Surviving the Suburbs with One Car - Keep Thrifty

Surviving the Suburbs with One Car

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One year ago we sold our Toyota Prius and officially became a one-car family. Many families in the city make due with one car or even go car-free. What about us in the suburbs though? It seems like a tall order for a family of five.

I’ve talked a bit before about how we’re perfectly happy with just one car but haven’t yet described how we’ve made it work for the last 12 months. It’s not always easy but by the time you’re done reading this, you might just decide that it’s worth giving the one-car lifestyle a shot.

Motivation for the One-Car Lifestyle

At the start of 2011, we purchased a new Toyota Prius to replace my wife’s car that was on its last legs. At the time, we only had one kid and had planned to stagger our next two kids to be born in 2012 and 2014. That meant we could wait until 2014 before we had to upgrade to a “family” vehicle, right?

God had different plans. When we found out that my wife was pregnant with twins in the fall of 2011 our car plans accelerated and we bought a second new car, a Dodge Grand Caravan, in February of 2012.

We were all set for seating the kids but our finances took a hit. We had planned on having an extra couple years to save up for the minivan so we ended up taking out a loan for over $21,000. Youch. At least we got 0% APR.

Yes, we can talk about the insanity of buying two brand new cars but we’ll save that for another post. This was a part of our financial education :)

Fast forward two years and our life had changed drastically. My wife was now a stay-at-home mom and we had three active, giggly toddlers. We also still had about $13,000 left on our loan.

One day, my wife asked an unexpected question - What if we sold the car and paid off our loan? We could probably make things work with just one car and it’d make our finances so much better.

If you’ve read my prior posts, you know that my wife has a tendency to come up with some pretty amazing outside-the-box suggestions for our life.

Beyond paying off our loan, we’d be saving on insurance and registration (about $700 a year) and it would hopefully force us to drive less as it would make driving way less convenient.

What we did need to figure out was the logistics of actually making this work for our family. After all, I had to get to work and my wife had errands and activities to do with our kids…

A One-Car Experiment

Before any big life change, the best thing you can do is test how well you handle the change with an experiment.

If you stress-test the boundaries and experiment with the “impossibles,” you’ll quickly discover that most limitations are a fragile collection of socially reinforced rules you can choose to break at any time.

Tim Ferriss

So, we boldly dedicated to parking our Toyota Prius in the garage and committing solely to our Dodge Grand Caravan.

That’s right - if we were going to only drive one car in the suburbs, it was going to be a minivan. It doesn’t get much more suburban than that :)

CD cover for Rockin' the Suburbs by Ben Folds

We're rockin' the suburbs...just like Jon Bon Jovi did. (From Wikipedia, Fair use)

The real reason behind choosing the minivan was car seats. While it’s possible to fit three car seats in the back row of a Toyota Prius, you have to buy just the right kind. We didn’t have that foresight when we’d bought our car seats years before.

In addition, we knew we would be utilizing the carrying capacity of our minivan to haul donations to Goodwill and Habitat for Humanity, as well as to bring home purchases of materials from the hardware store for our remodeling projects.

Practicality won the day. Fuel efficiency lost.

We both really loved driving our Prius and the gas mileage was amazing. The drop from 50 MPG to 25 when we switched to the minivan for the experiment was a bit painful from the financial and environmental perspectives. That said, we still believed in the overall improvement of going down to one car; the minivan worked best for our family of five.

For three months, we left our Toyota Prius sitting idle in the garage, pretending as if it didn’t exist. It wasn’t a simple adjustment though - we had to be much more organized and intentional.

Logistics and the Big Lesson

Between my full-time job and the kids activities and errands my wife needed to get to on a weekly basis, we needed a plan for how to share the car in a way that would get us all where we needed to go without tearing our hair out.

On days where my wife needed the car, we would pack up all three kids and drive together to my job. My wife and kids would then head home or to their first activity of the day. At the end of the workday, she’d pack the kids up and come pick me up again.

