Man, time flies…
It’s been almost 4 years since I sold my old Jeep and we became a one car family.
When I did it, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I had recently read Your Money or Your Life and Early Retirement Extreme, and I think I was still caught up in the excitement of retiring early and just ready to start making major life changes. I didn’t really think things through, I just did it. Come to think of it, this is how I make most major decisions in life. It seems to be working for me so far.
Anyways, after these 4 years of being car-limited I sometimes forget how unusual a lifestyle this is compared to other folks living the average suburban lifestyle. But this morning as I rode to the library to write this article, I was once again reminded. I’d stopped at a red-light, looked over to the car beside me, and saw a middle-aged man staring angrily into his smart phone. In the next lane over, a 20-something girl was also checking her smart phone. I selfishly smiled, as I breathed in a deep breathe of the fresh September air.
As I stood at the red light straddling my bicycle, I was reminded of a time a few years ago when I was taking a motorcycle safety class. The instructor was gloriously describing the freedom and thrill of the open rode on a motorcycle. And I remember distinctly as he described a scenario where he had stopped at a red light next to a man and woman sitting in their car. And how he had observed the man in the car look over and just stare at his motorcycle, lustful for the enviable feeling of freedom that a motorcycle provides, a feeling that he suspected the guy’s wife wouldn’t let him have (poor sap). And my instructor, breathing the unconditioned air of the open rode, rev’d the throttle and smiled at the envious man. And he just gave the man a look that says, “I know you want this life.”
And so here I am on my bicycle, unplugged from smartphones and unhindered by the dependency of a motor. My legs relaxed, but ready to work again. My lungs open, my heart beating mildly. My mind free from worries and my soul at rest, just happy to be in that moment. I looked again at the middle aged man who was angry at his smart phone, and I wanted to give him that same look my instructor described to me, the one that says “I know you want this life.” Except my look would be just a tad different. It would say, “I know you want this life, even though you don’t know it yet. And the shame is, you can easily have it.” But I couldn’t give him that look, because his eyes remained buried in his digital life, despite his clear look of frustration with whatever it was that he was looking at.
Of all the discussions I have in real life, as well as emails I get from this blog, a common and consistent message from people is that they wish they could ride a bike around town like me, but…. And then they insert their many reasons why it isn’t possible for them.
But here’s the thing: I’m lucky with so many aspects of my life, opportunities I’ve been given and situations I’ve stumbled into. Despite working very hard, I will admit that much of my success and my ability to retire this early is total luck and circumstance. But my ability to bike as my primary and nearly-sole form of transportation is not one of these “lucky” situations. It’s a situation I prioritized, planned for, and created. And it’s something most people could do too, if they really wanted it. There are just a few simple steps that’ll get you out of the constraints of that motor-powered metal box, and onto the two-wheeled ticket to freedom.
How A Family Can Live A Normal Life With A Single Car
The purpose of this post is to show how any family can become a one car family, and also explain why it’s so great. To some, it may look impossible. To others, it may look very easy. But in my experience, both groups would be wrong.
It’s not impossible, but if you don’t plan correctly, it could also result in a lot of unnecessary spousal arguments (at least it did for me!). So without further ado, here’s how you can also become a one car family…
The 90% Commitment
The first, and most important step to becoming a single-car family is what I will call the 90% commitment. This is where one of the two adults in the family makes a commitment to accomplish 90% or more of their transportation needs without a car. This can generally be accomplished through biking, walking, or public transit. In my case it’s almost entirely biking.
Most of the tips below will describe how to address the other 10% where biking, walking, or public transit aren’t possible for a variety of reasons. Some of these tips are easy and convenient, others not so much. And it’s because of the occasional inconvenience that the 90% commitment is so important. It’s not so bad to work around the inconveniences of having a single car on occasion, just a few times per month. But if it’s a few times per week, it will lead to fights over who gets the car when, and ultimately will lead to going back to being a 2-car family. I know this, because my wife and I had some rocky moments in the first year. Now, however, it’s mostly smooth sailing.
In our case, I was the one that made the 90% commitment. This only made sense, since I was the one going to work 5 days a week, while my wife had 2 kids to haul to school, gym, swimming class, and ballet lessons.
