Why We Have One Car: Or, Why We’re Embracing the Frugal(er) Life

I love living in the city and commuting to work by foot. Photo: Teresa Marín/Flickr Creative Commons

I’ve been meaning to write a post about what it’s like to have one car for a while. The other day, someone asked a “how the heck do you manage?”-type question, so I thought I’d share. Maybe not so much the “how,” but more of the “why.”

When my husband’s car broke down last spring, he did what most people do: look for a new car. Not necessarily a brand new car, but a car that was new to him. He was looking in the paper, online, and at lots as he passed by dealerships, large and small.

But I had another idea.

“Let’s try to be a one-car household,” I boldly suggested.

I know so many people doing the same — some by choice, some by circumstance — and, somehow, they always make it work. The idea of one car between two people sounded crazy at first, and I did get some resistance. But we decided to commit to it. I’m able to walk to the small office I rent, and he can then take my car to his job which is on the outskirts of town. If I have an appointment, I’ll either drive him to work or he takes the bus. We live in a city, so this is easier to manage. Being a one-car household would not have been feasible — or as feasible — if we were living in a rural or even suburban area. In the near-year we’ve been sharing a car, we’ve never been stuck. Inconvenienced at times, sure. With city-wide public transportation and a nearby Amtrak station, we have options.

(Sidebar: Will we do this forever? It’d be amazing if we could, but we both know our situation could change and it might, one day, be logistically better to have two cars again — but that’s not the case now — just addressing that here to get in front of questions.)

How we benefit: Having one car saves us money on a second car payment, it saves us on insurance, and, of course, on gas and other related expenses. It frees up funds for household expenses and other obligations, like the car and our student loans (the best investment in yourself, if you ask me, is an education!).

Aside from financial reasons, many people also choose to have one car — or no car — to be greener. This helped the cause. And then there’s health benefits. One of the reasons I moved downtown was for the walkability, and now, since this car episode, I’ve — we’ve — been walking a lot more, either for necessity (to work or to the market) or for random jaunts for an evening or afternoon of entertainment.

But ditching the notion of “two people, two cars” is not the only way we’re being frugal. We also have a very humble abode. We’ve stayed in what we thought would be a “starter apartment” in downtown Lancaster; one of two units inside an old city rowhome. We love the location and generally like the place, but, admittedly, I sometimes feel we’re outgrowing it, mostly because I am a pack-rat and that I run a business that requires storage of physical things. However, downsizing mixed with better home organization will lead to the place feeling more comfortable. But every time we think about moving, we see rents twice as high. Especially for newer places. I’ll sacrifice having a dishwasher and a bedroom big enough for a king-size bed (remember: row home) as long as I can.

(Sidebar: This question comes up sometimes: Yes, I prefer to rent. Home ownership is not on my personal wish list, purely philosophical reasons, probably stemming from a childhood of moving so much. I don’t want to be too tied to anything or any place.)

Simply put:

Cutting down even just a little in a lot of places adds up!

The car and rent are just a few of the “big” ways we’re trying to live a more frugal life, but there are smaller things that really add up — like choosing a neighborhood pub over a fancy restaurant on nights out alone or with friends or eating at home before we go out. Like cutting cable and reading more. Like buying a board game for $50 from which we’ll continue to reap benefits for years to come with friends and family, vs. paying $50 for a new lamp. Oh, and sales and coupons: they work (but this is most effective if you’re using them on things you need!)

When my husband and I travel, or when I go on trips with friends, we camp, stay in hostels, or look for the best value accommodations possible (not necessarily cheapest; there’s a difference). After all, we’re traveling to see and experience things — what our room or hotel looks like is secondary. You’d be amazed how many hundreds of dollars you can save this way!

Despite making steps toward a really frugal life, there is still more we could be doing. Some other tactics I’d like to start doing or doing more of:

  • Borrow books from the library instead of buying everything I want to read
  • Eat at home more
  • Pack more snacks for the road to save money on eating out — like bringing a bottle of water from home vs. stopping at a gas station for a drink
  • Bring lunch more
  • Shop smarter: with just two people, we’ve, at times, wasted more food than I’d like to admit. So not buying in bulk will help. I’m tired of finding the mushy cucumber!
  • Getting shoes and coats and other clothing items repaired. I almost bought a new winter coat this year as my current wool coat (about eight years old) had buttons falling off, ripped pockets, etc. I got it fixed instead.
  • Reusing my napkins. OK. That’s kind of a joke, but I seriously have started to rip napkins in half at home.

I should also point out we’re childless for now; our household budget would be very different if we had someone to care for.

Living Better and Happier (and Perceptions)

Part of living more frugally is being able to live a happier life too. I believe more in moments and experiences more than things. In knowledge more than the material. So we shifted away from buying household decor, new appliances, etc. We have what we need. Sure, from time to time we’ll need things for the house or new sneakers or a coat. But, mostly, we’re now spending our “extra money” on museums, trips, and cultural-type events. We can feel better about these choices knowing that we’re lowering our cost of living to make this stuff possible. We’re lucky that, overall, our regular monthly expenses are already minimal: rent, car, insurance, utilities, student loans — that’s it. No payments for furniture, electronics, etc.

A former co-worker of mine, a woman who has four children, often posts to social media about the things she and her children do to save money, such as making their own soap, meal prepping for the whole week, canning, (OK, and that girly cup thing), etc. This same woman also posts about her exotic travels a lot. I am guessing someone in her life made a snarky comment to her about her travel and parenting — so she posted on Facebook that the reason she can travel and see so much of the world is that she saves money in so many other areas of her life, all while teaching her children lessons about working hard and being resourceful. I admired her words; at the time I was not traveling much, but wanted to. This was a few years ago, and I still see that she posts about her travel and the things she makes herself so she doesn’t have to buy them.

Things are possible when you shift your priorities.

(Updating this section to add that, after I posted this, I shared it with the friend I mentioned above. We chatted a bit about travel, and then she shared the link to this blog post with this comment: “ Sometimes people’s perception of how you live isn’t accurate… it’s just where we place importance in maintaining our quality of life.”)

Still in Progress

We’re by no means living a bare bones life. But we’re way more frugal than we used to be, and it’s making a difference. We can probably cut out more things and do better, but I’ve made strides; we’ve made strides. So this post is meant to one, share what I’ve done to date but, two, to help keep me accountable. There will always be a splurge here and there, and that’s OK. The idea is to make better decisions, more thoughtful decisions, to pause and think before buying, to prioritize what’s important. My goal is to work hard enough to afford our living expenses/bills and have enough (time and money) leftover to enjoy life. And living more simply will allow us to have more leftovers, to enjoy things just a bit more.