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Q&A: Should I Buy A Second ‘Commuter’ Car With Better MPG For My Long Daily Drive?

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!

Does your long commute warrant a second commuting car? It depends.

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.

Published or updated on August 21, 2012

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About David Weliver

David Weliver is the founding editor of Money Under 30. He's a cited authority on personal finance and the unique money issues we face during our first two decades as adults. He lives in Maine with his wife and two children.


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  1. Laura says:

    My husband and I are having a major disagreement about whether I should buy a commuter car. I commute 400-500 miles per week (100 miles per day) round trip. We have 4 children, and my vehicle is a paid for 4 wheel drive, 8 cyclinder beast of a thing that is mechanically solid and a great fit for our family, as we camp and tow things often.
    It isn’t so great for a 400-500 mile commute and then parking in downtown traffic and tiny spaces.
    I want to spend $2500 on a commuter car that will get me 30mpg or slightly better.

    My husband drives an 8cyl truck, and his round trip commute is 15 miles and he parks in a real parking lot where he doesn’t have to pay for parking or park on the street. He says that if I get a commuter car, he wants one, too. I find this childish and ridiculous. I told him if he wants to sell his truck to buy a car, that’s fine, but we NEED my primary vehicle because his truck cannot fit our family. I have a real commute, and some casual number crunching shows that I would likely break even on a cheap commuter car in one year or less.

    Anyone have an opinion, or tips on how to make him see the light? I’m not being selfish and wanting a car for fun. I want to minimize wear and tear on the one vehicle that we own that fits our family, because it would be much more expensive to replace than a beater commuter car. I would love to keep it going dependably until the two oldest children are driving and we have less need for it. And, I would love to have something easier to park to shave 20 minutes off my daily routine of driving around looking for a space big enough.

  2. jason wong says:

    These calculations are very incomplete. If you’re driving a second car, you reduce the amount of maintenance that goes into your previous vehicle. Also, you can greatly reduce the cost of insurance on the prior vehicle by enrolling in one of those new insurance policies that are priced based upon miles driven. I’m not even going to bother talking about depreciation.

    However, I think you are underestimating the cost of maintenance. A $3000 car is cheap and will need a lot of repairs within a few years.

  3. Paul says:

    I’ve been contemplating this myself being a civic owner and looking to add a truck to my fleet. I was hoping to find something a little more complete.

    I would say you’re simplifying this too much. If you bought a brand new truck/suv and drove X amount of miles you’re depreciating the value of that vehicle more than if you were putting those miles on a commuter car. A nice truck costs 2.3x as much money. I have looked at purchasing used trucks and there is definitely a premium for low-mileage trucks. This calculation is much harder to make, but I would think that it’s not as simple as how much money you save in gas.

    So if you calculate the fuel savings to pay for the second vehicle it’s easy, but if it’s near break even I would still think having the second vehicle is probably keeping money in your pocket in the long run. The reason being that the depreciation on a new truck is something like 4k a year. That is depreciation only comparable to buying a BMW, Mercedes, Lexus or something else luxury.

  4. Tom Siebertz says:

    I bought a truck when gas prices were at their highest point in history. I was spending around $200 a week between work and other personal activities. I made the decision to trade it in for a new civic after a year of driving. It was probably the best auto-buying decision I had made. My weekly gas expenditure was decreased to $30. When I had my truck money was so tight that I would not go places to save gas. So when I got my civic not only did I have extra money to spend or save, I had the freedom of going places and not worrying about the gas. So it the numbers may not make sense in the long but you’ll have extra cash in your pocket TODAY.

    I am also currently looking for a second vehicle. I want a minivan because we are having another baby. I am going to buy a used one for cash because I don’t want to have 2 loans and I also don’t want to trade it in and start a new loan. Any scenario where no loan is taking place seems like a good one to me. I think you should definitely buy a used commuter car for cash. Get a Honda or a Toyota. You will decrease your expenses now and still have the your truck for when you need it.

  5. Denise says:

    I like the use of your spreadsheet to make the decision. I think many people don’t take advantage of those tools. In June we purchased our commuter car but it took me 6 months of evaluations to make that decision (yes, I over-evaluated because I wanted to be sure it was right). I was afraid we’d make a huge mistake and would make our monthly spending tighter than it already was. I had many spreadsheets with info of several different vehicles, comparing them to our other vehicles. Together, my husband and I were spending over $1200 a month in gas. After months of spreadsheets and looking at vehicles, the right one fell in our lap. In the three months that we’ve had the vehicle, I’ve continued to make evaluations with spreadsheets, keeping track of gas, maintenance expenditures, insurance and the car payment (5yr 1%). Our other 2 cars are paid off and most of the time they sit in the garage, so not much money is going into them. Overall, I’ve seen that the $1200 we were spending on gas, has paid for the monthly cost of the commuter car (gas, insurance, maintenance & payment) and we have money left over.

    So my thoughts? SPREADSHEETS! Take advantage of them while doing your research and don’t be in a hurry. Is the point of the commuter car to save money? If you’re spending more money at the end of the month in order to have the commuter car, it’s not a good idea.

    • Mark says:

      I don’t know where you are driving, but $1,200 a month is ridiculous. I would think about moving somewhere closer to work if it’s an option.

