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5 tips for making a one-car family work

Allie Johnson

March 26, 2014

My husband and I aren’t always the best at being frugal, but there’s one really big thing we do to save money: share a car.

I estimate that we save at least $5,000 a year by not having to pay for gas, maintenance, repairs, insurance and tag renewal for an extra vehicle. In fact, it could be more: According to a 2013 study by AAA, it costs about $9,122 a year to own and operate a mid-sized sedan when you factor in $3,571 for depreciation.

It started as an experiment. It was the height of the Great Recession, and my old Volvo — the one that cost us at least $400 every time it landed in the shop — broke down again. We decided to postpone fixing the car, just for a month.

At the time, my husband was in grad school and drove our 1996 Corolla (which is in fantastic shape for its age — no one can believe it’s that old) on his hourlong commute to the university three times a week. I work from a home office, so we figured sharing was doable.

Weeks went by, then months. It was actually surprisingly easy. Every couple of weeks or so, we’d hit a snag where I wanted to run to the store, but he had the car or vice versa. But it was never a big deal.

Eventually, we decided to sell my car. Now, we live in a small city in Georgia, and my husband is a college professor. We live downtown, and his university has a free shuttle service between the downtown campus and the main campus, where he teaches. When the weather’s nice, he walks downtown and catches the university bus or rides his bike to work. So, sharing a car is easier than ever.

But, we have had to adjust. Here’s what makes it work for us:

  • Communication. When you share a car, you have to do a lot more talking about everyday plans. I always ask Joe to let me know in advance whenever he needs the car, and I try to do the same for him. But we forget sometimes.
  • Flexibility. There will be times when conflicts pop up, so you have to be ready to adjust. For example, sometimes I make a vet appointment for one of our dogs and then have to call back and change it. Or, sometimes whoever has the car has to run an extra errand or two. As the blog Working Moms Against Guilt points out, car sharing can make errands a hassle.
  • Planning errands. Having a system for errands helps. I do all of my grocery shopping for the week early on Sunday morning. If I need something and Joe has the car that day, I ask him to pick it up on his way home. (It’s convenient that he drives past the grocery, drug, hardware and pet stores on his way home.)  In a guest post  on Money Saving Mom, blogger Liz of Frugally Blonde writes that she makes being a one-car family work by planning out routes around town, combining errands and doing two weeks of grocery shopping in one trip.
  • Not caring what others think. Sharing a car still seems odd to some people, especially if you don’t live in a progressive city where it might be considered cool. You might have to ignore raised eyebrows and questioning looks. Liz of Frugally Blonde writes: “When I tell new acquaintances that my husband and I share one car, I am usually met with a mix of shock and pity. In our affluent society, it is practically unheard of for each adult driver in a household not to have his or her own car.”
  • Being realistic about where you live. I can walk downtown to our bank, post office, coffee shops and restaurants. So, on days when Joe takes the car, I’m not stuck at home. As Working Moms Against Guilt points out, it can be tougher to share a car in the suburbs.

So, is being a one-car family really worth it, moneywise? In The Simple Dollar’s column Saving Pennies or Dollars, personal finance blogger Trent Hamm crunches the numbers. His conclusion? Over 10 years, commuting in a second car will cost $32,400 compared with $9,600 to take the bus.

Should you sell a car then and share the remaining one with your spouse? As Mark at You Need A Budget points out, it’s a good idea to first consider the what ifs (as in “What if I want to go to lunch with a friend or take a solo trip?”)

Then, You Need a Budget recommends you weigh the downsides — loss of always having wheels at the ready to take you where you want to go — against the upsides of saving money and a simpler life.

For us, it’s been easy: We’re content with just one car, and it frees up lots of money for us to save or spend on things (such as weekend getaways) that we value much more than the ability to run out and buy bread or paper towels at the spur of the moment.