Cars are expensive things. They can easily cripple people financially. And any early retirement plan wouldn’t be complete without optimising our cost of transport!
I was reminded of this recently, when my car rego came in the mail, with the yearly cost jumping to almost $800!
Across most of Australia, cars are not seen as optional. Instead, they’re usually deemed as a necessity. Most likely, that’s due to our sprawling suburbs and, at times, lack of convenient and cost-effective public transport.
City design issues? Or under-investment in the public transport system? I don’t know the answer to that. Maybe it’s both. But since most of us own vehicles here in Oz, let’s see how they affect our wealth. And then see what we can do about it!
Estimating Car Costs
Let’s use a few simple guesstimates (and some reported figures from here and here), to get a rough idea on what car ownership really costs each year…
- Yearly Registration – $800
- Fuel – $1500
- Insurance – $500
- Servicing/Repairs – $1000
- Car Replacement/Depreciation – $1000
Since my readers are a relatively savvy and (hopefully) frugal bunch, I’m not going to include loan interest in these car calculations. I’m sure I don’t have to explain to you the genius in buying a car for $40k, which ends up costing you $60k…and is not long after, worth $20k.
Simply repeating this process (as many do), is guaranteed to piss away hundreds of thousands of dollars over a lifetime!
So generally, we’re looking at close to $5,000 per year for each car a household owns.
I know we don’t think of it as spending $100 a week, just to get around. But in reality, that’s often what the numbers show. And by ignoring car loans, we’re being generous.
For those with loans the average two-car household is burning through around $17,000 or more, per year!
Certainly not frugal. And definitely not helping the average person reach financial independence anytime soon.
So What Can We Do About It?
Obviously, the most frugal car choice is…to not use a car!
For a vehicle that isn’t used much, you may be better to sell it and use a car-sharing service like Car Next Door, for the times you do need a car. Also, there’s always the choice of using Uber for getting around, which is freeing some people from car ownership costs.
And for those that keep a big car for family holidays, that may not be necessary. You could easily just hire a large car for when you really need it. It’s no use paying the rego and upkeep for something that’s rarely used!
But for everyone else – we can keep the convenience of car ownership, without killing our chances of early retirement. Here’s some pretty simple actions we can take to minimise the damage…
- Driving less often by combining smaller trips into one. We’ve found many trips can often wait.
- Switch your car for a smaller/more economical one.
- Live closer to work (for couples, live closer to one spouses work to minimise distance).
- Live closer to public transport – allowing you to reduce to one car per household, or even go car-free. At least one spouse can use public transport.
- Switch one car for a scooter/motorbike.
- Walk or use a bike! Yes, it’s actually possible to use your legs to get to places that aren’t that far away. Incredible!
With so many possible improvements to be made, there’s no excuse for spending anywhere near the reported $17,000 per year!
Look, you don’t have to do all these things. But at least look into it. It’ll actually make a bigger difference than you think.
Remember, making your living expenses lower and your savings rate higher, brings financial freedom closer, every time!
Here’s the thing: Too many people treat their car as part of their image and sense of self-worth. And in doing so, they aim for a car that will impress their friends and make them feel good about themselves.
To be honest, we need to break this ridiculous and unhealthy association. Otherwise, it’s going to follow us and control our choices throughout our lives.
This is just a weakness to be overcome. And then we can begin making strong money decisions with our future in mind, instead of trying to gain fake status and approval.
Being frugal, I thought we had contained our car costs pretty well. But the truth is, I just wasn’t thinking hard enough!
Our Own Scenario
Back in the early days, we were a two-car household. And not only that, we just seemed to drive everywhere without questioning it.
After becoming more motivated about early retirement, we decided to change.
Initially, we decided to start combining small trips and errands into one outing. Next, we started doing more things that were closer to home. Things like dog walks, restaurants, beach etc.
Since we lived in a fairly amenity-rich area, this made it easier. In fact, it became more enjoyable, because we didn’t have to waste time driving to places or dealing with traffic.
We also decided to self-insure, since we had low-value cars. And we could always chip into our growing pool of investments, should something go wrong and we smash up another persons car. But these days we do have very cheap third party insurance through Budget Direct.