I know - doing things this way means we’re doubling up the mileage multiple days a week. Now would be a good time to mention that it’s only a 8-mile drive to my office. Even if we doubled up our mileage 5 days a week, it’d only be an extra $500 in gas each year (even accounting for the MPG difference). That’s still less than the savings on insurance and registration alone.

Beyond this, we had plenty of days where I’d drive myself so we could save on the extra mileage and give my wife a break from packing the kids up an extra couple times.

In the three months we experimented with one car, we learned two major lessons:

  1. Preparation is the best counter to convenience
  2. As with most things in marriage, communication is key

Having two cars made it way too easy to not have to prepare for the week ahead. All it took was a doctor’s appointment on a Tuesday or an early-morning meeting to throw our schedule out-of-whack.

We had to adjust to build our schedules around our car arrangement instead of building our car arrangement around our schedules.

I worked to schedule my early meetings on days where I’d be driving myself so my wife and kids didn’t have to get up and sit in a cold car for 20 minutes.

My wife adjusted appointments for days where she’d have the car and found local activities for the days where she and the kids were carless.

Up for Sale

After three months, we were satisfied with our progress and put the car up for sale. We looked up the blue book value and posted it online at 2/3 the price we had paid for it just 3 years before.

Our Toyota Prius, up for sale

We only got one offer and it was for thousands less than our listing.

Depreciation sucks

After a few months, we took down the listing and went back to driving two cars.

We still had the idea of a one-car lifestyle floating in our heads - we just needed to find the right timing.

Making the Sale

Fast-forward to December of 2015 and we got an unexpected call from some good friends of ours. Hey, are you guys still thinking about selling your Prius?

It’d been over a year since our experiment, but there was a part of us that had been hoping for the opportunity to get out of our loan and down to one car for good.

Our friends came over for a test-drive, we agreed on a fair price and in January of 2016, we made it official.

That said, a lot had changed since our experiment. We now had three kids in school. Could we manage the logistics?

A Year of One-Car Living

Because we had known our friends were interested for a few weeks before they bought the car, we once again used an experiment to test how ready we were for the big change. We once again locked the Prius up in our garage and pretended like it didn’t exist.

Picking up from our lessons in the first experiment, we talked about the rules for sharing the car:

  • I re-scheduled meetings for days where my wife didn’t need to drive our twins to pre-school. Our oldest was in 4-year-old kindergarten a short distance from our house, so she was able to walk her to and from school on those days
  • We planned for bad weather days (rain and extreme cold) to be days where I’d get a ride to work from my wife and kids. Walking to school with wet, frozen toddlers is no fun
  • In cases where I’m stranded at work without a car and need to get home, I can Uber it and be home within 30 minutes

Those rules have stood the test of time, getting us through the last 12 months without major incident. I’ve snagged a couple rides with co-workers and had to use Uber a few times, but overall we’ve been able to manage the one-car lifestyle with our simple ruleset and loads of communication.

To maintain our one-car lifestyle and savings, we’ll have to adjust as changes come up - our kids will transition to new schools, my work schedule may change based on working with our international teams, etc.

But overall, by planning ahead, communicating, and setting up the basic rules, I’m confident we’ll be able to manage.

One of the most exciting things for me will be when our county completes the bike path between my town and the office I work at. I’d bike to work now, but the backroads don’t have shoulders so safety is a big question. Once the path is built, our one-car lifestyle should get even easier as I can bike to work, saving gas and getting extra exercise.

Of course, that begs the question - what’s next?

A Zero Car Future?

When my employees discovered that we had downsized to one car, they jokingly asked me if our next step was to drop to zero cars. My answer? I hope so

While it may not be immediately next, it’s certainly something I think we can and will achieve in the next 10-15 years. With the rapid development of self-driving cars, I’m hopeful that our family can get to the point where we don’t even need to own a car.

Who knows - if we get to that point, maybe our next big move will to be a zero-garage family in the suburbs :)

So, now I’ll throw it to you. Have you decided to live in a way that’s different from those around you? How did you do it? Otherwise, what’s your car situation? Are you rockin’ the suburbs?