November 18, 2012

One Car or Two or None: What Have You Decided?


I receive a small, but steady stream of e-mails asking for my opinion on how many automobiles a satisfying retirement requires. Usually that request is followed by a description of what that person or couple is doing in this regard. I'm not sure if they would like me to validate their choice or give them an argument to make a change. 

Of course, for millions of folks this is a silly question. The great recession of the past few years means the answer has been decided by other forces. Through repossession, the inability to afford insurance, because of a lifestyle change, or conscious decision to make do in other ways, being car-less is a way of life for millions. There are approximately 260 million cars registered in the U.S. But, I could find no reliable figure of how many folks are making do without one, either by choice or due to circumstances. AAA cites studies that show the typical American spends close to one-fifth of his or her income on maintaining cars.

Obviously, what others are doing shouldn't affect your decision. A happy retirement lifestyle is built on making choices that are right for you. Last week's post, A Satisfying Retirement is Simple....Sort of, detailed what I have done to cut back and make my lifestyle conform to what makes me happiest. That post did note that Betty and I  have two cars because of where we live and our schedules. At this stage of our retirement two cars simplify our life. So, I am not the person to tell you to cut back to one car or none at all. Only you can make that decision.

However, being the helpful cuss I am I did a little research on what others are saying on this subject. There is general agreement that most communities in America make it very difficult to be completely car-less. One article claims there are only a handful of urban areas with enough population density to fully support sharing autos or having mass transit in and around the downtown area. Many cities have buses or light rail available, but those systems are highly subsidized and usually underutilized.

In those situations several sites had a reasonable suggestion: develop neighborhoods with many regular shopping needs close enough for walking. In other situations a car would be needed for convenient travel but used much less than is typical today. Unfortunately, this would require re-engineering present neighborhoods or building new ones from scratch since single family homes on larger lots in areas zoned for only residential building makes walking a problem.

Here are links to two excellent overviews of being car-less, why to do it, and how it can be done:

*Living without a car

*Commuting and getting around without your own car

For now let's assume that you don't want to be car-less but are struggling with whether you can have a happy retirement lifestyle with one car versus two. I can describe our situation and see if that helps you decide.

Still being relatively young retirees (63 for me and 58 for Betty) we have separate volunteer and church commitments that cause conflicts. A good example is my monthly trip to the prison in northwest Arizona. On those days a car is gone from the house from 6 in the morning until 7 at night. Betty and I think leaving her alone for 13 hours without a car is both dangerous and too inconvenient for her.

On other days of a typical week she has a church meeting that consumes all morning. True, I can schedule my needs around that or could drive her to and from church though that would take an hour out of my morning.

When one car is being repaired we don't have to commit to one of us sitting at the the service center for several hours. Yes, most offer a way to take us home but I have found them time consuming and inconvenient. Having a second car solves that problem.

Betty and I both agree that having a car available when we need or want it is important to our sense of freedom and control. Being retired means we spend 24/7 together. Having the ability for "me" time and not having to coordinate everything with the partner means there are times when we don't have to be joined at the hip.

It also helps that both cars are long since paid for. Gas, maintenance, registration and insurance still means a few thousand dollars per year per car. But, at least for now, our budget can handle those expenses. Having the freedom of separate cars makes those costs a worthwhile investment for us.

The RV impacts our decision


When will this change? Betty and I have discussed this and I think we are on the same page. When the older of the two cars becomes too expensive to keep, we will probably buy another car for a very particular purpose: to be towed behind the RV. With us planning on being on the road at least 3 months of every year, being without a car while traveling is too restrictive.

As I have learned a little too late (!), our older car cannot be towed unless it is on a dolly. Based on my Internet research towing with a dolly presents several specific and expensive challenges that I won't detail here but make it a poor choice for us. So, all this says we will be a two car family for the foreseeable future.

There is one possible change to this scenario. We will be buying two bikes and taking them with us on RV trips. If we find they are sufficient for most of our local transportation needs that might make a towable car unnecessary. We are also open to using local buses, taxis, or even renting a car for a day if necessary on those times when a bike just isn't practical. 