In order to accomplish the 90%, my wife and I determined the places we most often would go to. For me, it was my office, the grocery store, the gym, the library, and the coffee shop. In fact, these 5 places made up about 95% of all of my travel destinations in a normal week – often 100%. So when we moved to Colorado, we chose a location that was central to all these places. My house is 3.5, 1, 3, 1.5, and 0.5 miles away from these places, respectively. Which means I can bike or walk to any of them without a sweat, even at 7000 feet altitude and on the hilly front range of the Rockies. Year round, no problem.
Once the 90% commitment is met, and in my case it’s almost entirely biking, there are many other ways to fulfill the other 10% of transportation needs. I’ll describe them below.
I love to bike everywhere, but sometimes biking is just inconvenient or even dangerous. For example, when there’s snow and ice on the roads, I really don’t want to share the road with cars that could slide right into me. I also don’t want to get my chain dirty with mud and slush if I know that the warm sun will be melting all the snow and muck the next day. I don’t mind cleaning my bike, but I also don’t want to spend a ton of money on chain oil and degreaser for one or two days of biking before the weather gets nice again. The same is true for riding in the rain, although I do enjoy that on occasion.
In the case of heavy snow, my first contingency plan is to walk. Even my farthest destination, my office, was only 3.5 miles (fortunately, I don’t need to go there anymore). With 6 inches of unpacked snow, I’m still able to easily make that trek in less than an hour. This may seem like a long time to some, but considering that it’s only during rare weather situations, it really has no long term impact on my schedule.
And besides, who doesn’t like a cold, quiet walk through the snow? By walking, I’m able to take some paths away from the main road, allowing me some peaceful time to practice walking meditation on my way to work.
Sharing The Car By Planning Ahead
When dealing with a single automobile, I can’t stress how important it is to plan ahead when you know you’ll need the car. It’s especially important that the person who made the 90% commitment plans ahead, since they should assume that the car may not be available when they need it.
It’s pretty easy on a normal work day. You know where you’re going, and it should be accessible by foot, bike, or public transit. It’s the other days that get more complicated. For example, maybe you’re setting up a doctor appointment downtown, and it’s too difficult to get there without a car. Or perhaps you need to make a run to a nursery to pick up some compost, you can get there but it’ll be pretty tough to bring it all home by bike. This is where planning ahead is so important.
In my case, I make sure I communicate any needs for the car well in advance. If I’m setting up an appointment, I’ll check with my wife first to make sure she doesn’t already have plans to use the car. And obviously I wouldn’t set up the appointment at the same time that I know she’ll be taking the kids to school, sports, etc.
Now that I’m not working and my schedule is much more open, we’ve started a calendar that we hang up in the kitchen. On here, my wife keeps track of all her commitments as well as the kids activities. This way I have a general idea of when the car will be available. Even with that, I’ll still check with her if I know I’ll need the car, just to proactively avoid any contention that’s bound to occur when trying to share our limited resource.
It sounds obvious, but before we took this simple step of improving our communication, I found that we had completely avoidable arguments about using the car. Usually because I made some last minute plans to do something, only to realize I would need to change it because my wife had also made plans.
Getting Dropped Off (sometimes very early)
Another option when both adults need the car is for one person to be dropped off early. This requires patience and flexibility, but it’s definitely a good option in some cases.
Recently, I had an appointment several miles away and the weather was terrible. My wife needed the car about an hour before my appointment, so there was no way I could take it. After some pondering, I realized there was a very simple option: she could drop me off early and I could sit and wait for an hour at the location of my appointment.
Like many of the other “solutions” I’m proposing here, this sounds obvious. But when you’re first getting used to having a single car, it can be a stressful and irrational time – making it more difficult to reach such a commonsense solution.
So she dropped me off early, I sat for an hour of quiet leisure, and then attended my appointment. This, by the way, was before I’d quit my job so it’s not like I had all the free time that I have now. It was a little stressful to sit and wait for an hour, but it turned out fine. And when my appointment was done, she picked me up and took me home.
