Life Without Wheels

Quite a while ago I was planning a post on living without owning a car, and a bunch of posts on the subject hit the blogosphere. Enough time has passed that there might be interest in kicking the topic around again.

I’m in my early 30’s, have had my driver’s license since I was 16, and have never owned a car.

People who have been drivers for a while can’t comprehend the possibility of life without continuous access to their own vehicle. Even in big cities where there are a number of options to get around, it just doesn’t seem like living if you can’t be like R. Kelly and say “I’m about to take my key ‘n’ Stick it in da ignition” (although I suspect their may be a subtext involving more then driving an automobile in this song).

I get around by:

  • Taking the subway / buses – I get a monthly pass when I’m going somewhere every day, and use tokens when I’m working from home for an extend period – $2.75 / trip here in the GTA is an excellent value
  • I fly if I travel long distances, and rent a car if I’m travelling a shorter distance
  • I take a cab when / if I want to go somewhere that isn’t easily reached by public transit (which is VERY rare)

When I consider taking a new job or moving somewhere new, I make sure I can get to the place I need to go by walking or public transit. Paying $50 or $100 more for a place near work or campus is MUCH cheaper then getting a car.

When calculating the cost of owning a car, don’t forget issues such as:

  • finance charges
  • maintenance
  • gas
  • insurance
  • parking
  • having to give rides to deadbeat friends like Mr. Cheap

These can add SUBSTANTIALLY to the sticker price of a vehicle.

Some time ago on Wooly Woman’s blog I answered a question a woman had about cutting her expenses by suggesting that her and her husband’s financial problems would disappear if they got rid of their two cars. I never got a response from her.

During my Masters most of my friends were grad students from China, and they were often able to live very frugal lives in Canada. The one thing most of them were willing to splurge on was to get a car (which they told me would be VERY expensive back home).

Ultimately, as much as getting rid of a car would probably make drivers’ financial lives easier, it’s the sort of thing you just can’t give up. Kind of like asking someone to not have sex: it may work for virgins, but good luck getting someone to stop after they’ve started.

I’m hoping to stay a car owner virgin for life.

24 replies on “Life Without Wheels”

I’ve never owned a car either (or gotten a drivers license, I hate cars/traffic/etc), although my husband brought his beaten up mitsubishi from the US and uses it sometimes. It’s not exactly an imposition to be carless in a city like this, and is a truly enormous money (and sanity) saver.

I remember at one point when I worked in NY someone asked to borrow a car and we realized that nobody on the entire floor owned one! There was talk here at my current place of work last year about makin everyone buy cars for attending meetings out in the sticks and there was almost a riot …. needless to say, that request went away quickly.

By taking a job on the subway line last year I was able to remove thousands of dollars of gas/maintenance costs. I think a lot of people don’t realize just how expensive their cars are.

I lived without a car for a while and it was surprisingly manageable, unfortunately it doesn’t work nearly as well if you’re in the suburbs.

I own a car that’s 12 years old–do the oil changes on it and much of the maintenance on it myself so upkeep is minimal. It’s a convertible sports car that I adored driving for many years. Now, I rarely drive it since I’ve made a point of living close to my employer and walking/cycling (summer) to work or taking the bus (winter). Getting groceries or other supplies requires planning but the bonus is I think hard before putting something in the cart since I’ll have to carry it, so spending is reduced. The past year has been a turning point for me where I’m thinking of selling the car altogether–cutting that cord & go car-less is tough to do, not because a car is convenient (I haven’t even used it since last summer) but because I’m having difficulty seeing myself as a no-car person. It sits in the driveway–as a security blanket–and provides a sense of belonging in a world where having a car is “essential”. When I look ahead, I know it’ll be gone from my life this year, but it has been several years coming to this point. I understand why people can’t imagine not having a car, and also understand why people think cars aren’t a necessity. Crossing over to the no-car way of life means making alterations, not only in your lifestyle, but your perception of yourself and what’s important.

I’ve been driving my 2002 car since i purchased it in 2004. Recently we sunk about 2600CDN in to it to get some major work done (When I say recently, I mean this Monday that just passed). Yesterday when my spouse was driving it, the oil pump failed and there is possibly engine damage which could result in a rebuild which could cost between 2-5K depending on where the damage is and what’s been effected. This puts me in the situation of possibly just ditching it, selling it for 2 grand to recoup some of my recent maintenance cost and going without a car.