Our bottom line is we are a two car family and plan on being one for the next several years. It is an investment in our happiness.

What's your take on this subject? What have you done? Would you like to cut back or even eliminate an automobile from your life? As I noted, this subject does interest folks so the more input and ideas the better.


35 comments:

  1. I hope we can be a one car family in retirement by strategically choosing where to live. We'll see if that works out though.

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  2. Living somewhere that support a one car lifestyle is essential to making it work. Also, you and your spouse have to be good at compromise and accommodation. I guarantee there will be times when two people "need" a car at the same time.

    Betty and I may consider either downtown Phoenix or Tempe for our next move. Both do allow for a one car existence without too many problems.

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  3. I am recently retired; my spouse still has a part-time job. We have debated about one car or two, but even though we live close to shopping & my spouse uses the bus a lot, we are in a semi-rural area of California. We've concluded it's not feasible for us now (& we don't plan on moving; we are happy here.)

    The other factor is independence. I spent a lot of years working, meaning that I followed other folks' schedules; I enjoy the idea of taking off when & where I want (even though I don't do that a lot.) My spouse was without a car for a year or so, living in a VERY rural area; he also values the ability to be free to drive when & if he wants.

    We also spend a fair amount of our income on insurance. I don't consider it excessive, because I value the peace of mind feeling that we are covered for emergencies. We also drive small, inexpensive vehicles, one totally paid for, one a few years away from paid for. Both cars should give us 100,000 to 200,000 more relatively trouble free miles. We'll probably re-evaluate when one goes down.

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    1. Sounds as though you have thought all of this through very well. Betty and I both came to the same conclusion about freedom. For now it is worth the expense.

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  4. We are a two car family and have no intention of doing away with one until one of us is unable to drive. Both of our vehicles are paid for and have been for quite some time. When we have to replace, we plan to pay cash...don't intend to pay the bank while earning so little interest on what we have. We live in a very rural area and the nearest little town is seven miles away with no gas or groceries...we must usually travel twenty miles to do any shopping, etc. My husband likes his independence and so do I. We use our truck here on the farm also....that is our second vehicle. When I am off doing my volunteer activities, he isn't "stranded" at home. When he goes for coffee or his other activities, I don't care to be "stranded" either. This is what works for us...not necessarily right for others...but right for us. Wish we had things within walkable distance..but this is "home" and we have been used to it our entire married life...probably not going to change.

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    1. I can imagine the hassle involved in being 20 miles from town with only one vehicle.

      Like you we buy our cars for cash. We usually buy used. A new car loses up to 30% of its value as soon as it drives off the lot. Today's cars are so well built that a welmaintaineded used car should last for many years.

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  5. We lived with a single car for almost twenty years-with children-and found the inconvenience to be minimal for the overall benefits. We added a second car as our children entered the latter part of teenage hood and could drive. It required a little scheduling on occasion, but int he long term it worked out and well outweighted the inconveniences. I have a car now. Once youve been carless or semi carless, you will question the "need" to drive or leave, especially for minor reasons.

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    1. Hi Barb,

      I'm glad you chimed in. The "need" that those of us with two cars is expressing is really a "want." Could Betty and I make it with only one? Yes. We are clearly making a choice based on convenience. But is certainly not a need.

      Thanks, Barb.

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  6. It all depends on where you live. City or suburbs or exurbs. We live in a city where a car is unnecessary. We have one at the moment. It sits in the garage in our building for most of the time. I could easily get rid of it but my husband is not ready to let go of the car. I would rather rent out our space and have the extra income but I don't think that will happen as long as my husband has a say.
    I once thought I wanted to retire to Tucson but after visiting a few times, I see now that I wouldn't thrive there due to all the driving that is necessary. I couldn't stand it as I hate driving. I love being able to walk to the store, walk to the library etc.
    I think I am quite used to living without a car since in the 70's and 80's I lived in Key West where you also don't need a car.

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    1. Ah, one of my favorite places: Key West. 4 square miles and no car needed. You are so right about Tucson. It is even worse than Phoenix in terms of convenient public transportation. It is very tough to live in the desert southwest without a car, especially in the summer.



