It’s back-to-school season. Your summer gig is winding down, your mailbox is bursting with school supply coupons, and it’s time to start picking classes.
But as you budget your year, there’s a big financial decision to make worthy of mindful consideration: should you bring your car to college or should you leave it at home?
At first, it may seem like a simple lifestyle choice. Do I want the freedoms that having a car provides? Or can I make do with Uber and Lyft?
However, there are deep and far-reaching financial factors to consider as well. In this piece, I will explore both the lifestyle and financial implications of having a car on campus, so in the end, you can make the most informed decision.
Let’s start with a pretty essential question.
Are you allowed to even bring your car to campus?
If you’re a rising freshman and/or attending school in a big city, you may not be allowed to bring your car at all.
Cal Poly doesn’t allow freshmen to bring a car so they can better acclimate to on-campus living. Georgetown doesn’t allow any student to bring a car because there’s simply not enough parking.
To make sure it’s even an option, do a quick Google search for “[your school] [your year] parking.” This will also reveal the cost of a parking permit, which I’ll revisit later.
Now that you’ve confirmed that it’s a possibility, let’s consider the lifestyle perks of bringing a car to campus.
The true cost of car ownership in college
In this section, I’ll assume you already own, lease, or finance a car, and your two choices are as follows:
- Bring it to college.
- Leave it at home, where it will almost never be driven.
Bringing a car to college isn’t as simple as purchasing a parking pass. There are other costs to consider, some less evident than others.
As a starting point, let’s begin with the six major expenses of owning a car:
- Maintenance and tires.
- Licensing, registration, and taxes.
If you bring your car to college, which of these expenses will increase, and by how much?
On average, it costs around $0.15 per mile in gas alone to drive your car. If you plan to drive around 3,000 miles per semester, that’s $450 you’ll spend on gas.
If you bring your car to college and stay under your parents’ insurance, your premium may vary slightly depending on your state (find out how to get the best deal). Get a DUI, however, and your premiums can skyrocket up to $1,000 per year.
If you leave your car at home, you can’t discontinue insurance entirely, you but can become an “occasional driver,” or even schedule coverage for school breaks only, all for a steep discount.
Maintenance and tires
Per AAA, annual maintenance runs $766.50 on average every year, not to mention the $147 that you will need to spend yearly on your tires. This comes out to a total of $913.50! If your car is older with six figures on the odometer, these costs will be higher.
Of course, drive less and you’ll spend less. If you put a quarter as many miles on your car if it stays home, you can save nearly $3,000 over 4 years.
Licensing, registration, and taxes
If your car is registered in your home state, you do not need to re-register in your school state unless you become a permanent resident. As a result, your annual taxes will not change while you’re at school.
Before tallying up the total, it’s time to revisit parking. If you didn’t before, Google “[your school] [your year] parking” i.e. UGA Sophomore Parking.
Campus parking passes can range anywhere from $80 to $800 per semester. Many campuses charge high parking fees to discourage students from having a car on campus.
If your campus’s parking fees fall within your acceptable range, let’s now tally up a total.
Below is a chart with general, but realistic estimates based upon the assumption that your car is several years old with over 80,000 miles on the odometer.
|Expense||Cost at school||Cost after four years|
|Maintenance and tires||$375||$3,000|
|Licensing, registration, and taxes.||$0||$0|
*These are estimates, the cost will vary depending on a number of factors.
There is a cost to not having a car in college, too
Having a car in college (or in general) is pricey. But not having a car isn’t totally free, either. You still need to get to Publix, that off-campus party, or back home during breaks somehow.
Generally speaking, however, public transportation for students is cheap. Many campuses even offer free shuttles to popular destinations off-campus, like grocery stores and airports. If you can see yourself only going off-campus on occasion, you almost certainly don’t need a car; just bum a ride, take the bus, or take Lyft.
Things change if you have a regular commute, especially one that’s hard-to-reach via public transit. If it’s just a side gig for cash, you should absolutely consider how much of your paycheck will go to car ownership; it might not even be worth it.
To roughly calculate how much it’ll cost you not to have a car on campus, look at the next four weeks of your calendar.
- How often will you go places that aren’t covered by free- or nearly-free public transit?
- How many times will you have to Uber or Lyft? Which can you bum rides for?
- How far is your commute? Can you bike or take public transit?
- Do you have any road trips coming up? Can you take Megabus, Greyhound, or even fly?
Consider also that if Uber and Lyft are expensive in your city, car ownership is likely more expensive as well for the same reasons (gas, insurance, parking).
It’s difficult to find a scenario where car ownership will save you money in college. At best, it’s an expensive convenience.
The lifestyle perks to having a car on campus
Freedom to explore
First and foremost, having wheels on campus means freedom. Want to hike that trail 14 miles off-campus? Explore a nearby town? Visit friends on other campuses?
All three become much easier with a car, especially if your college has limited access to ridesharing or public transit.
An easier commute
If you’ll regularly be commuting off-campus for a job or internship, having a car may make sense. Driving is safer than biking and often faster than public transit.
Simplified grocery runs
No more waiting for a Lyft with bags at your feet or begging friends for rides. Having a car enables you to shop off-campus and transport more than you would be able to on public transportation.
A link to home
If you live within driving distance, having a car enables you to make frequent and spontaneous trips back home without having to print a bus ticket.
Driving is fun
It’s small, but worth mentioning. Maybe you simply love the act of driving. To you, cars aren’t just an appliance, they’re more like a TV: a portal to pleasure and entertainment. You may simply want a car in college because driving brings you joy, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
That all being said, having a car on campus isn’t a holistic lifestyle upgrade. Before I begin to discuss finances, there are actually a few lifestyle drawbacks that you may want to consider.
The lifestyle drawbacks to having a car on campus
Speaking from experience, not many people bring their car to college, but everyone wants a ride eventually. If you bring your car to college, be ready to play chauffeur, delivery driver, and designated driver.
If you’d rather not hand out free rides or face the awkwardness of saying no, leave your car at home.
One more thing to worry about
Generally speaking, college campuses are not always the best place to leave a car. Your car is a high-value personal item subject to theft, vandalism, and drunk drivers: all of which are common, even prevalent, on college campuses.
Unless college is safer than home, leaving your car behind gives you one less thing to worry about.
Having a car on campus gives you the option to leave, but that’s not necessarily a good thing.
Without a car, you’ll spend more time on campus taking long walks, discovering opportunities, and making new friends. Being “stuck” on campus will drive you (no pun intended) to get the most value out of the college experience you’re already paying for.
By some accounts, nearly one in four college students graduate with a DUI on record.
Legal fees aside, getting a DUI can cost you your scholarship, prevent you from obtaining a degree, and can even bar you from entering Canada.
No one plans to drive under the influence of alcohol, but each year, over a third of American college students do so anyway.
Naturally, the simplest way to avoid a DUI is to leave your car at home.
Despite being aware of the drawbacks, you might still be considering bringing your car to college. If so, let’s make sure you can afford it.
You’ve probably picked up on a theme: cars are expensive to own.
If you bring your car to school, you may have more freedom, but you’ll pay big bucks in ownership costs, run the risk of damage or a DUI, and likely take on the ignoble role of your friends’ private chauffeur.
If you leave your car at home, you’ll avoid all of the risks and headaches of on-campus ownership, but still have to pay for maintenance, depreciation, and insurance.