My journey toward car-free life began innocently (and naively) back in the summer of 2011.
I had a Pontiac G6 at the time that I determined had to go if I were truly going to put myself in a position to become financially independent by the time I turned 40. I knew I had to save well over 50% of my net income, and the $450+ per month I was spending on the car was absolutely impeding me from hitting that number routinely.
So I sold the car.
It’s funny. I’m not sure if I’ve ever shared this story publicly, but I had to take two buses to get home from the location where I sold the car (a Carmax located about 20 miles away). It took me more than two hours to get from the point of sale back to my apartment. Well, the last bus dropped me off about a mile away from my apartment, as public transportation isn’t exactly robust here in Sarasota.
So I started walking the mile home – in the dark, no less. But the whole way back home, I was just pumping my fists in the air, singing the theme song to Rocky in my head.
I felt like I had just conquered the world.
Well, that’s basically what I did, as that was a major step on my journey from below broke to financial freedom in my early 30s. So it was just a great move.
Other than a Toyota Corolla that I owned for just over a year, and a beater of a car I had for about a month, I’ve been car-free and carefree for almost five years now.
And I thought this would be a great opportunity to reflect on some lessons I’ve learned.
The Lifestyle Is Freeing
First, I’ll just say it’s a great lifestyle.
That’s largely because I’m able to actually experience the world around me with a sense of tangibility that I don’t think is necessarily accessible when you’re hurling yourself around in a giant steel box. Driving a car everywhere tends to insulate you, which I actually don’t like.
So even if living without a car were more expensive, I’d still prefer it as a lifestyle.
It gets me out of a bubble that I’d otherwise operate within most of the time. I walk a lot more. There are smells, sights, and sounds that I take in that I’d be hard pressed to experience if I were driving constantly. There’s a sense of serendipity that I can’t totally describe, yet I can say for sure I’ve compiled a ton of funny (and perhaps less funny) stories over the years that I wouldn’t have if I were just going from car to place and back to car.
I’m fitter. I’m more free. And I feel like it’s more fun.
A lot of people think I’m less free, but that’s not the case. The money I’ve saved by buying bus passes instead of depreciation, insurance, repairs, and gas has gone a long way toward helping me amass the collection of high-quality dividend growth stocks that now make up my Full-Time Fund. That portfolio, of course, has bought me financial freedom, which is the ultimate form of freedom, in my view. If you don’t own your own time, I’m not sure how free you can possibly be.
When I owned a car, however, I mostly just drove it to and from work. So I’m not sure how that made me more free? I was more free because I could drive long distances for no reason at all? I guess I just don’t get the logic. Indeed, they call the non-toll highways down here freeways (because there’s no toll), yet they’re often locked up with traffic. So I find the idea of them being freeways as kind of ironic. But I digress…
There’s a sense of purpose when it comes to trips when you’re living without a car. No aimless driving around town. No simple errands that don’t absolutely need to be completed. If anything, I find myself wasting less time, which frees me even more.
I instead only take the bus when I actually have to get somewhere. Or if I’m hitting the town for the night. Otherwise, I’m probably using my own two feet, which is really the best form of transportation.
Plus, when I’m on the bus, I can read, think, or nap. That’s way better than stressing out over what’s going on all around a car.
All in all, it’s wonderful. No liability. No traffic. No real concerns.
The Lifestyle Is Cheap
Cheap. Cheap. Cheap.
Did I say cheap?
The Bureau of Labor Statistics states that the average consumer unit spends approximately $9,500 per year on transportation.
Even if we take the (conservative) ~$450/month I was spending on my G6 as a baseline number, the car-free life is still an incredible boon to the journey toward financial independence.
I spend less than $50 per month on bus passes these days.
So let’s just say that I’ve saved $400 per month by living without a car.
If you compound that $400 per month at an 8% annual rate of return for just 10 years, we’re talking almost $75,000!
So, yeah, the car-free lifestyle has been absolutely crucial to me getting to where I’m now at. Not only was I able to save and invest a lot more, but it takes far less passive income for me to pay my bills and be financially independent.
Plus, there are less bills to remember every month. I don’t need to pay the insurance bill, think about gas, or send in a check for the car payment. If I can walk, I walk. If I can’t, I pay $1.25 to get across town. Very simple.
The Lifestyle Can Be Challenging
In all honesty, it’s also a very challenging lifestyle in some ways.
This is primarily because the United States doesn’t have very good public transportation in most cities. And I’m in a city (Sarasota, FL) that has very little public transportation infrastructure, making the idea of living without a car even more difficult. I’ve made it work through sheer will, but it’s not always easy.
But the only city in the US where not owning a car is the norm is NYC. And considering the extremely high COL in NYC, it might not necessarily make a whole lot of sense to live there for many of us.
Even in Chicago, which is probably my favorite US city, it can be tough.
The “L” train is primarily designed to get people from the north, south, and west sides to and from downtown, with all trains looping their way around the core of the city. But if you need to get from one neighborhood to another – say, traveling from east to west – you’re probably going to be taking the bus. And the bus is substantially less convenient.
Going from, say, Lincoln Park to Logan Square can be kind of crazy. I mapped traveling from Weiner Circle in LP to Gaslight Coffee Roasters in LS as an example, and it’s a 36-minute trip to go 3.3 miles (involving a lot of walking and taking the 74 bus). Uber is an option, of course, but if you’re constantly Ubering around, you’re probably going to lose any cost advantage to living without a car. And this is in what’s probably our second-most urban city in the country. Fairly unacceptable, really.
So you can be limited when you might not want to be. This isn’t even to mention trying to stay out well past the time when public transportation stops running.
However, I’ve found the best solution to this is creating a local economy. You basically try to live, work, and play in a small, local area. You have to be a little more thoughtful in terms of where you live relative to where you work and hang out. Your world shrinks, but you radically improve your odds of great experiences and serendipity. So there are pros and cons.
Another challenge is the loss of possible social engagements.
Not only might people be hanging out in a place that’s hard to get to without a car, but some people actually look down on someone without a car. They make assumptions right off the bat, which, right or wrong, can change relationship dynamics. Of course, I’d rather not even have relationships with people like this, so this hasn’t been a problem for me. But sticking out a little bit can be a big drawback for some people.
Using Chicago as an example again, less than 30% of the population lives without a car. A certain portion of this statistic is naturally due to poverty, meaning some people have no choice but to live without a car. So if you choose to live without a car, even in a big city (outside of NYC), a lot of people might look at you funny, and that could lead to social challenges.
I personally love living without a car. The cost savings have been significant, helping me reach financial independence as fast as I did. And even factoring out the cost savings, I still prefer not dealing with all the drawbacks of driving.
However, that isn’t to say that living without a car is perfect. No lifestyle is, not even early retirement.
There are some drawbacks. It can be hard to get to places that would be easy with a car. Social engagements can be negatively impacted, depending on where you live and how you build your life. One is obviously more prone to dealing with adverse weather, undesirable people, and schedules beyond one’s control. Waiting an extra 30 minutes because a bus broke down is a total bummer.
That all said, I think the pros of living without a car outweigh the cons. Will I be able to do it forever? Hard to say. But it’s been a great experience. I absolutely wouldn’t be financially independent in my early 30s if I would have never sold my car. So I guess I can deal with a few drawbacks here and there in exchange.
What do you think? Agree with these three lessons? Have you ever tried to live without a car? How’d it work out?
Thanks for reading.
Image courtesy of: Sira Anamwong at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.