Q: I just bought a brand-new pickup truck last year when my commute was only about three miles. I chose the truck because I’ve always preferred to drive a truck, but also to tow some toys and do dump runs. I’d really like to [keep] the truck, but now my commute [is] about 30 miles round trip. The truck averages 16 mpg. Do you think the [better mpg] and keeping miles off the truck warrants buying a cheap commuter car for around $3,000? — Michael
A: No, I don’t think a second commuter car is warranted — at least in your situation.
I created a quick spreadsheet to test my gut reaction. If your commute were 30 miles each way (60 round trip) and you bought a commuter car for $3,000 that gets 35 mpg, at current gas prices you might break even with the second car in about three years. But with only 30 miles round trip, after insurance, taxes, and maintenance, you would only be saving about $142 a year and it would take 21 years to break even on the second car!
What’s important to remember in this calculation is that the purchase price of a second car is only part of the picture; you must also consider insurance, excise taxes, and maintenance costs.
You mention you don’t want to add the miles to your new truck, but a 30-mile round trip commute isn’t that bad. For example, if you commuted five days a week, 48 weeks a year, that’s 7,200 miles. Depending on how much you drive the truck for personal reasons, your total annual mileage should fall in the average range of 10,000 to 15,000 miles a year.
Although racking up the miles faster can lead to more maintenance costs, hopefully you’ll keep the truck long enough that you won’t be worried about additional depreciation. If you trade your truck in three to five years, obviously the more miles you put on, the less you will get back – but buying new and trading after only a few years is almost always a bad financial play (even when the car has lower-than-average miles).
So when might it make sense to buy a second car for commuting?
If your commute is longer, for one: with a 60-mile round trip (and certainly a 100-mile commute), the savings start to materialize.
The other scenario in which buying a commuting car would make sense is if gas prices hit $10. In that case, you’ll break even on the second car in just two years. (Even with gas at $5 a gallon — with a 30-mile round trip commute — it will still take six years to break even).
Of course the other option is to sell the truck and replace it with a more fuel-efficient car, but I don’t think that’s a great route either, at least right now. Buying a new car becomes a terrible move if you trade it so quickly that you take a bath in off-the-lot depreciation. Secondly, you like driving the truck and use for other things – and there is value to that, regardless of what the beancounters say. If however, in a few years you still have this commute and are tired of $100 fill-ups, it may be time to swap your ride.
That’s my take, but I’m curious to hear what other readers have to say. Have you ever had a second car for commuting? Traded in a truck or SUV for something with better mpg? Would you do it again, or was it more trouble that it was worth? Please share in a comment.