Looking for more improvements, my partner decided to sell her car and get a scooter. Since we were only 10 minutes from her workplace, she didn’t mind dealing with the busy roads for a short trip.
This decision made a bigger difference than we could imagine…
- The rego on the scooter is $80 per year, versus the car at $800.
- Petrol to work was literally $2 per week, versus $15 for the car.
- The purchase price was $750, versus the cars market value of $7,000.
- Maintenance/repairs has been $150 per year, versus $750+ for the car.
- Replacement/depreciation costs are $75 per year, versus $700 for the car (assuming they both last 10 years, then die).
All up we get yearly savings of over $2,600. Also, we freed up around $6,000 of cash for investments, after selling the car.
Maybe it doesn’t sound like much. But over 10 years, with a return of 7% per year, these invested savings grow to $47,726. Not to mention, we then needed around $50,000 less savings to retire, due to our lower expenses!
So overall, the benefit becomes close to $100,000, just from this small improvement. Don’t underestimate the difference that small changes can make.
Now, this doesn’t mean you have to get a scooter. But let’s look at the difference over a 10 year period, a couple can make, by being more frugal and optimising their car costs…
Frugal Car Calculations
I’ll start this calculation with something I never see considered.
That is, the cost of having our cash tied up in cars. It’s a hidden trap, which costs us a fortune. Since it’s not a visible expense, it gets ignored, or written off as not important.
Instead of it costing a fortune, we can learn to see it differently. And in doing so, make us a fortune!
Take a couple, each with $20,000 cars. If they each switch to cars worth $7,500 – they free up $25,000 for investment. With these savings growing at 7% per annum, this becomes $50,000 in just 10 years.
Also, their car replacement/depreciation costs are now lower, since they have less expensive cars. It’s likely their insurance is cheaper too.
Let’s say they can also shave off some of their kilometres travelled, by doing some of the simple things I mentioned earlier. According to research**, the average Aussie travels 15,000 km per year. And average running costs are mostly at least 15 cents per km.
If our couple can drive a slightly less ridiculous 10,000 km per year each, they’ll save $1,500 on running costs per year.
Now their vehicles savings look like this…
$25,000 freed-up cash. Plus, $1,500 per year. Investing these savings at a 7% return, it grows to around $70,000 after 10 years.
Remember, this is for the couple who still remains a two-car household!
Clearly, for a frugal couple who does more than tinker round the edges as we’ve done here, the savings will be even greater!
To be fair, this is only a slight optimisation. Many couples will have car loans, luxury sedans or SUV’s costing upwards of the $20k I stated in the example. So there are massive improvements to be made for many of us.
Remember, most real-life wealthy people don’t waste their money on show-pony status symbols. Instead, they focus on disciplined saving and strengthening their financial position.
Don’t be ashamed of your ride. Drive your frugal car with pride! 😉
Although in my teens I spent the first $10,000-$15,000 I ever made on my first car, I now see cars for what they really are. A tool to get from point A to point B. Nothing more.
Believe it or not, car ownership is not a requirement to human happiness. And by exercising the power of waiting, you can eventually buy any car you want (if it means that much to you). But by then, the cost will be mere pocket change.
These days, we still have the one (old) car and scooter, worth only a few thousand combined. Honestly, it’s hard to justify keeping them both.
Since most of the stuff we do is at home or close by, they don’t get used all that much. Despite this, we’re still spending close to $3k per year for the convenience. But we’re somewhat reluctant to cut the cord (keys?). So for now, they’re sticking around.
(Update: we’ve sold the scooter!)
As the cost of electric cars come down, I’ll be looking to make the switch. For a cleaner, more guilt-free form of transport.
While I haven’t mentioned it here, we gain huge health and environmental benefits from less car use. We could all do with a bit more exercise. And air pollution is now becoming an issue in many cities around the world.
There’s no magic to early retirement, frugality and having a huge savings rate. It simply comes from making slightly better choices, in every category of spending. Cars are just another one of those categories.
Make frugal car ownership the driving force behind your early retirement!
** Note – I’m using ‘cost per km’ figures from the below report to estimate savings. I chose middle-of-the-range figures. The study I found by RACQ is here.