Cars cost more than you think to own. Going car-free could be the best think you could do for your wallet. But what are the trade-offs?

Do you really need that 3,000-pound, money-guzzling hunk of steel sitting outside? Besides the expense and safety risks of regular driving, life behind the wheel is often unpleasant. Traffic jams. Breakdowns. Surprise repairs. And, the expense is not insignificant: As our recent analysis showed, owning your car might be costing you a lot more than you think. Using available averages, we estimated that owning a 10-year old vehicle could still cost $5,914 a year. If you own a shiny new one, that figure doubles.

For someone earning $30,000 a year, those vehicle costs represent between 20 and 40 percent of annual gross pay! In that situation, ditching your car might be the best thing you can do for your finances.

But what does it take to go car-free?

Ideally, living somewhere you can walk almost anywhere you need to go. Short of that, here are the big three things you’ll want to have close by if you decide to live a car-free lifestyle.

Public transit infrastructure

For most non-drivers, riding public transportation—subways, rail lines, trolleys and buses—is the best alternative to driving. According to the American Public Transportation Association, growth in public transit ridership has exceeded both population growth and year-over-year increases in miles traveled by car for the past 20 years. Even if you do own a car, you may still prefer to travel locally on public transit, especially to work. So could you get around mostly or exclusively by bus or train?

Consider the public transit coverage in your metro area. Most transportation authorities have maps that show the entire geographic range of all the travel lines. Usually the heart of any city will be well served with transit options. It can get trickier the further you go from the city center, especially into the surrounding suburbs. Still, there’s usually at least one train line or bus route to serve most towns.

Think about your needs and habits for work and play. Are most of your daily activities confined to a local radius? Do you have any regular need to travel outside your city for work or to visit friends and family? If you live in the suburbs or in a far-flung city neighborhood, can you easily get to the center on public transit?

Whether your city offers many or few public transit options to suit your daily life, train or bus ridership is likely to be at least one piece of your car-free plan.

Cycling and bike share programs

Next to public transit, traveling on two wheels can be one of the most convenient and fun ways to get around. When you own a bicycle, you enjoy many of the same benefits as driving—take off whenever you want to, travel the shortest route to your destination without stopping—minus the downsides such as looking for a parking space or gas station, getting stuck in traffic, and being sedentary.

Maintaining a bike only costs a few hundred dollars a year on average. Compare that with the thousands you’ll shell out annually to own a car. To get set up as a cyclist, you need three things: a bike, a helmet, and a good lock. You should be able to buy both of the latter two items for under $100. As for the bike itself, don’t get hung up on owning a fancy new one. Visit your local bike shop to find decent used options that will meet all of your needs within a $100-$300 price range. Finally, it’s convenient to have your own tire pump for regular replenishment, but most bike stores offer free access to strong pumps that will refill your tires in seconds.

If you don’t want to own and maintain your own bike, see if your city offers a bike share program. A monthly or yearly membership to such a program will often cost less than a public transit pass, and may offer the same geographic coverage depending on how far and where you regularly need to go. Even if a bike can’t meet all of your transportation needs, it could be a regular replacement for car trips.

Rental, car share, and taxi services

Just because you don’t own a car doesn’t mean you’ll never want or need one. Car rental companies serve all city and suburban areas and are useful for longer trips, such as a one-day or weekend excursion. If you rent frequently, you might consider your own car insurance to save on the pricey coverage offered at the rental coverage. (It should be quite cheap if you don’t drive that often!) Your credit card may offer some level of car rental insurance, but don’t count on it being enough.

A car share membership is another way to use a car occasionally without owning one. They’re available in most cities, but check to see where the reserved parking spots are located. If there’s not one close to your home, a car share won’t be that useful. Most car share companies offer a variety of plans depending on how often you plan to use the service. There’s usually a monthly or yearly charge as well as an hourly rate. You may also have to pay an application fee and/or an annual fee.

When you need a ride to the airport or home from the bar, or you don’t want to bike in torrential rain, taxis offer flexibility and convenience. And unlike the previous car-access options, you don’t need a driver’s license. Thanks to Uber, Lyft, and other upcoming ride-share companies, you’ll have an increasing number of options depending on where you live.

While the main objective of car-free living is to drive as little as possible, rental, car share, and taxi services give you flexible access to a vehicle when you need or want it.

Will a car-free life work for you?

Once you research the alternative transportation options your city offers, you’ll need to figure out if they’ll fit into your daily life. For commuting, if you live and work in the same place, you should have no problem walking, biking, or taking public transit to work. But if you live and work in the suburbs, or have a “reverse commute” from your urban home to a suburban job, you may not have any good options besides driving. Professionals who have to travel throughout the day, such as real estate agents or adjunct professors, may also need their own car.

Whether or not you have children will also influence your ability to give up your car. You can bring your kids on public transit, or purchase a seat or wagon attachment for your bike, but many parents still prefer to own a car, especially if they have more than one child.

On the other hand, artists and others who want to “maintain a low overhead” for any reason, whether to pay off debt faster or exchange a day job for their own business, should absolutely go car-free. Not only will ditching your car free up hundreds of dollars a month in car payments, insurance and fuel costs, it will also spare you from the unexpected expenses that all cars incur. You’ll find it easier to budget your monthly living costs and you can work fewer hours when you have fewer expenses to pay for.

If you still find it hard to resist the call of the open road, don’t beat yourself up. America’s love affair with the automobile is ingrained in our pop culture and celebrated in songs, movies, and books. Start slowly by living a “car-lite” lifestyle and replace as many four-wheeled trips as you can with walking, biking, or public transit. You may be surprised by how easy and fun it is to get around without your car. Already living the car-free life? Leave a comment telling us how you did it.

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About the author

Elizabeth Spencer
Total Articles: 42
Elizabeth Helen Spencer is a personal finance and travel writer based in the Philadelphia area. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing and still nurses a secret fiction writing habit on the side. When not writing for work or pleasure, she loves to sweat it out in a hot yoga class and find new books to read. Elizabeth lives with her husband and two children and has reached the conclusion that "having it all" is a myth.