My problem is that with two kids that need to be picked up, one spouse working in the next town over (no public transport), and nothing left for the emergency we’re in a really tough spot. She could possibly leave her job and care for the kids and I could bus to work, but then she’ll probably go stir crazy and spend all the extra cash at the mall anyway, everything will have to be planned, no more spontaneous “Lets go to the skating rink/park/out for pizza/beach” since everything has to be planned down to the minute for public transit.

Here’s hoping that it’s only my oil pump that failed and it will just be around 600 bucks, and not 2-5 grand plus 600 bucks 🙂

As someone who can’t live without a car, I have to say that although I think not having a car is a great way to save a LOT of money if you can do it – I’ve seen quite a few non-car people who are so cheap that they end up missing out on things because they won’t even take a cab or rent a car.

I think if you are going to be car-free you have to be prepared to spend a little bit of money on cabs and rentals.


One of my good friends in New York has kids and no car. They just take the subway or walk to school/football practice/whatever, no big deal. His one piece of advice for me, however, is that it’s better when you have all boys (as he does) – because you can’t have a daughter pee in a bottle in the corner of the platform during an emergency 🙂

I haven’t owned a car in 13 years. 🙂
You identified the key to successfully living without a car by working somewhere accessible via transit, bike, or carpool. Also, I only live near grocery stores and walk to the store and back home loaded with groceries. Not only do I save huge dollars from not owning a car, but I am fitter and healthier too. The other neat advantage of not owning a car is I am less likely to buy crap on impulse. It’s very hard to splurge on something if you can’t get it home easily. Being car free takes a little planning, but for me the benefits have been astounding on my bank account and fitness level.

A great deal depends on where you live. When we were in Vancouver we neither needed a car, nor did we want one. Living in the Okanagan now where public transit is really in its infancy, in order to really take advantage of an active lifestyle it is pretty tough to get by with no vehicle at all. Still, we do our best to keep costs minimized. We share one vehicle (Toyota Yaris) between us, and 7 months out of the year I bike to work, while my wife takes the bus to work year round. We average just over 10,000 KM between us in mileage so gas costs are fairly minimal, especially considering the fuel efficiency of the Yaris. Now if only they could come up with an auto insurance system where your insurance costs were prorated by the distance you drove in a given year!

One important about not owning a car, or getting rid of it, is that you actually need to be more aware of what’s available in your community. Walking around, you might be surprised of little shops you never noticed before.

Furthermore, walking is healthy.

But CC is right, it all depends on location.


I think another factor is your interests.

If you like to play hockey, golf, visit friends who don’t live in the area, visit relatives (especially their cottages) on a regular basis then not having a car might not work.


What a great post. I attribute my ‘car virgin’ status as one of the biggest contributors to my savings rate of 80%+ of my income. I do a walk/bus combo in the winter (winter is lovely if you dress well for it) and have a 40 min beautiful bike ride to work along nature paths through the other seasons. Not having a car guarantees that I’ll get exercise everyday and I’m happier and healthier for it – not to mention that I’m on track to ‘retire’ around age 35! Three cheers for a car-free life!

Question though- in order not to have a car in the GTA, you need to live near public transit which means pricer real estate. Do you trade off savings in car expenses with higher rent/mortgage (the flip side though is you live in the burbs what you save in real estate is consumed by gas- guess you can’t win!)?

I use to subway it to work all the time. My new office dictates that I drive. You never really know how much cars really cost you once you have to drive every single day…

In 1932 somebody gave 12 dollars to take their car and I’ve been driving it ever since, exchanging oil changes for free lint from my drier with the retarded boy next door. And I’m rich!

How did I get rich? By not living anywhere! That’s right! I beat up a homeless guy and took his cardboard suitcase, stuffed it full of my belongings — mostly soiled underpants stolen from other homeless guys, and I live in a ditch! The savings I put into an account, and I am now a millionaire. Most of the other skells at the shelter don’t believe me, but it’s true!

