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Contentment Without a Car

By Michelle Singletary
Sunday, September 3, 2006

I've had a car of my own since I was about 22. I couldn't wait to get that first car. For years, I had been held hostage by my grandmother, Big Mama.

She kept tight reins on me and my whereabouts by requiring that she drive me to most of the places I had to be. I went to just three dances in my entire high school career: the ring dance, junior prom and senior prom.

As a parent now, I understand Big Mama's desire to keep me parked at home so she could keep an eye on her granddaughter. Still, I remember the liberation I felt when I finally bought that car.

So when I picked up Chris Balish's new book, "How to Live Well Without Owning a Car" (Ten Speed Press, $12.95), I put it right back on top of the piles of personal finance books I get every week.

No sir, I ain't giving up my wheels, I thought. I live in the suburbs, have three children, and there isn't a bus stop near me for miles.

But as I thought about the rise in gas prices, I picked the book back up.

Balish's mission is simple. He wants all of us to challenge the notion that we need a car. Most importantly, he says we all should reevaluate the cost of car ownership.

Can more of us live without our cars?

I think it's about time we all seriously contemplated this question and not just because of the whiplash we've been getting with gas prices. This is why I'm recommending "How to Live Well Without a Owning a Car" as the September pick for the Color of Money Book Club.

Balish, a broadcast journalist who lives in Southern California, has been living without a car since 2003. He began his car-free existence after deciding to sell his $36,000 Toyota Sequoia SUV because of its gas addiction. His intention, he writes, was to buy a smaller, more fuel-efficient car that was still "sexy and impressive." He sold the SUV before he had a chance to find a replacement vehicle.

Those initial days without a car liberated him and his budget, he writes. At the end of the first month, Balish says he had an extra $800.

"I was actually angry with myself for never sitting down before this to figure out how much money I was spending on my car," he said.

In the three years he's been without a car, Balish said he's saved $36,926.

Here's how he broke it down for me:

· $17,822 in car payments

· $5,054 in car insurance premiums

· $8,400 in gas

· $3,600 in parking (at work and at home)

· $1,800 in repairs

· $250 in car washes and oil changes

"With that money I paid off all my credit cards, a personal loan, and became debt-free for the first time in my adult life," he said.

The average annual cost to own a car is $8,410, including car payments, insurance, gas, oil, car washes, fees, taxes, parking and repairs, Balish reports. The average American spends 18 cents of every dollar earned on transportation, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics' 2003 Consumer Expenditure Survey.

There are other reasons to go car-free. Balish, who is 39 and single, said his social life actually improved.

"Being car-dependent is a solitary existence in many ways," he writes. "When you don't own a car you'll meet new people and develop new relationships because you'll be carpooling and sharing rides more. You'll get to know other residents in your community because you'll no longer zooming through it."

Mostly, Balish gets to where he wants to go on his own by taking public transportation, a taxi, a rental car or biking.

Throughout the book, Balish highlights more than 100 people who live without owning a car in communities from Seattle to St. Petersburg, Fla.

Now before you get all defensive, even Balish admits not everyone can do without a car.

"Most families with children in the U.S. have at least two cars," Balish said. "For them, the best way to approach this is to begin by getting rid of one of the cars, what I call living 'car-lite.' I think families will be surprised how easy it is. If one spouse can find a car-free way to commute to work, they're golden."

Even if living car-free or car-lite isn't for you, you'll still learn a lot from this book. I did. If nothing else, I'll be driving less.

* * *

To become a member of the Color of Money Book Club, all you have to do is read the recommended book. Then we chat online with the author. In addition, every month I randomly select readers to receive a copy of the book, donated by the publisher. For a chance to win a copy of "How to Live Well Without Owning a Car," send an e-mail to colorofmoney@washpost.com . Please include your name and address so we can send you a book if you win.

If you are interested in discussing this month's book selection, join me online at http://www.washingtonpost.com/ at noon on Sept. 28. Balish will be my guest.

· On the air: Michelle Singletary appears on Washington Post Radio (107.7 FM, 1500 AM) at 6:20 a.m. Thursdays. She also discusses personal finance Tuesdays on NPR's "Day to Day" program and online athttp://www.npr.org.

· By mail: Readers can write to her at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.

· By e-mail:singletarym@washpost.com.

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