Actually, we can’t afford a car

We actively choose to live our lives without a car.  When our truck died, way back in 2004, we probably could have found enough money to get another one if we’d really wanted to.  We wouldn’t have been happy about it, but we could have done it.  Really though, we were just happy to see it go.

Since then, our financial situation only improved (what with finishing grad school and actually getting jobs, not amazingly well-paying jobs, but it doesn’t take much to beat grad student pay).  We paid off all our debt (well, other than our tiny condo), saved up a nice emergency fund, and bought our house, all in no small part due to our savings from not owning a car.  I’ve always assumed we could get a car if we wanted one, but since we don’t, we just enjoy that extra cushion in our cash flow and try our best to save it or put it to good use.

Since we’ve gone from a three member to a four member family though, things have definitely been tighter.  We’re nearly erasing one of our salaries for this year that we have two kids in 3-day-a-week daycare (take your pick whose, we make about the same, public kindergarten for H come Sept is looking mighty nice).  I’d be hard pressed to say we have plenty of money, but we certainly have enough, especially with that emergency fund as reassurance.

Since I’ve always assumed we could if we wanted, it was with some surprise that I realized right now, if we really needed a car, we’d be very hard pressed to afford one.  Even if a decent car or truck were flat out given to us, the expenses of insurance, gas and repairs would be extremely hard, if not impossible, to fit in our current budget.  This doesn’t really change things, but it does change my perspective a bit. As I said, we’re OK. I’m not worried about money.  But right now, as a family of four in a region with a very high cost of living, if we had to support a car, I would be.  I would be very worried. So even if I’ve lost that sense of “Well, I could if I wanted,” I feel even more grateful for the slight financial breathing room we do have.

About Nathan

Nathan lives in North Cambridge, MA with his wife and two kids, and prefers never to be in cars if he can avoid it. Nathan thinks parenting is way more fun when you don't have to worry about car seats.
This entry was posted in Benefits of being carfree, Frugality, Problems and issues, Sustainability and consumerism. Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to Actually, we can’t afford a car

  1. mike says:

    Do you have some form of car share in Cambridge? In my carfree years living in Philly, Philly Car Share came in handy on many occasions, and pretty cheaply too.

    When living in exurban Virginia with no public transit, and certainly no car share, a quick ride to the town’s car rental location proved useful many times. While a day or two’s car rental is less convenient and more expensive than car sharing, $30-70 + gas for a day is much cheaper than owning or leasing a car for a year.

  2. Dorea says:

    Mike — Yep! We’re fans of car shares, though only very infrequent users (we just don’t need a car very often, usually just once or twice a year). Here in cambridge we have two options, Relay Rides (peer-to-peer) and Zipcar.

  3. David Waight says:

    Great post. Thanks. Also, congratulations on getting your article published in Yes Magazine. It is my favorite magazine.

  4. Chris says:

    I wholeheartedly agree that dropping one or all of your cars can make a huge difference in your financial health.

    In late 2009 it was apparent we couldn’t keep duping the system with our out of state tags. We were going to have to fix our car so it could pass emissions or get rid of it.

    The car was a 92 Subaru and maybe worth $1,000, but I was unable to sell it for that after three different postings on craigslist.

    The repairs (to put in two catalytic converters) were going to cost $1000+ and would not increase gas mileage, increase the car’s longevity or benefit US in any way. I’m not saying that reducing pollution doesn’t benefit all of us, but when cash is short, sometimes you can’t focus on loftier goals.

    The decisions finally came, we were going to have to sell it. We found someone that lived outside the metro area (where emissions testing is not required) and sold the car for a measly $700.

    I took the $700 and invested in my bike and winter attire and we became a one car family. This past summer we were able to buy a modest three bedroom house (and got out of the cramped 2br apartment) mainly because we had a little more financial breathing room because we got rid of the second car.

    Every time I think about getting a new car I remember that we are saving so much money and I stop trying to justify the second car. It’s amazing how once you see it form the other side it makes so much sense and seems so easy.

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  7. Shannon T says:

    As a soon-to-be car-free parent in another high-cost region (Oakland, CA), I couldn’t agree more. We’ve often thought about it in the reverse – if the sh*t hit the fan, what would we have to give up? Already don’t have a car, already don’t eat out much, etc…adding a kid to our budget seems kind of scary, but it’s amazing how many people (my mom included) assume that once we have a kid we will HAVE to buy a car. Um, actually, no. We will HAVE to continue being car-free, and while it’s always felt like a choice, it’s really not. Thanks for your post and your blog (just discovered today) – I look forward to reading and learning more!

