I've been without a car for the last year and a half.
In May 2015, I left my engineering job in Boulder, CO to start a fellowship program for The Breakthrough Institute, a think tank out in Oakland, CA.
At the time, I owned a 1991 Honda CRX with about 270,000 miles on it. That's not necessarily terrible for those type of cars, but it's enough to make you wonder whether the thing should be taking you cross country. Also, the place I would be staying for the summer didn't necessarily require that I drive. I had found some roommates on Craigslist who lived in South Berkeley with a 10-minute walk to the nearest BART train station and a 20-minute walk to the grocery store, so that seemed pretty manageable.
Bekah and I were also getting married in September of that year, so I decided to sell the CRX to give us a few extra dollars to help with that as well. (Luckily, the buyer was my Dad, so the car ended up in good hands)
With the car sold, I embarked on the public policy journey and went car-less for the summer. A few months and several life decisions later, Bekah and I found ourselves moving into an apartment about 15 minutes walking distance from a new job in the Denver Tech Center (DTC). The main reason behind us living so close to work was because I was determined to continue living life as a pedestrian.
For those of you unfamiliar with Colorado geography, the DTC is a neighborhood about 13 miles south of downtown Denver made up primarily of office buildings, wide boulevards, and a very low walkability rating. So why did we do it? Why did we start off our marriage as a single car family? A couple reasons:
1. Commitment to Financial Freedom
Bekah and I had just started two great jobs and by many people’s standards, had more than enough money for both of us to own and drive cars. But we didn’t see it that way. We didn’t want to eat into our emergency savings fund to pay for a car and we both agreed that we would never take out a car loan.
One of our grandest goals for our marriage is to acquire financial freedom. We realized that accomplishing that meant two things. First, it meant paying off my student loans as quickly as possible, and second it meant not getting into any other debt.
2. Commitment to our Time
Time is our most valuable commodity. A huge majority of Americans spend a significant amount of their precious time commuting, and for many Coloradans driving up and down the I-25 corridor, a one-way commute can easily exceed an hour. Add winter conditions and icy roads to the mix and who knows how long it will be before you get home.
I knew that if I was going to be successful in my career, earn the compensation that I wanted, and achieve my goals, I could not waste any time. So, while living in the DTC might be slightly more expensive than choosing a suburb, the 15-minute walk without a car payment, gas payment, parking payment, or insurance payment was too compelling an option to pass up.
With these reasons in mind, it was clear to us that starting off as a single-car family was the way to go. I knew, going into it, that the decision would allow us to tackle our debt faster. What I didn’t know was the number of lessons I would learn along the way, especially regarding intentionality.
First and foremost, I learned to be intentional with my schedule which was by far the biggest adjustment to my life. When I was living in Berkeley, CA, I knew that I had to be to the train station by a certain time. If I didn’t make it, the effects would ripple throughout my day.
This didn’t change once I returned to Colorado. In fact, I had to be even more intentional with my time. Sure, I was no longer dependent on the BART train schedule, but I traded that for being married and had to learn how to mesh Bekah’s schedule with mine. There were groceries to be bought, errands to run, family members to visit, and dates to have. Bekah also occasionally works Saturdays, and with her office being about a 25-minute drive away, it meant that I would be driving her there and picking her up.
This schedule dependence helped us learn to be interdependent. We had to communicate every day on what our evenings were going to look like, when we would be home, what needed to get done, and where we needed to go. I didn’t have the option to just swing by the bank on my way home from work, and it wasn’t fair to ask Bekah to run all the errands, so we usually tackled things together over the weekend.
I couldn’t just text her at 3pm on a Tuesday letting her know I would be driving to happy hour with my co-workers. I had to be prepared for how I was getting there and how I’d be getting home.
It even impacted my schedule at work. Working as civil engineer includes delivering plans, visiting construction sites, and attending client meetings, town council gatherings, and professional seminars. Fortunately, there is a company car that we can use, but with over 60 employees in our office, it usually gets claimed pretty quickly. I always had to know my schedule, days and weeks in advance.
On rainy days, it meant packing an umbrella. On blizzarding, -10° days, it meant wearing snow pants, boots, a heavy coat, and face protection all while carrying my work-clothes in a backpack that I could change into once I got into work. It meant bringing a lunch every day because I didn’t have the option of driving somewhere to eat out.
Were these things inconvenient? Absolutely. It was definitely hard to have such limited mobility for so long. There were days where I found myself dwelling on the statement, “If I had a car, things would be so much better.”
But about half a year in, something great happened. I started to learn the value of contentment and realized that the quality of my life wasn’t dependent on the things I owned or even on my level of mobility. The “I wish I had,” statements no longer infiltrated my daily walk to work. This wasn’t simply because I was getting used to it. It was because I had made the personal decision to fill myself up with the blessings I’d been given. I was able to walk to work every day. I was able to truly enjoy the weather outside. I was able to breathe in fresh air. I was able to use my time in the morning for mindfulness rather than focusing on the bumper in front of me. This change in perspective changed my entire attitude.
Even more so, this season led us to create habits that I’m not sure we would have developed had I owned a car. It guided us into being more aware of our schedules and plans each and every day. That’s something I wouldn’t want to trade. Bekah and I did also come away from the experience with more debt paid off, but even more importantly, we forged a stronger relationship.
As of January 2nd, Bekah’s grandparents gifted us with a spare vehicle of theirs. I can’t put into words our level of gratefulness for this gift. I think it’s worth stating that I believe our intense appreciation stems from the knowledge that the car was in fact a gift rather than a relief from deprivation. We didn’t feel entitled to a second car because we learned that we didn’t need one to live our lives. It was a bonus, a blessing, and one more thing to be grateful for.
Is the single-car family decision right for everyone? Certainly not. But I do think it is worth it to ask yourself a question: Is there something you own that's determining the way you live? Maybe it’s not a car that’s running your life, maybe it’s something else. The lesson we learned wasn’t that everyone should live a single-car family lifestyle. The lesson was far more important. It was discovering that sometimes, choosing to go without, might just lead to so much more.
As of January 8th, Bekah was involved in a hit-and-run car accident. She was stopped at a red light and was rear-ended by another car going about 35 miles per hour. She is ok, and insurance has been helpful, but the recently gifted car is a goner. So, for the time being, we’re a single car family again. And you know what? That’s ok.
Shoutouts and Notes:
- This video, Free Cars for Life, changed the way I thought about car payments and debt. I would be lying if I told you that I haven't been tempted to take out a car loan at various times in my life. Each time I’ve felt that way, I’ve returned to this video.
- I found this cool website showing average commute times in the United States. Keep in mind that these are pure averages and the data isn’t flexible enough to play with trip length, weather conditions, or time of day.