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Related topics: savings, cars, Donna Freedman, gas prices, frugal

When I got rid of my car almost two years ago, I wondered if I would miss it. Surprisingly, I don't.

Another thing I don't miss? Watching gas prices creep back up.

I gave the Chevy Cavalier to my daughter and her husband for their move to Phoenix. Abby has a chronic illness and I couldn't stand the idea of her waiting for a bus in 115-degree heat. To me, the decision was simple: She's sick, I'm not. So I handed over the title and keys, asking only that they remember this when picking out my nursing home.

Going car-free would be good for me, I figured. Obviously I'd save money on auto insurance, registration, gas and related costs. I'd get more exercise. Best of all, I would no longer have to worry about maintenance, parking hassles or cleaning bird poop off the windshield.

Not that I wasn't apprehensive. How much time would walking or riding the bus steal from my already crowded days? Would hunting down good bargains be possible without the ability to drive from store to store - and if not, would my frugal lifestyle be compromised?

Image: Donna Freedman

Donna Freedman

After 21 months, I'm happy with my decision. I feel better, for one -- I've lost weight, and walking has been a great stress reliever. The exercise produces endorphins, those feel-good chemicals that are not only legal, they're free.

More to the point, adding up my auto-related expenses during that final year of ownership was quite a shock. Having a vehicle is the biggest single expense in many people's lives. Dropping it can have a huge impact on the bottom line.

Ditching the wheels isn't for everyone; more on that later. But if you're considering going car-free even some of the time - and I suggest that you do - then read on.

A realization

Initially I'd thought about buying a replacement auto. But I live 1.3 miles from most of the services I need - library, post office, supermarket, bank - and near several bus lines that will take me anywhere else. So why did I think I needed a vehicle?

"There's a mindset, driven by endless automobile advertising, that you've got to have a car," says Chris Balish, author of "How To Live Well Without Owning a Car" (Ten Speed Press).

Saving $600 to $1,000 a month

Ads that trumpet "Only $199 a month!" aren't telling the full story. The American Automobile Association does an annual car-ownership cost study based on seven points: fuel, tires, maintenance, insurance, depreciation, license/registration/taxes and financing. Here are AAA's most recent per-year costs:

  • Small sedan: $7,619
  • Medium sedan: $9,717
  • Large sedan: $14,241
  • Minivan: $10,716
  • 4WD sport utility vehicle: $12,598

Of course, these are just averages. Costs do vary - in either direction. Leadfoots and lousy drivers pay more for insurance. If you drive a vehicle for 250,000 miles (yes, you can make your car last that long) you'll have fewer car payments than those who trade up every three years. Those who neglect routine maintenance risk having small problems morph into expensive mega-breakdowns.

But I agree with the basic premise of Balish's book: It costs a lot more to own a car than you might think. Although I hadn't had a car payment since April 2004, I still paid out nearly $1,500 in auto-related expenses during my last year of ownership.

In her column "The real reason you're broke," Liz Weston notes that some middle-class families have two car payments of $400 to $500 apiece. With $800 to $1,000 due each and every month, "it doesn't take a major disaster, like a job loss, to send them over the edge."

The payments alone add up to $9,600 to $10,800 per year in that case. This doesn't include insurance, tags, fuel, oil changes, etc.

Look at those annual ownership numbers I mentioned. Divide them by 12. Think what an extra $634 to $1,049 a month could do for your bottom line.

"If you're constantly broke and can't figure out why," Weston says, "the answer may be sitting in your driveway."

Walk softly, work steadily

When I ditched the vehicle, I got a $111 refund from my insurance company. Theoretically I was also saving an average of $41 per month on fuel and oil. Initially I spent all that money (and then some) because an old case of plantar fasciitis flared up in a big way. Sturdy walking shoes and custom-fitted arch supports took away the pain and, as a bonus, improved my posture.

The arch supports are almost two years old and still working their magic; this was money well-spent. I wait until my favorite shoes (Rockports, if you care) are on sale and buy them through a cash-back shopping site for additional savings.

My best guess is that I walk at least 1½ miles a day - occasionally less, often a lot more. Much of that perambulation is around my neighborhood on errands to the supermarket, library, post office or bank. In other words, the places I'd be tempted to drive to if I still had a car, even though some of them are less than a mile away. Generally, I look at this as multitasking: doing errands and exercising at the same time. When pressed for time or not feeling well, I sometimes take the bus.