going carless, part 1

Volvo sunset

It's autumn again, which means it's time to downsize. (One fall, maybe years hence, I will downgrade into cremains, the ultimate form of downsizing.) My credit union, bless them, upgraded this year to a free money-management feature on their Web site, the kind with a colorful pie graph displaying my spending categories. Like exercise, fiscal visuals are beneficial, even if unpleasant. 

I've always hated thinking about money. Money should simply be available so one can think about other, more important, things: family, friends, aesthetics, art, entertainment, daydreaming, travel, hobbies, helping others. People who spend their nine-to-five moving money around or dream in dollar signs? Ugh. Shoot me now. Unfortunately, that kind of thinking has kept me poor. But I'm tired of being poor. I'm done with the monthly pie charts telling me: "For this period, OVER—living beyond your means." And that's only because I've had so little income for years from being an underemployed college instructor. (According to Mitt Romney's upside-down ethics, all these years, rather than teaching adults how to write better, I should have been out laying other people off and closing down businesses like he did—"Off with their heads!"—because that's what's good for share prices and Cayman Island bank accounts, not teaching, you dolt. But I digress.)

It's one thing to be frugal by choice, as detailed in "Stylishly Frugal Living" blogs such as Go Gingham, to save money for the future—forgoing eating out, daily Starbucks lattes, or unnecessary trips around town, all for an exotic vacation, for retirement, or to pay off a mortgage early—or else to embrace simpler living out of ethical, philosophical, or environmental concerns. But it's entirely different to be frugal—for example, to stop and pick up free brown bananas in the parking lot of the new Latino Christian church on SE 52nd, or to make sure your errands downtown fit within the transfer period, so you don't have to pay another $2.50 fare—because otherwise you would be sleeping in your car. That's not frugal; that's poor.

My housing costs are (barely) below the recommended 30% of my income, but not the car, that pretty metal albatross weighing down my finances. Here are the monthly costs for me to "own" my twelve-year-old car:
$210 car payment
$300 gasoline (over $62 each fill-up, at least once a week)
$  80 car insurance
(+ infrequent car washes, oil changes, & any repairs)

Compare that with a $100 monthly TriMet pass.

If I sold the car, I'd have an extra $500 a month in the bank, $6,000 a year. My roommate, who doesn't own a car, who bikes himself around town and earns less than I do, still seems to have more money than I, funds at least enough to travel and eat out, things I can't afford. (However, he also has health insurance as a benefit of his job, and I do not, or at least won't until my three-month, new-job trial period is over, so for years I've been paying Kaiser $240 a month out-of-pocket for a high-deductible plan, which, since I'm laying myself bare here, is half my rent.) Since the roommate moved in this July, he's been gone on unpaid vacation leave about half the time, his employer eagerly granting such leave because of overproduction this year. It's not that he wouldn't like to have a car, he says; he just can't afford one on his full-time, more-than-minimum-wage salary.

The sad truth, shown in color by my pie chart, is that I can't afford a car, either. So I need to give it up, this car I bought nine months ago after my twenty-two-year-old Toyota died, this middle-aged, "near-luxury" Volvo. Of course, it would reflect better on me to say I'm going carless to reduce my part in greenhouse gas emissions, and that's certainly a side benefit, considering how northern nations are already elbowing for position to suck up all the minerals, gas, and oil in the melting Arctic. But mainly it's because I'm too poor to own a car, let alone a heavy, sturdy, gas-slurping Volvo.

The major downside of going carless is the inconvenience, of course. I'll have to stand outside in the winter rain and cold, waiting for public transportation. Plus, I'll have to wake up at least an hour earlier (and I'm no morning person) because commuting will take two-and-a-half times as long. And occasionally buses don't show up, or else they're late or early, all causing problems.

But on the plus side, I'll have more time for reading and daydreaming, sitting on the bus. And I'll be getting more exercise, with all the walking to, from, and between stops. Right now, with two jobs, all I do is sleep, drive, work, drive, cook, eat, drive, work, and drive some more, so adding some walking would be good, even if I get wet and cold in the process. And as I'm standing out in the cold rain, waiting for a bus, I'll be telling myself as a mantra: "$500 saved this month."


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