      • Denise says:

        It’s easy to make judgements when you don’t have all the information, but moving is more expensive than purchasing the car we chose. Your solution makes not sense for our situation and would not save us money. My input was in support of David’s answer to the question of the original poster. In short, do your homework and use the tools available to make smart decisions

    • David Cole says:

      Yes I would like more info. Seems way to much to spend on gas for a month. If your tavel is that long I would sell my car and get a used prius. You would save a ton by doing that. Now I know you allready got the commuter car. But is there any reason to not get rid of the other car. Yes it’s paid for but you could invest the money you get for it and the money you would save on insurance,maintance, and taxes. Just a thought

      • Denise says:

        Yes it was way too much for gas, (at the time, gas was in the $4.20’s) that’s why we bought the commuter. We do a lot of driving. We looked into a Prius. We wanted a used one, about 2006 to keep the insurance low. Good luck finding a 2006 w/low mileage and in good condition and not salvaged. Even still, a 2006 prius was more expensive than what we purchased and didn’t provide the savings we were looking for. We were not looking for a quick daily savings at the pump, we were looking for an overall, yearly savings and when we put everything down on paper, a Prius wasn’t going to do it.

        To answer why we kept the other car, we have a blended family of 5 and we use the SUV for driving types of vacations (camping, trips to N. Calif. to see family, etc). At this time we see no reason to sell it. We are comfortable w/the commuter car and the savings it is providing us.

        • David Cole says:

          Oh I see that makes sense than. I want to get a truck for the same reasons for vacations and long trips. But right now I feel that would cost me more than the truck is worth. Glad to see everything worked out for you

  6. Kaoru says:

    We’re doing the complete opposite, we currently have a Ford Focus and are looking into buying a mid-size truck. My commutes are a lot longer than the gf’s, but not daily. She’ll take the truck on the days I need to drive and let me take the focus. The days I don’t need to drive, she’ll take the focus. I think it’s a good idea to have 2 cars because one will eventually break down and will be in the shop for a week (from my experience). Talk about inconvenience. So on top of your repair bill you’ll either have to rent a car or rearrange your schedule to use public transportation. When we have kids, we’ll use the focus to drive them around and when we go out on trips, we’ll take both cars, (truck hauling all the gear, car hauling all the people).

  7. Adam says:

    I have the reverse question of this article. I currently have a commuter car that will be paid off shortly with (2k) left on the loan. The car is about 5 years old. My wife and I are looking to start a family soon and are looking at options of a new/used midsize SUV. I currently have about a 30 mi round trip drive to work each day. Would it be worthwhile to keep the commuter car in addition to purchasing the SUV or would it be worth it to trade it in and use that value towards lessening the cost of the SUV? I’m not sure if it would be better having a lower monthly payment or a higher monthly payment and less fuel costs and miles on the SUV which I would hope to have last as long as possible. I know a lot would depend on exactly what the trade in value would be, but just looking for a general opinion with either keeping two vehicles or just going with one. Thanks.

    • Kaoru says:

      I would suggest keeping that commuter car, and instead of looking into buying an SUV consider buying a wagon (Subaru Legacy, Forrester, Ford Focus, etc). These cars require lower maintenance have better MPGs and have more space than normal sedans.

      If you’re dead-set on buying a mid-size SUV, I suggest keeping the commuter car, because like Dave said, “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).” When your kids are old enough to drive, you can pass them that commuter car, the o-hand-me down, chick-magnet, you need to save money if you want a better car, car =)

    • David Cole says:

      This is easy what you do is see how much you would save in gas by keeping the car. Than see how much it costs to keep the car. If the cost of keeping the car is less than the savings in gas keep it. Im not sure how much MPG your car gets. But if the SUV get say 18 MPG which ones i have looked at do. And say gas costs about $4.00 a gallon with a 30 mi round trip. The cost would be $272 a month. So if it costs less than that to keep the other car than you would save money. But to me this is very rare that it saves you money to keep another car just to save money on gas. Really you end up paying more. This is due to insurance costs, maintance and figure that you are not paying cash for this SUV so this means a payment on top of that. So if you break this down by math it is all most always cheaper to not have a commuter car to save money on gas. The only time that I could see it saving money if you had much longer drive every day or if gas went way up in price. People usally do this to save $150 a month in gas but don’t realize that they spend that maybe more in just insurance and maintance on the car. Plus like I said the payment on the SUV.

      I would suggest a wagon as well. Sell the car out right to make more off it. Than buy a used Subie wagon from a private seller and save a ton of money and more than likely you might not even have a car payment. There are ton of good roomy cars that get great MPG for $9,000 and less out there.

    • Mark says:

      Why do you need an SUV if you are thinking about starting a family? Until you have 3 kids, there is no reason to buy a larger vehicle as long as the carseat fits in the back seat.

  8. Savvy Scot says:

    Economy is a big deal to my wife and I. Between us we travel 130 miles a day, to and from work. I would trade in my truck for something more economical altogether and save on the increased maintenance, tax etc. that having 2 cars brings.

  9. Sarah says:

    We plan on doing the opposite with my boyfriend’s car in the next few years. Right now, we live in the city and both have very short commutes. He drives a used pick up truck purchased for around $10k that is fully paid for. We like having the truck for some of the same reasons, but expect our commute to increase in the next few years whenever we purchase a home. At that point we plan to keep the older truck as a 3rd car for moving items etc. and purchase a more commuter friendly car for daily use. With the older car as the 3rd car but not the commuter car, we can plan on minimal insurance and minimal maintenance. Just a different way of solving a similar problem.

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