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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.

The car-free life encourages productivity by discouraging the tendency to goof off. Ever wind up working late because of time wasted on Facebook updates or water-cooler chat? Once you commit to taking the 6:05 p.m. train, you'd better believe you'll develop some cubicle focus.

Although I work at home, the principle is the same. I've added a twice-weekly deep-water exercise class to my regimen. If I want to get there on time, I need to whip that rough draft into shape so I can head for the bus stop.

Planning won't kill you

Planning is key. It's no longer an option to drive to the supermarket just before closing. I have to allow time to walk there, which usually means combining that trip with another errand in the vicinity.

If I miss a sale or two, that's OK. The money I'm saving overall outweighs the loss of that 99-cent bag of potatoes.

Sure, the weather may not always work with me. For most of the past week it's rained pretty hard (hello, Seattle!), but that was no excuse to stay indoors. Walking in the rain isn't my first choice, frankly, but that's why umbrellas and jackets with hoods were invented. As my mom was fond of reminding us, "You're not made of sugar. You won't melt."

Options for getting from Point A to Point B

An organization called Car-Free Seattle offers a downloadable guide to going car-free. In it, a 63-year-old woman named Mona Lee writes that using her bike and the bus does not take time away from her life. Instead, it allows her to fit reading and exercise - "two essentials for life" - into her daily schedule. I like the way she thinks.

I just wish that I were as fearless as Mona, who does a 90-minute round-trip commute. Bicycles are an obvious choice for many car-free folks, but frankly I don't have the nerve to ride in traffic. I've seen far too many close calls.

Those who don't want to bike or ride the bus or train could consider ride-sharing. (Note that in some areas, vanpool drivers ride for free. Contact your local transportation authority.) In the Washington, D.C., area there's an improvisational carpool phenomenon called "slugging."

What about trips that do require a car? Check out car-sharing services such as Zipcar, which offer wheels by the hour. You could also rent a car for big shopping trips or a day in the country; this doesn't have to be expensive if you use Entertainment Book or other coupon specials. (Note: Some major agencies also operate via cash-back shopping sites.)

Myself, I would watch for a mystery shopping assignment involving a car-rental agency. Might as well get paid to stock up.

But my sister, bless her heart, offers to stop at the store on the way home from church each week. She has also offered to loan me her car, and I've taken her up on it three or four times, mostly to pick up visiting relatives or friends at the airport.

If you ride with a relative, friend or neighbor, then you should offer to pay for gas, parking or lunch. Or maybe you can trade favors: a batch of homemade cookies in exchange for a ride to the pet-food warehouse, an hour's worth of weeding as thanks for the loan of a car.

Tips for making car-free more carefree

What else do you need to make this work?

  • Decent shoes. Your feet are now your wheels. Take care of them. Really, I can't stress that enough.
  • A reusable shopping bag. Those store-issued plastic bags tear easily and they're a real pain to carry if the handles rip.
  • A personal grocery cart for serial errands. You might luck into one on Freecycle. You might get lucky, like I did, and find one left by the trash bin on trash day; I washed it down with a bleach-and-water solution and have been using it happily ever since. Note: A wheeled suitcase would also work.
  • Reading material or books for the bus. Some people like noise-canceling headphones.
  • A mental map of toilets. You can't just zoom home, so pay attention to which supermarkets or department stores have easily accessible restrooms.

But will it work for you?

The car-free life isn't right for everyone. People with chronic illnesses or certain disabilities require reliable transportation. Rural folks who live far from stores and services (hi there, Alaskans and Montanans!) usually don't have any public transit choices.

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Some jobs flat-out require wheels (think "outside sales rep"), and some workers live too far away or work too late to make public transit an option. I know a woman who drives 80 miles each way to a four-to-midnight job.

Also, some of you simply don't want to be parted from your cars. (See "A realization," above.) But maybe you could give up one of the two (or three) family cars. Or you could try biking or public transit a couple of times per week - if nothing else, it's good practice for the day your car won't start and needs to be towed to the shop.

For me, carlessness works. I've been happy since giving away the Chevy. In part that's because I no longer have to worry about breakdowns or the rising cost of gas. But it's also because walking gives me a sense of place.

On foot, I've had more conversations with everyone from skateboarders to day laborers hanging around outside Home Depot. I've noticed the freshness of the air, the colors of sunsets, the essence of the days. I've watched the last blackberries soften and shrivel into winey nubs. I've shuffled through fallen oak leaves the way I did when I was a child, delighting in the rustle and the dry fragrance of autumn.

The Car-Free Seattle site quotes Albert Einstein as saying, "To get to know a country, you must have direct contact with the earth. It's futile to gaze at the world through a car window." Well said, Al.

Of course, I don't have direct contact with the earth. I'd look pretty silly clomping down the street with arch supports duct-taped to my bare feet.