So, follow my lead and learn to live the good life and you too will be able to look down on the home owning, car driving, new clothes wearing impoverished souls that don’t know any better!

So, just an update for anyone who is interested. I just sunk 2600 after tax in to my car to do a ton of suspension/brake/wheel work and a nice set of 4 tires. 4 days later my oil pump failed while running at highway speed . . . engine is destroyed. Cost of a used engine plus labour to put it in is quoted at 3600 + all the fluids that will be needed. That’s 6200, when my car is worth probably 7 grand anyway . . . but since I’m already half way through I don’t have much of a choice.

Here’s hoping nothing else catastrophic goes wrong between now and 2012, my estimated ‘new to me’ car date (when mine is 10 years old).

Freedom is worth more to me than living on someone else’s schedule.

The transit in this major city is garbage. Good luck if you need to get somewhere on the weekend (wait 1-2 hours for a bus that ends at 6:00PM, whee!).

My car + gas + insurance is less than a transit pass here ($80). And I can go where I like, WHEN I like. Good luck waiting for the bus in -40 degree like we had this winter.

I haven’t taken transit in 20+ years, and never (hopefully) have to!

40 minute bike ride to work? Jeez, your poor c0-workers! You must really be ‘ripe’ for work after that!

(I’d send you home if you showed up after a 40 minute bike ride).

I agree with Plop, unless you live very close to work ( < 20-30 minutes walking) in most areas a car is needed. In my case my GF’s job is around 18KM away, but at highway speed it takes you just about 12 minutes to get there. If you walked 3KM/h you could get there instead in 6 hours, or bike at 25KM/h at around 45 minutes.

Looking at my situation I’ve spent probably 9000 on my car, and purchased it for 12600, and probably paid 1K in finance charges until I paid it off, we pay 50 bucks a week for gas, and 125 a month for insurance; another 4100 a year over 4 years or 12400.

That puts my cost at 35000 over 4 years, or 8750/ year. It would be much less had we not blown an engine, but it can happen to anyone. Once my work is done I could probably sell it for 7 grands, for a total cost of ownership of 28000 or 7000 per year.

Now since there is no good public transit between my spouses work and here, and the fact that a taxi from here to there is 18 bucks each way, or 36 bucks a day and she works 3 days a week there, just her cabs alone would come to 5616 a year. Plus cabs when we get groceries once a week, or another 520 a year, for 6136. Add in me taking a cab to work twice a month for weather, and the bus every other day (240 + 300 for cabs and buses) we’re at 6676.

This doesn’t count that we can now hop in the car and go to the park/beach/visit friends and the like any time we like, the net profit from not having the car looks like around 324 bucks a year, or 2074 bucks a year is you don’t include the sales cost. That’s 27 – 172 bucks a month depending on how you want to calculate it.

So, just the same as the argument of rent vs own, RRSP vs Mortgage vs TFSA, or any of these individual cases it comes down to a personal choice. Depending on what things you count and what things your situation costs in each case, as well as an emotional side which can’t really be quantified all plays the roll of ‘Is it worth it to you?’.

P.S. What happens when you go away for a week and rent a car? That’s going to cost you 275 for the rental and 25 bucks a day for insurance 175, plus tax or around 500 bucks . . . just for a week away. For us on ‘the inside’ it’s just an extra 40 bucks of gas.

Traciatim – I agree with you. Unless you like staying home all the time or you live in a big city near a good transportation loop then living without a car is tough.


My family and I live in Waterloo, Ontario in the suburban part of town, about 5 km from downtown. We are leasing a Toyota and my husband uses it during the day so during the day, I have no access to a vehicle. Most people on our street seem to have two cars and although there are two bus lines a short walk from here, each runs only once every half an hour, i.e. four buses/hour. Not very convenient, when you consider there is no direct route to my kids` karate lessons. Consequently, we end up taking taxis frequently, and I`ve been adding up the total amount we spend on taxis per month. Usually comes out to be more than $100/month but less than $200 most months. This would be a lot cheaper than owning/leasing a second car because right now we are paying $590/month for lease, $180/month for insurance; that`s already $770 and the rest is gas. So we`re paying probably around $900/month! Imagine leasing a second car!
It would be really expensive!

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