Cutting the costs of vehicle ownership by buying and driving less

Nineteen years ago, Peter Tombrowski and his wife decided that giving up their paid-off vehicle made sense for them and their six-month-old baby.

“We were living downtown, and we just weren’t using our car,” says the videographer, standing at a southern Calgary transit hub.

He had crunched the numbers and decided that both the money tied up in their vehicle, and the cost to maintain it, could be better spent elsewhere. Instead they’ve relied largely on walking and transit.

But even when Tombrowski had a second child and moved south of Calgary’s downtown, he never went back to the costs of car ownership, which according to the Canadian Automobile Association, runs Canadians an average of $9,000 a year per vehicle.

Not everyone, however, is willing to walk half an hour to the grocery store like Tombrowski, and for many in the suburbs and rural parts of the country, going without a car isn’t an option — but Ian Jack at CAA says that most people could think more about costs when shopping for wheels.

“Generally speaking, people are not very rational when it comes to vehicle purchases. It’s still a status symbol for many people, and there’s an aura of romance around it,” says Jack, managing director of communications at the association.

He says people tend to over-buy, as they think about that once-a-year full haul with the family to the cottage, even though they need much less most of the time.

“They may not be able to get away with no vehicle, but maybe they can get away with a smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicle and simply rent or car share once or twice a year.”

CAA estimates that nationally, a compact car like a Honda Civic would cost about $8,600 a year to own, while a SUV like a Chevrolet Equinox would cost about $12,000, when everything from insurance, maintenance, gas and depreciation are factored in.

“Try to think about the dollars and the cents, and all of the other parts of life that you could be spending that money on potentially,” Jack advises.

The CAA launched an online tool in 2013 that helps people calculate the true cost of ownership, noting at the time that four-fifths of Canadians underestimate the true costs, and six in 10 underestimate it by more than $4,000 a year.

Jack says the biggest cost of ownership, and the most overlooked, is depreciation, where the value of the car dwindles with every kilometre of use.

“It’s a little bit of an invisible cost to people when they’re running the vehicle, but it becomes very important when you decide to trade in that vehicle, or otherwise get rid of it or sell it.”

Jeremy Klaszus, a freelance journalist in Calgary, was keenly aware of the costs of ownership when his old car finally gave out, enough for him and his family of four to try going without one.

He says weekend car rentals and bike commuting worked well, but with two kids he found the 40-minute waits for the bus and two-seater car2go Smart Cars didn’t quite work with their busy after-school schedule.

Klaszus says they’re back to car ownership now, but have taken the lessons from their couple of months without.

“We still only have one car, so we’re still planning out who’s taking the car to work on whichever day. Often on the weekends we leave the car at home — you know, if we’re going downtown, we bike or find another way, transit,” he says.

“It’s not an all or nothing thing, you don’t have to be purely without a car.”

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