Living a 'Less than average' Life: Cars

America has a car culture like no other, from its massive interstate highway system and the iconic allure of the "open road" to Detroit's "Big Three." For many average families, life wouldn't seem complete without a gleaming new sedan or sport utility vehicle in the driveway every few years.

But, paradoxically, Americans who've turned their back on what many of their neighbors consider a birthright find that owning less car or even no car at all can be freeing. Cars are a huge expense, especially if you need to have the newest, latest and greatest when it comes to your ride. As of last year, the average new car cost $26,300, according to a study by Comerica Bank.

To put that into perspective, that's equal to 22.1 weeks of median income for the average American family. New and used vehicles made up 6.4% of Americans' spending at the end of last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. While that number doesn't sound too bad, by the time you add in ancillary costs like gas, insurance and repairs, that percentage climbs to a much heftier 15.5%.

Can you imagine what you'd do with all that money if you weren't funneling it toward your vehicle? Steven Woolley could. When he and his wife purchased their first home in St. Louis five years ago, he made a deal with himself that he would finally get an honest-to-goodness, arcade-style pinball machine.
"I made the decision that since we'd have a house of our own, I would buy it then," he said. "The immediate tradeoff was that we couldn't afford a second car if I bought [the pinball machine]." So Woolley bought his beloved pinball machine and resigned himself to riding his bike everywhere he went. He's been peddling ever since, even though he paid himself back the $3,000 the pinball machine cost some time ago. "[It] did save us enormously since we could do without a second car and I was getting free exercise as well," he wrote in an e-mail.

Other Americans who are willing to forgo flashy wheels reap other benefits. Brian Aitken of New York loves the fact that his 12-year-old Honda Civic, which he's owned since college, doesn't telegraph his "mid-six figures" annual income. "It helps keep away all the riff raff and gold-diggers," he told WalletPop.

Aitken is ahead of the game when it comes to vehicular prudence, says Elisabeth Leamy, author of "Save Big." Hands down, the best way a person can save money on their auto costs is to buy used, she says. Second big way to save? Pay cash. If that's not possible, she advises, "Limit your loan to two years. A five-year loan is the most commonly used, but when you stretch out your interest payments for that long, it's just bad news." Statistically, Leamy says most Americans buy a new car every five years. "But you could save $60,000 over your lifetime if you keep a car for seven-and-a-half years instead of five," she says.

Tyler Tervooren of Portland, Ore., is certainly one American who embraces that ethos. "Style in transportation is not important to me," he said. Tervooren owns a 20-year-old pickup truck, which he turns to when he can't ride his bike.

But there are limits to just how far you can push an aging vehicle, Leamy says. "When your car starts to not have some of the latest safety features, you should upgrade, especially if you have a family," she says. Two big protective features, she says, are electronic stability control and LATCH car-seat attachments. Also, if you have an older car, you might want to consider some kind of roadside assistance service just in case the engine conks out in a bad part of town.

With that advice in mind, we'd bet Leamy would think Ian Coburn is probably taking his frugality just a teeny bit too far. His car's front bumper and hood are held to the rest of the frame by bungee cords, his windshield is cracked, and his driver's side mirror is gone. Coburn says he spends only a "couple hundred on the car each year" and admits that he's been pulled over a few times (depending on where you live, something like a cracked windshield can earn you a traffic ticket) but says he's gotten off with warnings so far. While WalletPop salutes the tenacity of his thriftiness, we urge him -- and all our readers -- not to sacrifice safety for savings!

Living a "Less than average" Life is a WalletPop series.
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