  8. Carolyn Ibis says:

    Cars are definitely expensive! I was offered a Honda Fit from Mom (though I am never 100% sure about offers from her) but I declined. Even if it was given, there is the insurance and gas. I like being able to move around without worrying about how much gas is in the tank! With the extra costs with having a car, I too wouldn’t have much room for extra savings to keep my emergency fund up. It’s very important to have an emergency fund at all times and be able to rebuild it if I must use it.

    And I already pay enough for assorted insurances, so it’s nice not having to insure the bike.

    I also like the much cheaper maintenance costs associated with bikes.

  9. Mark says:

    The realisation must be a shock for you, but it could be worse. You could have built where you live, work, school and shop around owning a car (or probably two) and then when you couldn’t afford a car, you’d have to sell the house.

    We (2 adults + 4yo, 2yo) bought a car after not having one at all for a few months. What tipped us over into buying the car was exceptional circumstances – recent flooding took out our local shopping centre (as well as many thousands of homes city wide).

    We used to be 7 minutes walk (that’s seven minutes with children in tow) from 90% of our shopping and service needs. Now we are living a life most people consider normal.

    I drove to the supermarket yesterday for the first time in seven years. It was really unpleasant, but I think most people are so used to it they don’t realise how awful it is until they give it up.
    There was the drive in traffic, finding a park in the oh-so-pleasant basement car park, negotiating the really quite dangerous car park with a cheeky 2yo and a loaded shopping trolley, getting 2yo into the car and then finding the shopping trolley careening down the car park ramp.

    At least the kindergarten didn’t get flooded and we can still ride there.

  10. Bus Chick says:

    I just saw David Waight’s comment and looked up your article. Fabulous! It was like I’d written it myself. Except better. Oh, and I’m still working on the biking. Great job, guys!

  11. Eleni says:

    I really love the insight you are sharing on this site! We were pared down to a one car family a few months ago when my husband was in an accident and his car was totaled. At first, we went crazy trying to figure out how to get a car ASAP because he is in sales and needs a car for appointments, we have three kids,and live on a farm. Eventually the reality of only having one car payment sunk in, and we worked out a schedule. With that we realized we only truly need one car, and it has worked very well. Being on a farm we aren’t able to really walk anywhere, and with my husband’s job being without a car would be an impossibility.

  12. abracadabra says:

    It is one of these head scratchers for me… We’ve spent most of our married life (7 yrs) with only one car despite living in suburbia with 2 kids and in places with less than optimal public transit. And right now, if this car was in a wreck or something, it would be a challenge to come up with the $$ to replace it. In fact, I would be more comfortable if some of the $$ going to insurance, gas, and maintenance not to mention the dwindling car payments was going into savings of some sort. Yet, I know lots of other young families who have not had the same good fortune (no student debt, lower paying jobs) or help (small inheritance) but they still maintain 2 cars without very visible differences in other expenditures (little differences add up, I know).

    While I don’t think having 2 cars is always the necessity they may think it is, it just another example of how disinvestment in public goods (i.e., public transit) ends up costing people at the bottom and middle a lot more – forced consumption that eats up savings. So many of these families are really struggling with the recession — this summer’s gas prices plus food prices are really going to take a toll.

    My grandparents lived in the house we live in now – quintessential post-war, car-centric suburbia (walkability score: 51). They had just 1 car for a long time, first the street car took Granddad to work and when the tracks were ripped up, carpool of 5 men from the surrounding blocks to downtown replaced it. People don’t work downtown anymore, they work in the office parks in the outer ring suburbs and so carpool isn’t very functional now either (big attitudinal factor here but it is still difficult to find someone that lives close enough and works close enough with a similar schedule).

  13. Katie says:

    I recently had the same realization in our recent flap regarding a proposed bill to ban kids under 6 on bikes. We made a lot of noise about it, but amidst the anger and the outrage and the disappointment there was also a strange moment of: what would we do? And as the manager of our family’s books, the conclusion was: we’d have to move. If we needed to add a car to our budget, we’d need to move farther out in the city, to where the rent is cheaper, but where we’d be reliant on that car every day.

  14. Desiree says:

    How would you do this if you lived 4 miles from town? A bike trailer maybe? For grocery shopping?

