Pedaling Toward Financial Freedom

This guest post from Tammy Strobel is part of the “reader stories” feature at Get Rich Slowly. Some stories contain general advice; others are examples of how a GRS reader achieved financial success — or failure. These stories feature folks from all levels of financial maturity and with all sorts of incomes. Tammy blogs about simple living at RowdyKittens, and is the author of Simply Car-Free and Smalltopia: A Practical Guide to Working for Yourself.

Five years ago, my husband and I lived what most would consider a normal middle-class lifestyle. We were young professionals renting a large two-bedroom apartment in a suburb, had two cars, and $30,000 in debt (a majority of which came from student and car loans).

At the time, I worked in investment management and talked to clients about the importance of long-term investments, creating an emergency savings fund, paying off credit-card balances, and being aware of expenses. Yet, I wasn't doing these basic things in my own life. Something had to change. Our excess debt was creating too much anxiety and stress. Rather than spend so much time on the hedonic treadmill, we wanted to restructure our lives around solid relationships and community.

So, we decided to take a step back and reflect on our behavior and budget. One of our biggest expenses — other than rent — was our cars. We'd never seriously considered selling our cars until we analyzed the cost. The numbers were shocking! Car payments, interest, insurance, gas, and maintenance added up to a total of $10,000 per year.

I'd love to say that we sold our cars to benefit the environment, but the decision was based solely on our financial well-being. For us, it was the best way to pay off our debt quickly.

Tammy, out for a spin

If you're able-bodied and live in a city, it's possible to go car-free. With that being said, going car-free in a rural area can be very difficult. However, it may be possible to sell one of your cars to save money.

To make our car-free transition easier, we decided to move closer to my work. We rented a small one-bedroom apartment about a mile from my office, and that decision allowed me to bike or walk to work.

If the idea of going car-free or car-lite appeals to you, consider the following.

Do a cost/benefit analysis
Even if you've paid off your car, do you really know the true cost?

American Automobile Association (AAA) puts out an awesome publication every year to help you assess the true cost of your car. The cost analysis will help you calculate the true cost of car ownership. These costs are direct costs to you as a car owner, but don't include the societal and health costs of owning a vehicle.

According to the AAA study, the average American spends over $9,000 a year to own a vehicle — that's about $750 per month. The figure includes car payments, insurance, gas, oil, car washes, registration fees and taxes, parking, tools and repairs.

Bikes at Work, Inc. points out that “car ownership costs are the second largest household expense in the U.S. In fact, the average household spends almost as much on their cars as they do on food and health care combined for their entire family.”

Talk to your partner
If you want to go car-free and have a partner, you need to talk with them about your idea. Not all couples will be able to find a car-free solution. Before discussing the idea, create a budget and a list of pros and cons. This wil help you discuss the proposal more effectively.

Take a test ride
If you don't want to do something as drastic as selling your car, try going car-free for a week — or a month. Park your car in the garage, and don't use it. And at the end of the test period, evaluate how you felt and whether or not living without a car is best for your life circumstance. Again, going car-free isn't for everyone, even some who really want to make it happen.

Consider health-care costs
Going car-free is a great way to get your move on, to keep your mind and body healthy. These economic benefits go beyond just vehicle costs. You can reduce your short-terms expenses by ditching your gym membership, and decrease your long-term health care costs by reducing your risk for heart disease.

By selling our cars, my husband and I gained a significant amount of financial freedom, improved our health and decreased our stress levels.

Further reading
There are a lot of resources online that will help you go car-free, including:

I once considered car ownership a necessity; I “needed” a car to get to and from work. I never imagined that I'd be commuting by bike, going bike camping, and having so much fun without a car. Making the decision to structure our lives around biking and alternative forms of transportation has changed our lives.

Tammy's husband bikes into the sunset

More about...Frugality, Transportation

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bobj
bobj

Ride On!

Jamie Huskisson
Jamie Huskisson

As someone just about to buy a (business) car, but also considering a bike – this was a great read.

Nicole
Nicole

Good for you!

LifeAndMyFinances
LifeAndMyFinances

This sounds awesome! It must be very satisfying and exhilarating to ride a self-powered vehicle everywhere you go! I would love to do this, but my wife and I just work too far away from home to make it happen.

