Should I sell my car or keep it?

The Friday “Ask the Readers” column generally follows a set format: I introduce the topic, share a reader e-mail, give my best advice, and then ask for your feedback. Today's column is a little different. Sarah sent me a 1000-word question, and rather than write any sort of response, I'm just going to let her have the entire space. Everything that follows is from Sarah.

I have a question for other GRS readers. It's a simple question: Should I sell my car? It actually seems to have a very simple answer: Yes.

I keep writing lists and outlining the reasons why I should sell my car (and why I shouldn't), and the balance lies very clearly in favor of selling my car. And yet I'm having the hardest time selling my car.

Why? I'm a practical, logical, pragmatic person. Why is this so hard to do? Why is selling my car so difficult? Even with the facts laid out, staring me in the face, I'm having the hardest time selling my car.

Why I Bought a Car in the First Place

I used to live completely car-free. I lived in different cities and only walked, bused, or biked to get around — occasionally living the high life and taking a taxi when I felt like being luxurious. And then I moved to California.

I bought a car last year. I purchased a 2010 Toyota Matrix from a dealer, priced at $17,490, with a $1,000 rebate for being a recent college grad. The Kelly Blue Book value of the car, at new, was $20,049. My purchase price was $16,490. With taxes, registration, and fees, I forked over $19,009. As a somewhat savvy consumer, I secured a three-year financing plan with 0% interest.

I bought the car because I lived 40 miles from my job, commuting an hour each way (through San Francisco, across the Golden Gate Bridge), and there wasn't sufficient public transportation to get me to and from my job.

I've now owned (and paid for) the car for 12 months, spending $6800 on car payments. I have $12,200 left to pay on the car over a two-year period.

The cost of the car has been unbelievable. In one year, these are the costs:

  • Car payments — $529 per month
  • 20,000 miles total
    • 25 mpg average
    • gas price is $3.15 in California
    • $2520 for gas, or
    • $210 per month in gasoline
  • Maintenance for one year (four tune-ups at $109 each) — $436 ($36 per month for maintenance)
  • Insurance — $109 per month for insurance (AAA)
  • Bridge Tolls (crossing the Golden Gate Bridge every day costs $5) — $80 per month
  • Parking. I'm lucky to have free parking, mostly, unless I drive downtown — $50 per month is my average for parking

Every month, I spend about $1014 on driving and owning the car. $1014! This is roughly one third of my take-home income. What would I do with $1014 per month?!?

In addition, I have a substantial amount of debt from undergraduate and graduate student loans (in the realm of $80,000) that I'm currently working hard to pay off. The student loan payments are $679 per month. I struggle to make the car payment and the student loan payment each month.

Today: The Current Situation

In November, I moved back to San Francisco, because I couldn't stand the long commute. Commuting through city traffic is tiring and psychologically draining; I quickly remembered why I dislike driving so much. In contrast, San Francisco is a hub of public transportation options — sometimes better or worse, depending on the neighborhood that you live in.

I now live eight miles from my job in Sausalito. The drive takes about 15-20 minutes, depending on traffic. Parking at my job is easy, but parking in San Francisco is a nightmare — it can take up to 40 minutes to find a parking spot. I have the option of purchasing a parking spot, but that costs upwards of $300 in a city like San Francisco, and I can't stomach how much I'm already spending on the car alone.

I now have alternative means of getting to work. For example, I can bike to work a few days per week, depending on the day and the weather. There's also a bus line that goes to and from my work on the hour, and it takes about 30-40 minutes to get to work (it doubles my commute time, but I don't have to worry about parking, driving, or concentrating on the road).

The (Easy) Conclusions

I worry that it's a mistake to sell my car after owning it for one year. My parents tell me that I should wait it out for the next two years, buckle down, and just finish making the payments — because I need a car and can't possibly live without one. People suggest that it's foolish to buy a brand-new car and sell a car within the first year of ownership.

However, I also think that sunk costs are sunk costs. What I've already spent on the car is gone; it's what I spend in the future that's still up for determination. I think it makes sense for me to sell my car.

Here are some reasons I think I should sell my car:

  • Living in a city — with ample public transportation, alternative car-sharing options, bicycle riding, and walking — makes having a car a luxury, not a necessity.
  • Getting rid of $12,200 of unpaid debt is a good thing.
  • There are additional costs to car ownership — insurance, gas, parking, maintenance — that will continue to add up over time. (To the tune of about $450 per month.)
  • The current value of my car ($14,000) is more than I owe on my payments ($12,200)

But wait! There's more!

  • A car is a depreciating asset, and will not add any value over time. Struggling to make these payments does not help me reduce or eliminate debt in other areas of my life.
  • Public transportation to work costs $4 each way, or approximately $160 per month.
  • If I also choose to use a car-sharing program on the weekends, I would spend between $50 and $75 for a weekend use — but the cost would be elective, and not fixed.
  • If I don't spend the money on the car, I can spend the money on other things that are more important.

It seems painfully clear, on paper, that I should sell my car. And yet I get in and drive it every single day — to teach swim lesson after work, to dinner parties, to events, on trips to Tahoe, on excursions. I am afraid of selling my car. Psychologically and emotionally, I'm attached to it. I also stubbornly don't want to admit I made a mistake in buying the car in the first place.

So tell me, fellow GRS readers, what should I do? Can I afford to sell my car? Can I afford not to?

J.D.'s note: Though I don't have room for my traditional long reply, I'll just chime in to say I'm glad that Sarah mentioned sunk costs. That's a very important thing to remember in making these sorts of decisions. (What you've spent already is irrelevant; it's what you spend going forward that matters.) And I think her situation highlights why it's often best to buy a cheap used car than a brand-new one. I think a $2,000 beater would be perfect for her.

More about...Transportation

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