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    2. Hi, Roberta (and Bob)...

      Definitely, WHERE one lives is the key.

      My father was able to give up his car in his early 70's because he lives in Miami's urban core. That city has a metrorail and an extensive bus system which have enabled my Dad to get to practically anywhere he wants to in the city without having to stand at bus corners forever. He does that even now that he is 93 (92?). And did I mention that both the metrorail and the buses are free for seniors?

      Cheers!

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  7. We live in a suburb of Seattle. We have two cars and a truck! We really do need two vehicles for the times our schedules are different, but most of the mileage now goes on my husband's 2005 Prius, while my 1998 Accord sits in the garage. The truck, a 1998 Ranger, is used mostly for hauling or as a loaner.

    I suspect that we'll go to one car when one of our current ones wears out. But maybe not. It's not much of a financial issue for us since all three vehicles are paid for and in good running order.

    It would be hard for us to go carless - public transportation here is not nearly adequate.

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    1. Putting most of the mileage on the Prius is a smart decision. Plus, your vehicles are "nicely" aged...good for you. Being 14 years old the insurance costs and registration fees must be low, too.

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  8. I'm embarrassed to admit, we have three cars, for no other reason than B has had a lifelong dream to drive a convertible. When her last son graduated from college, she went over to the VW place and bought herself an Eos. She loves it!

    But in the end, we don't drive any more miles because we have an extra car. We don't use any more gas. We just have an extra vehicle sitting around the driveway.

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    1. I had a convertible for a few years and loved it. It is as close as I'll ever get to the wind-in-the hair feeling of a motorcycle.

      Betty's car is driven less than 5,000 miles a year and is 10 years old so it isn't much of an expense except for the insurance. I think last year's registration was $40.

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  9. Can't see us going to one car anytime in the near future. I work and travel, while Deb is retired with friends and appts. Even when I retire down the road it probably will not change things much, particularly since we are 8 miles or so from town. We also have two motorcycles and I don't see that changing anytime soon, either. Does it cost more? Of course. Is it worth it? Absolutely.

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    1. We all make choices, based on resources, needs, and desires. As long as a vehicle serves a purpose, whether as a necessity or for enjoyment and it can be afforded, then no problem.

      I know at least one couple, though, that maintains two cars because of what they perceive they are "supposed" to have. The second car rarely leaves the garage. In that case, there needs to be an attitude adjustment.

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  10. Bob,

    We have always had two cars and will continue to do unless the day comes that we can no longer afford them.

    Malcolm has the "wind in your hair" car and I have the practical one, but we both "need," yes I say "need" the freedom of not having to share just one. I can't haul flowers and mulch in his and driving down A1A on a Sunday afternoon in mine isn't exactly an exhilarating experience. So for now...

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    1. So for now....you have made the best choice!

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  11. We have mostly had two cars during the 38 years of our marriage but I am tired of having a car. I am tired of the up keep and I can do the things I need to do when my husband is home from work. I am getting older and I could stay home more as far as I am concerned. I can also use the bus if I really need to or my bike which I have bought baskets for so I can shop while out on it. Transportation for the public in So Cal is not great but it isn't bad either. I think as the next 4 years progresses it will get better.

    In reading your article I realized just for insurance and gas I am spending over $2,000 a year for the car, that does not include tires, tune-up, and oil changes. Nor does it include my time to keep it clean which is a big problem for me. I am seriously thinking of talking to my husband about getting rid of my car.

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    1. I just added up the cost of my cars after reading your figure, and guess what, we are very much alike. The 10 year old car costs $1900 a year...exactly the same as the 4 year old car. The difference? Repairs on the older car are much higher even though the insurance and registration are lower.

      Do we get $158 a month worth of use from the older car? It sits in the garage 95% of the time. But that 5% helps keep Betty happy so it is worth the expense!