Suzanne
Suzanne

I love this post. I live in Chicago and take the el (that’s the subway here) to work every day. I am trying to make the transition to a car-free life. To test it out, I went 2 months this summer without driving and figure I would save $150 month in maintenance, gas and insurance. I’d get another $150 a month in rent for my parking spot. But a car also has meaning in freedom and independence and its harder than I thought to actually pull the trigger and sell it. Anyone out there using a car-sharing service like zipcar?… Read more »

Anonymous
Anonymous

@Suzanne. I moved to Boston from the suburban Midwest a little under a year ago, sold my car, and rely on walking, the T, and ZipCar. ZipCar is completely reliable, and I was delighted to discover there are actually three ZipCar vehicles that “live” behind my apartment and many more in the surrounding blocks. (One’s a truck, which was very handy for transporting furniture.) I do all my grocery shopping on foot and basically use the ZipCar only when my boyfriend and I want to get out of town or do an errand in the suburbs. It’s very affordable–we’re saving… Read more »

Meghan
Meghan

Anonymous #5 beat me to it. I have to commute to work via car right now, but when I lived in the city I totally relied on Zipcar for any major weekend Target trips or big grocery runs. It’s so convenient and you only pay for the time you need the car. Also, GAS AND INSURANCE ARE INCLUDED IN YOUR RENTAL. I repeat, Gas and insurance are included. I seriously can’t say enough to praise this service. It’s great.

Wayne Mates
Wayne Mates

It is certainly much easier to be car free in a metro area than in a rural area. When I lived and worked in DC, my apartment was five blocks from my office and the food store (albeit small) was only a few blocks in another direction. The Metro got me to most anyplace I needed to go. If not, there was always a nearby cab. Now, years later, I live in rural NH. My workplace is 17 miles in one direction and my wife’s is 25 miles in the opposite direction. Unfortunately, not conducive to car free or even… Read more »

leslie
leslie

Count me as one of those people that would really like to make this work but can’t right now for a variety of reasons (location in a suburb of a suburb, complete lack of any sort of public transporation, two kids etc. etc.). However, my husband and I intend to move in town to a historic and very walkable neighborhood in time. At that point we are going to drop at least one of our cars. In the mean time we do what we can to keep our car costs down – drive paid off cars until they fall apart… Read more »

Everyday Tips
Everyday Tips

I would love to live a car-free life, but it is just not practical for us. We live in a suburb with 0 mass transit. With 3 kids and such, I would never get to see their sports events or anything. Not to mention that grocery shopping for 3 teens would probably kill me if I didn’t have a car!

Glad you found a great alternative that is good for you and saves some money. Maybe someday…

MikeTheRed
MikeTheRed

Love this post. This spring/summer I biked to work for about 2 months (a large project requiring crazy long hours forced me off the habit by mid summer sadly), and it was wonderful. I only wish I lived in a slightly more temperate climate so I could continue the habit longer into the year. One of the biggest benefits I found to biking for my daily commute was the peace of mind it gave me. What would normally be a drive listening to the news, grumbling at slow moving traffic and generally rushing into the start of my day turned… Read more »

Amy
Amy

Thanks for this great article! And kudos on joining the bike commuter ranks. I too was one of those people who clung to my car: I always said I kept it because it was paid off and because I have 2 big dogs. But really, I relished the sense of freedom and didn’t want to give it up. Then my car died and I realized that it made NO financial sense to replace it. I’ve been car-free for nearly a year now. I use my bike as my primary form of transportation. I commute about 10 miles round-trip each day… Read more »

Sean
Sean

Don’t set this up as a false dichotomy; either being car-free or using a car all the time for everything. You can bike (or walk, or use transit) to the greatest extent possible and still save money on transportation. I ride to work most days (in Seattle, yes, even in the dark and wet of winter) but use our car for grocery shopping and on weekend trips. By reducing the amount we drive, we save on insurance rates and obviously gas. This has the added benefit of keeping my money in my pocket rather than going to Middle Eastern despots… Read more »

Becky
Becky

I lived car-free for several years in my late 20’s and early 30’s, when I lived in an urban area with a relatively mild climate. I was lucky enough to score an apartment a half-block from a grocery store, a good Vietnamese restaurant, and a bus stop. (What more do you need in life, really?) I biked most places, including my job about 7 miles away. In another stroke of luck, my office building had a shower in it. I would have been OK doing a quick sponge bath after my commute, but I have to say that shower was… Read more »

Suzanne
Suzanne

I think that climate really only matters if you don’t have good public transportation. I don’t think the weather in Chicago is really that much of a hindrance. Digging my car out from the snow, driving on the perma-layer of ice, and waiting in the cold for it to warm up is no incentive to keep my car. Besides, there is no bad weather, only inappropriate clothing. ; ) @Anonymous, there are a couple of zipcars at the end of my block. They cost about $10/hr, but I’m not sure they’ll always be there when I need them. There are… Read more »