    • Dorea says:

      The specifics vary so much by situation it’s impossible to make a one-size solution. We write about what works for us, in a relatively dense urban area, with decent transit, but also a place where most families drive cars (i.e. we’re not in New York City here).

      When you say you live 4 miles from town, do you mean there is no grocery store or other resources closer than 4 miles? That is do-able by bike, and yep, you could carry your groceries in a trailer. Personally, I wouldn’t want to be, say, biking a kid to daycare four miles each way, but someone else might (my preference would be to choose to live closer to more resources, so that I could more easily find what I needed closer to home)

      How may kids do you have? Where do you work? What kind of transit is available where you live? All of these things contribute to how much reduction of car use is possible for your family. But in all but the most rural areas, I really believe it is possible to reduce car dependence below your local norm. I.e. in two car areas, one-car living is usually do-able. In one-car areas (like ours), no-car living can be possible with some careful prioritization (and a little luck). Any decrease, especially a decrease that lets you completely get rid of a car, reaps you many of the payoffs we write about here.

      PS– If you really want help brainstorming about your specific situation, feel free to e-mail us. We love thinking about this stuff.

  15. I just got married and we have one car — one that I can’t drive because it’s a stick. I bus, walk, scooter, hitch. A friend of mine pointed out that I’ll have to get a car if we have a baby. It it weren’t for this blog, I might actually believe her. I’ll compromise and learn to drive the husband’s car, but I’m still committed to driving as little as possible. And, with daycare rates being what they are, I don’t see how we can afford a second car.

  16. DebbieFre says:

    Thought you might be interested in Boston’s “freshest transportation alternative” – Mint Cars On-Demand – Mint Cars are available throughout Boston, Brookline, and Cambridge (with more being added all the time) and are available on demand 24/7 and feature live, local customer service and always lower rates. They’re offering free membership and no application fee if you’re already a carsharing member, and $25 in free drive time just to check it out, just use promo code LAUNCH.

  17. tmw says:

    honey if you are having to sacrifice things like cars u r probably living beyond your means anyway.

  18. Cycliste alcoolique says:


    3 miles = 15 mins max by bike.
    I do every working day: 20 miles to go to work, and 20 miles to come back home.

  19. Alan says:

    I’m glad to see this post, which comes closer to something I can relate to than does most of the stuff I read about car-free families. We have kids ranging from middle school to infancy, and we just cannot afford to have a car. We actually did have one until about a year ago, although we were “car-light” in the warm months even then. But then it needed a repair we couldn’t afford, and we were struggling to pay various bills (including car insurance) already, so we sold it and got a couple thousand for it that got us caught up on utilities and things and we have been managing ever since.

    But we only *just* manage. We don’t have cable TV, we are very frugal with our food shopping budget (lots of rice and beans), we never eat out or go to movies, buy books, anything like that. Our one “luxury” is to have the Internet, with which we can watch TV shows on Hulu and stuff like that. It’s absolutely inconceivable to think about paying for the costs of a vehicle, even though we honestly would like to have one if we could afford it. For that matter, our bikes are pretty ratty, with lights held on with duct tape and so on.

    And that is the part where we can’t completely relate with a lot of the car-free families who talk about “choice” and have a lot of fancy bike gear. I wonder, what about other families that are struggling in the tough economic times going on right now? Why is “car-free” more of a thing for middle class and up? Even our family: we are poor economically speaking, but have a lot of educational attainment in the family. Yet it seems like something that could relieve the financial pressure on families that have never been anywhere near grad school. Is it so culturally ingrained, outside of educated “crunchy” types, that one must have a car that–as someone upthread suggested–people allow themselves and their kids to become homeless before they give up their car keys?

    • Dorea says:

      Thank you so much for this comment Alan. A great writer who takes on these themes more deeply is Corby Hightower at

      I also think the class implications are discussed more openly with regard to public transit.

      We do talk about “choice,” and we definitely have some fancy bike gear (still dramatically cheaper than even a super-cheap car) but for us, the “choice” would have to be to move to a farther out, far enough for housing costs to drop substantially enough that we’d have room in the budget for a car. If we had more than two kids, or if one of us lost our job, we’d likely be in shoes very similar to yours, able to make ends meet, but barely, and only due to skipping the car.

      Thanks again Alan.

  20. John Andersen says:

    We’ve been car-free for over a year now, and truly relate to the financial breathing room car-freedom affords us.

    If we had a car, finances would be much tighter, and little money left over for all of the pleasures we love like eating out once a week, or enjoying restful weekends.

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