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  12. We have 2 very different vehicles, that are for very different functions. We have a nice Subaru Outback that gets great mileage and has 4WD to take to the snow and 95% of our daily driving. We have a full size van that we use for hobbies, projects, dogs, camping, moving furniture and for very short trips. It gets low mpg but is driven fewer than 2000 miles a year. The van replaced a Suburban that was 20 years old with 70,000 miles on it.
    By the way, you get very little trade in value on a low mileage vehicle if it is old! The Suburban was our RV for many years, but I wanted to sell it before something expensive needed replacement that exceeded the value of the truck.
    Dr Keith

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    1. My wife's 10 year old car would probably get us less than $1,000 as a trade-in though I might be able to sell it privately for a bit more. We are likely to drive it into the ground. After all I just put a $600 timing belt in it.

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  13. We went to one car before Dave even retired. He realized in March that he hadn't put gas in his car since his last trip back from the shore in Nov.! Clearly it was ridiculous to pay insurance for a car so unnecessary.

    There are only a few times a year we find it a problem and we have many alternatives. There's Zip Car here in the city which is very easy to use for short time frames. Our public transportation is excellent, even between the city and the shore, so having two cars makes no sense.

    I can't imagine having only one car in the suburbs so I'm curious how you'll work this out.
    b

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    1. We are committed to two cars for now. The independence is worth the extra cost. But, if we had other options I would welcome them.

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    2. I have no idea how I posted as the blogstress network. I guess I didn't sign out when I was working on the blog. oops.

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  14. we have a good car, paid for and an old truck paid for....we use the good car for travel to and from store etc. i use the older turck for hualing wood we burn wood and i do small carpenter jobs so the truck is handy, i bought t he turck new back in 01 and just keep using it...both run good and i do not see us going to one car anytime soon...been retired three years....kind of...:) ronaldj

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    1. Having cars completely paid for is a great feeling, isn't it, Ron. As I noted above, the 10 year old car isn't worth enough as a trade-in or for sale so we'll keep it as long as it is safe to drive.

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  15. I have the "wind in my hair" car. Hubby has the "haul around the dogs and tools" truck and a "wind in your hair (helmet)" motorcycle. We will be a three vehicle family until we move into a town. We have gone without a car - or just had one- for about half of our marriage. We would not mind getting there again. . Kansas charges an outrageous vehicle tax! Between those fees and gas, insurance and maintenance- we are ready to go car free.
    I used a Zip car in DC while staying there a year ago. That was GREAT! Use it for a day- dedicated parking spot- electric. I see that as a growing industry.

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    1. If someone is not commuting to work a typical car sits, unused, for 95% of the day. Then, a Zip car makes all the sense in the world. Phoenix has yet to offer such a service but someone will eventually make it available.

      I hope that when our 10 year old car becomes too expensive to keep running we will figure out how to make one car work. I would love to spend the $1900 a year we spend on that car on something else.

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  16. We are a one car family with two drivers, me and my daughter. The car is nine years old. She can take the car to school and to take her son to daycare, but otherwise she relies on public transportation. Now that she's moving out, but still close by, we're trying to figure out how to continue sharing one car. Wish us luck on that one! Janette's comment above about Zip cars is great. We have lots here in Portland. Two are parked within easy walking distance of my house, so that might be something that my daughter and I can explore. Good topic!

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    1. Shared cars, like Zip cars, will be an important choice in the future. Why be solely responsible for the maintenance and registration of a car that sits unused 150 hours a week? I have read reports that younger folks (meaning under 25) are less likely to want their own car. The expenses are simply out of line with the use.

      You and Mia, one car, different houses, and different schedules. Sounds like a blog post to me!

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  17. We moved to a new home with a two-and-a-half car garage, and went from two care to one. Our new home is a short walk from our son's home. He has a truck and his fiancee owns a hatchback. Even though we're in a rural area (five miles to the nearest small town) one car works well for us. We can depend on the kids for help when we need car repairs or an emergency trip when the beautiful wife or I are using the car. We save a bundle of money. We had two cars for 30 years. One car equals common sense and happiness in our situation.

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    1. I'll have Betty read your comment! I think we could easily make one car work, but she isn't convinced yet.

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