The Quest
The Quest

We own 4 cars. We are a large family. We live in an area that is widely spread out with too many people, too many cars and zero infrastructure for bikes. In fact, biking around here will get you killed. It is therefore unfortunately not an option. Our employment (and college for the kids) is also too far away from home for a bike to be an option. Oh, the things we realize when it’s too late! We should’ve bought a house near our job years ago and stayed there instead of moving around 5 or 6 times LOL because… Read more »

Jessica
Jessica

My car recently died and I’m trying to decide what to do about a replacement or going without so thanks to you all for the Zipcar endorsements. I’ve wondered whether they were as great as they sound. There are about 5 within 1/2 mile of me. I could probably manage with a Zipcar once a week but I have the same “loss of freedom” concern written about by other posters. For November I have rented a car by the month. At first I thought the price was ridiculous – $650 or so for the full month – but when I… Read more »

Jessica
Jessica

#16 –
You make a great point here.

Nice tie in to William’s question yesterday too. He pointed out that moving further out of town (as many posters recommended) would require him to buy and maintain a car and that would reduce the cost savings of the cheaper location.

John Bardos - JetSetCitizen
John Bardos - JetSetCitizen

It is really interesting how some countries in the world really embrace cycling and others don’t.

In most of the Netherlands, Japan and China, cycling is a way of life. Near train stations you can see thousands and thousands of bicycles. Other countries like the U.S, Canada and even Turkey, Switzerland, etc. don’t really have that culture. There is a natural assumption that cars are the only way to commute but they are not.

Maureen Thomson
Maureen Thomson

Great post! My husband and I eliminated our second car a few years ago and haven’t missed it. And sometimes our current vehicle sits in the garage for a week without use (we work from home).

Zipcar may be a possibility for us–I’m off to check it out!

Stephanie
Stephanie

I love biking to work! Now I live too far to bike alone, but I bike to the central bus station and take the bus to the town I work in. Luckily Denver has good public transit. I think people in the US with kids assume they can’t use biking as a form of transit. My officemate when I worked in Germany would bike farther than me with his two kids to take them to their day care before coming to work. And that is in Germany, where the weather is not so great, in my opinion. If you don’t… Read more »

AC
AC

I work on a military base in a city. It was nice to commute to work via a bus since there is a stop right outside my house. I was saving all kinds of money and loved the convenience; I also valued the safety as well since I wasn’t on the road constantly in the city. Last year, they closed the gate I used to get on and off the base and now I have to walk several miles to get to where I need to work. I have complained, but nothing has been done.

Jan
Jan

If you are into biking you’ll get a kick out of the following statistic from Holland (where I am from) there are more bikes overhere than people. Currently there close to 17 miilion inhabitants.

I myself have three so that helps I guess !

Julie In San Diego
Julie In San Diego

I would recommend as a resource:

http://www.bikeleague.org/

http://www.bikeleague.org/programs/education/course_schedule.php

The League of American Bicyclists was founded in 1880 (yes, 1880) to support the creation of better roads for bicycling.

They have a great education program, which can help people feel more comfortable riding with traffic.

Michael
Michael

Super post, Tammy!
We are a family of five, living in the suburbs and have one sub compact car that we drive about 10,000 miles a year. Most of the car miles are used picking someone up late when buses don’t run, or involve visiting our aging parents. My husband commutes via bike and train. The kids use a combo of city transit, bikes and walking. I run most errands on my bike.
While carfree may not be possible for everyone, carlite is definitely something most people could consider! http://www.ecovelo.info

Sarabeth
Sarabeth

I am another carshare user (not Zipcar, but City Carshare, a Bay Area nonprofit that provides equivalent service). The thing I’ve learned since joining is that it *feels* really expensive to rent a car for $10/hour or so, even know i know that it saves me lots of money on a monthly or yearly basis. We are so used to feeling like each individual car trip is more or less free, that $40 to rent a car to go to the beach for a few hour seems expensive. This is, overall, good: it makes the costs of car use more… Read more »

PawPrint
PawPrint

We’ve had two cars for only 9 years of our 30 year marriage. Except when we lived in Portland and then one of the suburbs (we used the bus system in Ptld. and Lake Oswego), we made it a point to live close to one person’s work. We took preschoolers to a daycare located near work or on the way to work. I walked to work and back for four years in Colorado (except when it was 20 below–then I got a ride from a neighbor) where public transportation was not available in the town where we lived. Our kids… Read more »

Shannon
Shannon

I wish this story had a stronger ending. I think the resources she suggests and ideas are great, but I would have liked to learn more about the end product. Do they have emergency savings now? Do they like their new lifestyle? Are the out of debt fully? I feel like it needed more of an ending.
I also did appreciate how she talked about this being more difficult in rural areas. I read so many stories like this that don;t account for this issue.

