How to Live Without a Car

Woman in driver's seat with car keys
tommaso79 /

Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in Living on the Cheap.

Whether it’s to save money, reduce environmental impact, or be safe, many families find themselves living with one car — or none at all. The number tends to increase as the population ages. Cars are useful but expensive; along with the purchase price and monthly payment, you have gas, insurance, maintenance, and parking costs.

Life without a car is not without costs. It’s cheaper than living with a car, but it involves costs you might not think about. Whether you’re thinking about turning in your car or picking up your keys from someone else, knowing what’s involved can help you plan a better experience.

Your location matters

the Washington DC subway
Orhan Cam/

Ideally, you’ll start your car-free life by choosing a place to live. Walk Score is a website that ranks neighborhoods based on walkability and links that information to listings of rental apartments. Currently, my family has one car and three drivers, so someone has to go a day without a car.

However, our neighborhood in Chicago has a Walk Score of 88. It has several public and alternative transportation options (car-sharing, bike-sharing, taxis). It’s an easy walk to four grocery stores, three pharmacies, and lots of bars and restaurants. We lived near Wrigley Field, and on game day it was easier to leave the car at home.

“The key question is not ‘Is this place transit-friendly?’ The question is ‘Do I have the resources I need to get where I need to go, when do I get there?’” says Jason Rothstein, author of “Carless in Chicago.” The main considerations, he says, are going to work or school, buying groceries, and visiting family and friends.

Going carless is much easier if you have time to prepare. “For some people, it may be worth exploring a more transit-friendly neighborhood or city,” says Rothstein. “If $100 more a month rent lets you save $350 a month on car costs, that’s a trade worth considering.”

Being carless is a hassle if you’re not ready

Frustrated female driver in car

With no time to prepare, without a car can be a real pain. Elizabeth Ridley, a writer in suburban Milwaukee, came across that last year. His car needed repairs which he couldn’t afford at the time.

“When my SUV broke down, I was caught between a rock and a hard place. It will cost between $2,000 and $4,000 to fix. I don’t have that kind of money, ”he said. He owed more on the car than its exchange value, so he was stuck making payments for a car he couldn’t drive.

Since Ridley worked at home, it was not his livelihood that was affected by not owning a car, but rather his social life. “There is no such thing as spontaneity in your life anymore,” he says. “If you need to get somewhere, you need to plan well in advance and make sure you have a way to not only get there, but also get back home afterwards.”

He found that friends and family were willing to help, to a certain extent; the problem was not the money for gas (Ridley always offered) but the extra time it took someone to pick him up and bring him home.

Plan before picking up someone’s car

The woman in her rental car
Friends Stock /

Even more complicated if you have to take someone’s car. Many people have older relatives who shouldn’t drive but can’t imagine life without one. Ridley suggests thinking carefully beforehand.

“Think of every situation in which you currently use a car—grocery, laundry, church, socializing, medical and dental appointments, etc., and figure out how each specific problem could be handled without a car,” he says.

It will be easier to convince a loved one to stop driving if you can point out bus listings, ride-sharing options, senior cabs and other resources. And, says Ridley, think about how this trip will be handled in the long term. A neighbor may be willing to offer an occasional ride to church but have not been interested in doing it week after week for years.

Be prepared to go without a car

Vitpho /

Wherever you live your life without a car, you may need some new equipment. We use grandma’s carts and Radio Flyer carts for necessities — with bike locks, parked outside when necessary. We’ve hauled groceries, Christmas trees, and thrift store donations this way.

Second, learn all you can about shipping options. Depending on where you live, grocery stores and restaurants may offer delivery. You can also find people on TaskRabbit who will run tasks for you. Amazon Prime is a great value for those without a car because customers get free two-day shipping on thousands of items; Movies on Demand can help the need for a new source of entertainment.

Third, check the car sharing options. More and more communities have services like ZipCar and Enterprise Car Share. We use this a few times each year when it would be great to have two cars. If one of the drivers needs a car for a two or three day trip, Enterprise’s regular rental service will pick you up and drop you off. Renting a car for a few weekends per month can still save you money.

Rothstein says that giving up the car can mean gaining freedom from worrying about money, but that comes with other costs. “The feeling of control that a car gives you may be largely illusory,” he says, but there will be a transition to life with fewer – or even no – cars.

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