Borrowing A Friend’s Vehicle
Borrowing others’ cars is a tricky proposition for me. My friends are always happy to help, but at the same time I’m conflicted because I don’t want to come across as a moocher – particularly since my lack of a second car is what’s allowed me to have a more laid back life than the friends I’m borrowing from. For this reason, I don’t make a habit of borrowing cars but I will occasionally borrow a truck if I need to haul something large. This is convenient, since just about every friend I have in Colorado drives a truck anyways.
Several months ago, my wife and I bought a new furniture set for our family room. Our car at the time was a Subaru Outback, making it impossible to bring the furniture home. Delivery was an option, but it was going to cost $150. Although that’s still far less expensive than having a second car or truck sitting around, I didn’t want to pay it. So I asked a friend of mine who had a truck, and he happily offered not only to let me borrow his truck, but he also volunteered to come with me and help load and unload the furniture. Our wives and kids are also friends, so we had their whole family over, bought some pizza, and had an enjoyable evening with them. In this case, not only did we get our transportation needs met, we turned it into a fine social interaction.
In another instance where I needed to borrow a truck for an hour to pick up a new mattress, I emailed 3 of my friends with trucks and said that the first person that lent me their truck would get a 6-pack of the beer of their choice. Not surprisingly, it took 5 minutes for me to get 3 positive replies.
The point here is, I recommend that if you borrow a car from a friend that you try to make it a winning experience for everyone involved.
In the past three and a half years that we’ve lived in Colorado, I’ve experienced exactly two times where my wife and I really wanted a second car for an entire day. In both cases my wife was leaving town for the day (and therefore needed a car), and I simply didn’t want to be stuck in the house with my kids, unable to get to any good parks or the library by foot (my son and I could get to those places, but my 4 year old daughter is still a little too young to travel the paths necessary to get there).
In the first case, we found a car on Relay Rides for $20. The guy we borrowed it from even offered to drop the car off at our house the night before. It was perfect.
The second case was similar, but seeing that Relay Rides doesn’t have a great selection of cars in Colorado Springs, we weren’t able to find a good cheap car that time. After looking around, we found a great deal using usave.com. In fact, we were able to borrow a brand new car for just $25 that day.
Using A Home Depot Truck
The final option we have used in the past 4 years is reserved for when I have large items purchased from Home Depot where I can’t bring it home with our family car. The solution for this is easy, rent their truck for $25 (first 75 minutes). In my case, I can easily make multiple trips back and forth if I need to in 75 minutes, since Home Depot is only 2 miles away.
Some of you might be wondering why I would jump through all these hoops to be a single car family, especially since many of the options I listed above cost money.
Well, the answer is simple – the financial savings are huge.
I’ve seen a lot of people set goals like “I’m going to bike to work at least 2 days per week” or some other similar goals, and I think that’s great. They will save a bit of gas money, put a few less miles on their car, and experience the health benefits of riding a bike. All good things.
But let’s be honest about the financial savings, it’s not much. The real cost of the car goes way past the gas and mileage – it’s everything else that adds up. The initial purchase price, depreciation, maintenance, insurance, registration, and interest (if not paid in cash) are all costing you daily, whether you drive the car or not.
According to Consumer Reports, the median car costs $9100 per year to own, with only 24% of that going to fuel costs. The rest goes to things that will cost you whether you’re car is in your driveway or on the road. Admittedly, some things like maintenance and depreciation will be reduced as you drive less, but they don’t go to zero.
Being generous, let’s say that by buying a reliable used car and reducing your use of the second car can reduce that annual cost $9100 to $6000, or $500/month. Using the rule of 300, that would require an additional $150,000 in savings to retire. How many years does that tack on to your career before you can retire?
This post is already really long, so I’ll keep this short. I get to the gym about 5 days a week, and I try to eat reasonably healthy. But even if I didn’t, by riding my bike anywhere from 5-20 miles on any given day, I will remain healthier than 90% of the US population very easily. It costs me nothing, and I enjoy it.
If ya’ll have any questions or want to throw a wrench in my strategy described above, leave them in the comments and I’ll try to help. If I can get a single person to give this one-car family thing a shot, I will have accomplished my goal.