Leah
Leah

I love biking. I studied abroad in the Netherlands, and I biked/took the train everywhere there. Right now, I live in hour from school, but I actually got a small apartment where I go to school so that I only have to drive back and forth twice a week (I bike to campus the other days). My life goal is to live in an area where I can go car free or be a one-car family. My boyfriend and I are discussing, but it’s both hard for each of us to think of giving up our cars, especially since we’re… Read more »

Mariane
Mariane

Great post and interesting comments! When I bought my appartment I chose to buy one in the historical center of my town. It costed a bit more than in the suburbs but had bus and tramstops right outside the door to use in winter, great bicycle paths for the warmer months and work was in walking distance all year round. For me the extra investment in this property was a long term choice. Financially that excluded also being able to buy a car, but then again having good public transport there was no need… Now I live abroad for awhile… Read more »

El Nerdo Loco
El Nerdo Loco

I love riding my bike and use it to run errands in my neighborhood, but the only major obstacle to use it as a major form of transportation are idiot drivers. Especially the ones who are constantly sucking on a cellphone to quell their oral fixation. Horrible. If you are one of those people, shame on you– please hang up and drive. I’m sure your chatter can wait until you stop the car. There is also a fair amount of drunk driving in New Mexico, so that’s another fear. On the plus side, the city of Albuquerque has bike racks… Read more »

Christy
Christy

I have had two different experiences with bike communiting. About ten years ago when I lived in Tuscaloosa, AL, I tried bike-commuting to work, which was farily close to where I lived. Tuscaloosa at that time had no bike lanes and car drivers treated me like an inconvenience and annoyance. After multiple attempts at bike commuting, I opted to drive my car. I was not safe on my bike in that community.

I currently live in a college-town in Oregon that sports many bike lanes. Bike commuting is much more feasable for me now.

Karen
Karen

We have two cars, but hardly ever use them- I would say the average is about 1-2 car trips per week, and the 1 is for groceries (I could easily get my groceries by bike, but my boyfriend eats too much to do that!) We bike to campus pretty much every single day and if the weather is bad, we have good busses. On-campus parking is prohibitively expensive (75 cents an hour.) We should really sell one car. The problem is that each of us is attached to our cars and we’re not yet attached enough to each other to… Read more »

Steven@hundredgoals.com

Some interesting comments here. It makes me think about how our society will function when we see an end to cheap oil. Many experts suggest that we’ve already passed peak oil production. From here on out, it’s going to be much more difficult (and expensive) to extract oil…which will mean an end to such luxuries as commuting. James Kunstler suggests that suburban life as we know it today will simply collapse as a result of a lack of cheap fossil fuels. I’m inclined to agree. It will be interesting to watch things play out over my lifetime. We’re in a… Read more »

Tonya
Tonya

Great Read! I have been wondering if it is worth going down to one car. We think we are dependent on 2 cars, so I will park mine for a week to see how it goes walking to work even in the blustery MN winters!

honeybee
honeybee

Great post. Thanks for sharing. I think this brings up a great side-point: many people claim they can’t go car-free because of where they live — in an exurb, no transit, etc. This is probably the truth now, but it’s the result of active choices these people have made. People don’t just suddenly wake up and find themselves living in the suburbs. Nobody expects someone to use a bike everywhere if they live way out in the sticks. Part of embracing a lifestyle that is car-free is making complementary decisions about where to live. The next time these people move,… Read more »

Tom
Tom

If you’re a couple it’s good if you both could add more exercise though ’cause your savings will go out the window when only one gets sexy and the other gets wide 🙂 Only partially kidding unfortunately 🙁 If you’re able to walk/bike/take public transportation you’ll save a lot of money. Money that can be used on car rental. I knew some people when I lived in big cities that never owned a car. Whenever they needed a car they would rent one. Weekly shopping trip? Rent a car on weekends and go to the market the mall etc. Need… Read more »

Katy @ The Non-Consumer Advocate
Katy @ The Non-Consumer Advocate

Tammy,

NIce post!

