutes on each end of the trip dealing with your bike lock, light, helmet, etc.).
  • I don’t miss having a car in my driveway!

I’ll write more about the experience in a month or two. Bottom line … easier than expected, saving money, may impact/reduce spending on expense categories as well.

Note: this post was updated with final actual costs from City Car Share for Feb.

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2 Comments

  1. Anne Hawley

    I sold my car about five years ago, and have never looked back. My circumstances allowed me to give up driving altogether, which I was happy to do. I bike, walk, and take transit. The choice to go car free, which is a highly privileged choice, I’d be the first to admit, was a big factor in letting me retire two to four years early. Though “skinny” wasn’t on the cards for me (and tan is a joke–i live in Portland), I’m fit and healthy and have a very relaxed lifestyle.

    • It’s so much easier than expected! Could see extending this experiment indefinitely. Thanks for the comment and good for you for sticking with it and reaping the long-term benefits.

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