-Katy

happygal
happygal

My husband and I are retired and have had only one car for the past year. It has worked out fine. We sold two old cars and bought a new car to keep maintenance costs down. We don’t live close to mass transit and are too old to bike places, so we keep a close eye on the calendar to know when to schedule appointments, lunches with friends, etc. The big surprise when we sold one car is that our insurance did not go down. We were getting the multiple car discount, so that was gone when we only had… Read more »

SarahB
SarahB

I really enjoyed this post. We’re in the process of going down to one car. My husband had a new opportunity in more bike friendly/mass transit friendly city than the one we live in now. He’s been walking most days or taking mass transit when it is too cold/rain. He has lost at least 15 lbs since August. He has only been using his car to go to the grocery store. I haven’t fully moved to the new city yet as I can’t find a job. The plan is once I get moved over there we’ll sell his car and… Read more »

Jaime
Jaime

This is a cool story but its not very practical for me. I live in the midwest and we don’t have the best bus service here. This only works if you have friends and family who are willing to help each other out, my friends and even my bf we’re all on different schedules so its not like they could help even if they wanted to. In the midwest everything is so spread out, even if I wanted to bike to work, I would end up stinky and there’s no gym that’s close to my job where I could shower… Read more »

investlongandshort
investlongandshort

$9000 per year to own a car? Wow, that sounds a lot. I know I do not spend that much on my car. Then again, I drive toyota corolla. I guess people who drive $30,000 cars would probably pay over $9000 per year. Either case, it does seem a lot and people don’t usually think of it this way.

Tyler
Tyler

I’m curious – for those who do NOT own a vehicle, how do you manage visiting family? I’m thinking of during the holidays – are you only an hour or two away, where someone can come get you? Are you thousands of miles away, so that taking public transit to the airport is the only feasible option? I sit in the “sweet” spot of 700 miles away where a drive takes 10 hours, but flying would require a connecting flight, take 5 hours of flight/wait time (the time inside the airport security), be hundreds of dollars more than auto fuel,… Read more »

Becky P.
Becky P.

Maybe some time someone could review “Zip Car”. Might be an interesting read for those of us who can’t imagine how it actually works.

Amy
Amy

@Tyler: I live about 600 miles from my nearest family. I take transit when feasible, but driving is often the best way to get there (esp. if I’m taking my pups along). In those cases, I just rent a car or take a Zipcar for a few days. As Sarabeth was explaining, it can hurt to shell out as much as a few hundred $$ in one fell swoop, but it’s still less expensive for me than owning a car.

Elizabeth
Elizabeth

@36 Well we chose Boston and dropped to one car partly because of the fabulous public transportation. It’s truly fantastic. Then I found a job after 25 months of unemployment–in Portsmouth, NH. Good thing we kept my car because the commuter train going from the South End in Boston to Portsmouth isn’t so great (far better if you do the normal commute). Then my husband (thankfully) found a job but it’s in Lexington, MA and there’s no way he can take the T to work without walking like 5+ miles. So now he has a car too. You could argue… Read more »

Sassy
Sassy

I currently commute four hours a day to and from work, but only sixteen minutes of that is driving. I wish I could take the bus, but to get my six fifty am train I would have to get the five thirty am bus as it goes all around the world before getting to the station, then in the evening the bus would get me home at seven thirty pm, whereas the drive gets me home at six thirty pm. But the plus side is that I am not paying any rent while I do this commute and am saving… Read more »

Rosa
Rosa

What an awesome post, thank you! We’ve never owned more than one car. I’m a wussypants – won’t ride in snow (and we live in Minneapolis) so when we bought our house we chose to be on a bus line. But I know a lot of people who commute more than 10 miles each way, all year, even in our cold winters. My partner has always bike commuted year-round. To me, *not* depending on a car is very freeing. It’s terrible to be completely car-dependent and have your car break down – every time we have a winter storm half… Read more »

rail
rail

Google “Interurbane/trolly/Iowa” to see what was once possible for public transportation in the midwest. Its sad that 70 years ago you could travel about anyware in the continental U.S. and not have to have a car. Now its almost impossible unless you are in a large urbane area.

Adam -Magical Penny.com
Adam -Magical Penny.com

Great post. I too cycle everywhere and don’t own a car.

However I think some people romantise the bike lifestyle. Whilst I *love* cycling, it’s not all sunshine and fitness. It’s risky (not been hit by a car but I’ve had close calls), and you get wet and cold quite regularly!

That said, it does save me lots of money, keeps me fit and I love it. In fact my latest blog post (click my name above) is all about this topic.

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